Race Capsule: Logano and Team Penske peak big at Bristol
Flag to Flag: The Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway pretty much lived up to the hype. The only thing the race really lacked was the whole "Chase Bubble Drivers Really Hanging It Out And Wrecking Guys" element that swelled to a boil as the week's storylines flowed. Safely in the Chase, Joey Logano joined the "2014 Three-Win Club," leading the last 45 laps and holding off surging teammate Brad Keselowski and last year's winner Matt Kenseth, who remains winless in 2014. The race started with last week's Michigan winner and pole sitter Jeff Gordon (16th) on the front row again, but contact early with Kurt Busch (5th) caused a tire rub on the No. 24 Chevy. He never recovered and finished a lap down. Kevin Harvick (11th) set a track record for his pole-winning lap and led the first 37 laps, ceding the top point to Gordon for 17 laps, before Kyle Busch (36th) took the top spot through the competition yellow on lap 62. Pit road speeding penalties sent Ky. Busch and Jimmie Johnson (4th) to the back of the pack for the next restart, which set the night into bad motion for the No. 18 team (more on their bad night later). Contact between Brian Vickers (21st) and rookie Kyle Larson (12th) caused an accordion effect that and Clint Bowyer (17th) spun Busch into the wrecking No. 43 of Aric Almirola (41st). Busch sustained enough damage to take him off of the lead lap and eventually fall multiple laps down and Almirola, who had wrecked in Friday's practice, retired from the race. Harvick, Kenseth, and Logano would take some turns out front, before Denny Hamlin (40th) took the lead from his foe Logano on lap 133. He'd hold the top spot until lap 161, when he and Harvick were cutting through lapped traffic. Bristol's fastest racing groove is the top line, so lapping cars was frustrating and passing in the inside lane was tough. Through the night, drivers would use slower lap cars as picks to trap their competitors on the high line and make passes down low. Harvick was making hay on Hamlin by diving low and then shooting up high off the corners. In doing so one time, Harvick lost the nose of his car and spun Hamlin out of the lead, into the inside wall, and then up the track and into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s (39th) No. 88, tearing the left side off Earnhardt Jr.'s car and ending Hamlin's night. Frustrated, Hamlin waited for safety crews to dismount from his car and then fired his HANS device at Harvick's machine as he passed by under caution (since he stayed out of the racing groove and waited in his car properly, NASCAR says there will be no penalty). Earnhardt Jr. would return to the race for a few laps, before ending his night early. Harvick would get his own voodoo during the race's last caution, when NASCAR nabbed him for speeding on pit road and took him from the top 5 to outside the top 15. He made up few spots on the last green flag run, but never returned to contention. Jamie McMurray (8th), desperate for a win to make the Chase, was dominant in the race's midsection, leading the most laps in the field at 148. He inherited the lead on pit strategy and lost it when he pitted for four tires late in the race. He restarted the race 5th, while Logano started in the lead, and the No. 1 Chevy only got tighter and the win slipped away. Kenseth won the race off pit road two different times, but didn't have the car (or sometimes the tires) to hold the lead. Nonetheless, the No. 20 team showed that their consistency would likely be enough to make the 2014 Chase. Keselowski was also a contender through the night and seemed to have Logano caught in the closing laps, as both contended with lapped traffic. In the final set of turns, Keselowski lunged low and hoped Logano would make a mistake. But he came up short and saw his teammate tie him in wins this season. The top 10 were Logano, Keselowski, Kenseth, Johnson, Ku. Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (ran well in the Spring Bristol race), Carl Edwards (won the Spring race), McMurray, Paul Menard (gained track position by staying out on final caution), and Greg Biffle (ran near 10th all night - helpful for Chase hopes). The points race looking ahead for the Chase is interesting as Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Keselowski, and Logano each have three wins and would start as top seeds if the playoffs started now. The highest-ranked winless driver is Kenseth (5th in points), then Ryan Newman (9th), Clint Bowyer (10th), and Greg Biffle (11th) sit as the last winless drivers that would transfer in. Kyle Larson (12th) is 26 points behind Biffle for the last Chase spot and Kasey Kahne (13th) is 33 points from the playoffs. Realistically, they need a win at Atlanta or Richmond to make the cut. But as we have seen, we run these races for a reason and anything can happen at either tricky track to shake up the Chase standings. But with stalwarts like Team Penske (who also powered Brad Keselowski in his self-owned entry to victory in Thursday's Camping World Truck Series race) and the top three entries at Hendrick Motorsports safely in the Chase, those teams are also primed to take more risks to get trophies and make sneaking one away by a Chase hopeful that much more difficult. Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon's strategy to stay out Saturday night in Bristol was just that.
RaceTweet: Logano doubles career win total in 2014, staves off two former champs to win Bristol night race. Hamlin needs to stick to horseshoes, not HANS devices.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Joey Logano - He didn't win just because of pit strategy - Logano had a fast car all night, leading 76 laps, and stayed in the hunt. He gained the last few spots he needed by Todd Gordon's pit call, but Logano held two former champs and past Bristol winners at bay, to get his Chase-lead-tying third win of the year. Good work.
North Korean Missile Dud: Kasey Kahne - If there is a driver that needs a win, it is Kahne. Gaining the lead for 40 laps just before halfway in the race, Kahne eventually pitted with a loose wheel and lost two laps. He then had to go to the garage for about 20 laps to fix another problem, gutting his night with a 35th-place result. Kahne now sits two drivers and 33 points from the playoffs and his angst is seemingly mounting large behind the wheel.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Jeff Burton - Substituting for Tony Stewart in just about the hardest situation imaginable, Burton has done a formidable job these last two weeks in the No. 14. He started far back in the field for Saturday's race, but kept his nose clean and did what Burton and veterans alike can do - stay out of trouble. Running as high as 4th, Burton settled for 15th on the night, only getting lapped at the very end of the race.
Ghost Driver: Jeff Gordon - Not that 16th place is horrible, but "Wonder Boy" has been on a tear of late. Starting on the outside pole made him a favorite yet again to add another trophy to his man cave. Instead, Gordon struggled most of the night and ended up a lap down, as leader Logano passed him in the closing laps. Good fortune still did rest with Gordon, as his contact with Ku. Busch early in the race wasn't bad enough to force a green flag pit stop.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kyle Larson - This rookie was a dark horse pick by many (including yours truly) to get his Chase-clinching first-career win at Bristol. But starting from the back in a backup car and getting lapped early hurt the cause. Then Larson got more damage in the wreck with Vickers, but he kept his composure and not only stayed on the lead lap, but drove into the back of the top 10. He settled for 12th at night's end, but dug out of an early hole to do it. He still probably needs a win or some really good luck to make the Chase, but his run Saturday was something to write home to California about for sure.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Kyle Busch - Questions about his pulling into the pits with 58 laps to go seem answered now, but the the ones about Busch's attitude and mental state to try and win his first Sprint Cup championship remain. Busch was obviously mad after losing laps in the wreck, but some communication issues with crew chief Dave Rogers came to a head in the late stages of the race. Apparently, Busch's ill-handling No. 18 scraped the wall and Busch radioed in about it. Rogers, who has had more than an earful from Busch over the years and especially the last couple of weeks (bad luck and bad finishes) had enough and reportedly told Busch to "take his whiny (rear end) back to the bus." Busch pitted, left his car in the pits, and left his team to push it back to the team hauler. Rogers said after the race that the two did get to talk and had trouble hearing each other on the radio. He apparently thought Busch was just upset and pitted and did not know that the car had additional damage. Rogers says they talked it out and are good now, but the questions the whole exchange raised certainly put a negative light on a team that needs some positives right now.
Georgia On My Mind: Races like Bristol are ones that small teams like those of David Ragan's and Reed Sorenson's have a better chance to sneak a good finish. That wasn't quite the case for either in the Bristol Cup race. But they both stayed out of trouble and (Ragan 23rd, Sorenson 24th) salvaged good finishes out of a night that could have sent their cars to the junkyard. Friday night's Nationwide Series race saw Chase Elliott scrape the wall early, but lead 59 laps and finish 3rd in the Food City 300. Elliott now leads teammate Regan Smith by 13 in the points standings. Ryan Sieg ran as high as 11th, finishing 16th at the end with new sponsor StationDigital.com. John Wes Townley ran two laps down in 18th. Thursday's NCWTS race should have run Wednesday night, but got rained out. It wasn't a bad one for Max Gresham, making a spot start for Gallagher Motorsports in the No. 23 machine - he finished 12th. Townley, making a return after missing two starts from a concussion sustained in an ARCA practice crash a Pocono a couple of weeks ago, crashed and finished 29th. Jody Knowles, who debuted in the NCWTS at Eldora a few weeks ago, lost an engine and finished 31st. The Georgia gang in the NSCS and NNS get to make a home stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway next week.
NNS RaceTweet: Ryan Blaney gets by on the last restart and wins, ahead of pouting Kyle Busch. Not bad for a part-time youngster who caused a wreck just before that.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Brad Keselowski finally wins a Truck race, as Kyle Busch falters in the late stages. Darrell Wallace Jr. finishes 2nd, shows again that he is tough on short tracks.
Next: Both the Sprint Cup Series and the Nationwide Series run at my hometrack - Atlanta Motor Speedway, in what is reportedly the last Labor Day weekend race to be run there (has run Labor Day since 2009). The Oral-B USA 500 runs Sunday at 7:45 p.m. on ESPN and PRN (and I get to do pit reporting for PRN...not too unhappy about that, for sure). The Great Clips 300 to benefit Feed the Children runs Saturday at 7:30 on ESPN2 and PRN (watch for Georgia driver Chris Cockrum's No. 87 "Captain Herb car"). The Camping World Truck Series returns to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on FS1, where Chase Elliott spun Ty Dillon to win his first-career race a year ago. Neither will be in the field there this year, but both will be running the NNS race and Dillon will attempt his Sprint Cup debut.