Joey Logano earned a critical win at Charlotte Motor Speedway to move into the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs on a sloppy day for some of the biggest contenders in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Logano raced to his fourth victory of the season and his first career win at Charlotte. It came in the opening race of the second round of the Chase and earned him the automatic berth into the next round.
Logano made it to the finale last season, and like almost all of the 12 remaining drivers in the Chase, worried that this second round was the most daunting. The series races next week at Kansas and then four drivers will be eliminated Oct. 25 at Talladega.
“It helps us sleep here the next couple of weeks,” the Team Penske driver said. “This helps us recharge our batteries and get ready for the next round.”
Kevin Harvick, who routed the field last week at Dover to keep his title defense intact, finished second for the 11th time this season. He has been second to Logano three times, but considered it almost a victory because he felt the reigning Sprint Cup champions had struggled most of the weekend.
“If those are the off days, we’ll be just fine,” Harvick said.
Martin Truex Jr. finished third — his career-best eighth top-five of the season — but wasn’t breathing any easier about his Chase hopes.
“Logano is the only one who is going to sleep the next few weeks,” Truex said. “We still think we need to win next week.”
The top six finishers were Chase drivers as Denny Hamlin finished fourth and was followed by Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards.
Austin Dillon, who is not racing for the title, was seventh. Jeff Gordon, making the final start of his career at Charlotte, struggled for the first half of the race but salvaged an eighth-place finish.
Logano teammate Brad Keselowski staved off a loose wheel over the closing laps as Chase drivers took eight of the top nine spots.
It was a far more difficult day for JGR drivers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who started side-by-side on the front row.
Kenseth’s race began to unravel when he missed his pit stall and fell back to 20th on a restart. From there, racing in traffic, he had contact with Ryan Newman that sent him into the wall. It was the first of many brushes with the wall for Kenseth, who also had to serve a penalty for too many crewmen working on his car during one of his stops for repairs.
He was finally put out of his misery when a broken part sent him into the wall — again — and to the garage. He finished 42nd and dropped to last in the Chase field.
“Everything kind of snowballed,” said the pole-sitter. “This is the best I can do. It’s amazing I have a job. One thing led to another and then another.”
Things weren’t much better for teammate Busch, who started second and was one of the strongest cars for most of the race.
But running third when a caution forced teams to choose a pit strategy, he headed to pit road, then changed his mind at the very last second. Only problem? Kyle Larson, running second, decided at that moment he wanted to duck onto pit road.
The two cars collided and both dropped to the middle of the pack during their respective repairs.
“I’m sure it doesn’t matter, but please apologize as much as you can,” radioed Larson, who is not running for the championship.
Busch finished 20th and he and Kenseth are now in the bottom four of the Chase standings.
“It’s tough, and we’re going to have to battle through with what we’ve got right now,” said Busch, who was eliminated in the second round last year because he was wrecked at Talladega in the elimination race.
Hendrick Motorsports could commiserate with the Gibbs issues.
Kasey Kahne, who ran in a 5k Sunday morning for his foundation, suffered two early tire issues that sent him to the garage just 58 laps into the race.
Then contact between Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent Earnhardt into the wall. He tried to continue on with damage to his Chevrolet, but a tire problem sent him into the wall again and to pit road for repairs on Lap 85. He was one lap down when his car was repaired and wound up 28th.
He’s now in the bottom four in the standings.
Jimmie Johnson, who was eliminated from the Chase last week, was the best of the Hendrick group but suffered an engine issue late in the race and finished 39th.