Joey Logano started Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race from the pole, and after a convoluted mix of strategy and racing incidents, it was Logano who claimed the victory and established himself as a contender for a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The victory was Logano's first of the season, his first at Michigan, his first for Penske Racing and the third of his career. Kevin Harvick ran second, followed by Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.
The victory moved Logano from 16th to 13th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, 17 points out of 10 place. The youngest winner in MIS history also is in play for a Wild Card, with two spots available to the drivers in positions 11- 20 in the standings with the most victories.
"This is huge for our Chase hopes," Logano said. "We needed this to have a shot at getting in the Chase. We're close now, but we can't make any mistakes. This sure does help a lot."
Mark Martin took off after a restart on Lap 178, as Kurt Busch, Logano and Harvick battled for the second spot behind him. But Martin was short on field, and after the running order shuffled out with Logano in second and Harvick in third, the pursuers began to close in on the leader.
But Logano, 23, who came to the public eye as a 14-yearold with praise from the 54-year-old Martin, couldn't make the pass for the lead, even though Martin was trying mightily to save fuel.
"I noticed he was lifting early, because I was catching him on entry (into the corners)," Logano said. "He was able to pull me on exit. I wanted to get by him, because I knew the 29 (Harvick) was fast, too…
"It is so cool to be here in Victory Lane. It's crazy racing Mark Martin, my childhood hero. I was able to race against him in Pocono last year for the win. It is so cool racing against a guy like that."
But when Martin slowed in Turn 3 on Lap 197 and brought his car to pit road for fuel, Logano shot past him into the lead with Harvick in hot pursuit. Logano held the top spot for the final four laps and took the checkered flag by 1.018 seconds over the No. 29 Chevrolet.
To Harvick, the race was decided on the final restart. Harvick lined up inside Martin with Logano's No. 22 Ford behind the No. 29 Chevy.
"Just mistimed that last restart there," Harvick said. "I had a great run on the 55 (Martin). Was going to beat him to the line by too much. Wound up having to drag the brakes. From there, it was going to be sketchy if we were going to keep the 22 back there.
"Went for it, backfired a little bit there as we got three-wide and lost some track position. I didn't think we were going to be racing the 55 there for the win (because Martin was short on fuel). I thought if we could just get out of Turn 2 in second we'd be in good shape. Got a little bit greedy and lost a couple spots there. That's what ultimately cost us the win."
Series leader Jimmie Johnson couldn't exorcise his Michigan jinx. After wrecking his primary car in Saturday's practice, Johnson started Sunday's race from the rear of the field in a backup car. He took the lead on Lap 43 during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, but shortly thereafter Johnson exited the race because of an engine failure.
"The engine broke there," Johnson said after bringing the car to the garage. "I guess when we came in for a green flag pit stop, something started then and made it a few more laps and didn't really notice anything off.
"Then it finally dropped a cylinder or two down the backstretch. Definitely an unfortunate thing, but we had plenty of speed in the car and I think we were going to be a factor."
Johnson could afford that sort of failure, having locked himself into the Chase last week at Watkins Glen. The same couldn't be said of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who smacked the Turn 2 wall on Lap 135 – after leading 20 circuits earlier in the race – and took his crippled car to the garage for repairs.
Earnhardt finished 36th and dropped from sixth to seventh in the standings, 20 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne with three races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond.
Though he was the victim of an early spin in Turn 4, Austin Dillon rallied from a lap down to finish 14th in his substitute role for injured Tony Stewart, the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet is in a tight battle with the No. 56 of Michael Waltrip Racing for a spot in the owners' Chase.
After Sunday's race, the two cars are tied for the final Wild Card spot, with the No. 56, driven by Martin Truex Jr. holding the tiebreaker based on quality of finishes.
Joey Logano's victory complicates Chase picture
Joey Logano in Victory Lane – that's the last thing Ryan Newman wanted to see.
Not that Newman has anything personal against Logano. It's simply that Newman was loath to see Logano – or any other previously winless driver in the top 20 in points – notch a victory.
But there was Logano in Victory Lane, spraying adult beverages on members of his team, celebrating his win in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Newman, who finished 13th, left Michigan knowing that his quest to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup had just gotten exponentially more difficult.
After the Aug. 11 race at Watkins Glen, Newman held the 14th position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings and the second of two provisional Wild Card spots. After Michigan, he's 15th, with two drivers ahead of him in the race for the last Wild Card position – because Martin Truex Jr. fell out of the top 10 on Sunday, and because Logano won the race, jumped to 13th in points and injected himself into the Chase picture.
That was another headache in a rough two months for Newman, who got definite word in July that his contract with Stewart- Haas Racing would not be renewed. Team owner Tony Stewart said at the time, during a press conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, that SHR was not prepared to field a fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup team next year.
As it turns out, Stewart-Haas wasn't prepared to field a fourth team for Newman. For Kurt Busch, on the other hand, a fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup team is a possibility, and reportedly, SHR has tendered a multiyear offer to Busch to drive for the organization, a story first reported Sunday by FoxSports. com.
A recent high point for Newman was his victory in the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late July, but the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has yet to announce plans for 2014.
With Stewart laid up as his broken bones mend from an Aug. 5 Sprint Car accident in Iowa, Newman is SHR's last hope to qualify for the Chase, at least on the drivers' side. And Logano's win makes that prospect more of a long shot than it was when the green flag waved to start the race on Sunday afternoon.
The interesting aspect is that Newman still controls his own destiny, as far as the Chase is concerned. One victory in the next three races would make him an odds-on favorite to qualify for NASCAR's 10-race playoff. Two wins would lock him in.
Far-fetched, perhaps, but possible.
Stewart out for season; Mark Martin to drive No. 14 Chevy
Mark Martin will drive the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet for the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season – with the exception of the Oct. 20 race at Talladega – as owner/driver Tony Stewart recuperates from injuries suffered in a Sprint Car accident Aug. 5 in Iowa, SHR announced Monday afternoon.
Martin's move to the No. 14 car paves the way for Brian Vickers to drive the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota in 12 of the final 13 races, as Vickers prepares for his first full season with the team in 2014.
Austin Dillon, who finished 14th Sunday at Michigan in his first trip in the No. 14 car, will compete in the Talladega race in Stewart's absence. Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg in the Aug. 5 accident.
MWR announced Monday that Vickers would drive the No. 55 Toyota in all remaining events save Talladega, where team owner Michael Waltrip is slated to race. Vickers already was scheduled to compete at Bristol on Saturday, as well as at New Hampshire and Martinsville.
To get Martin behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevy, MWR, sponsor Aaron's and Toyota all had to sign off on the deal.
With Stewart-Haas purchasing its engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, Martin's jump to that car puts him back in Hendrick equipment. Driving for HMS in 2009, Martin enjoyed his most productive season behind the wheel since 1998, winning five races, seven poles and finishing second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings to teammate Jimmie Johnson.