CONCORD, N.C. – Joey Logano has been to victory lane four times this season, and all four trips required him to beat reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick.
The latest win, Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, was a critical and confidence-building victory. He again shrugged off Harvick to earn an automatic berth into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Harvick, who has 11 second-place finishes this season, has been runner-up to Logano three times. Harvick finished third in Logano’s win at Watkins Glen, where Harvick ran out of gas while leading on the last lap.
“When you can beat (Harvick) any day, any time, that’s a big deal for us,” team owner Roger Penske said. “I think that it was good that we could at least be on a level playing field with him today.”
Harvick led 581 laps in the opening round of the Chase and routed the field last week at Dover to advance into the second round. But he never made it to the front at Charlotte, the opening race of the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs, as Logano led 227 of the 334 laps.
Now Logano, who made it to the finale last season, doesn’t have to worry about this daunting second round of the Chase. 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,” Logano said. “This helps us recharge our batteries and get ready for the next round.”
He feels good right now, but isn’t crowing about his head-to-head success this season with Harvick.
“I think there’s a lot of fast race cars out there right now,” Logano said. “Last week, obviously, (Harvick) was dominant. This week we had a really fast car. Next week, who knows? You can’t rely on anything.”
Harvick, who didn’t lead a lap of a race that was scheduled for Saturday night but pushed to Sunday afternoon because of rain, was satisfied with second after struggling all 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 a mechanical issue late in the race and finished 39th.
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