TALLADEGA, Ala. – Two favorites were cut from NASCAR’s championship field at Talladega Superspeedway, where Joey Logano earned a critical victory for Team Penske and Denny Hamlin used a tiebreaker to get the final spot in the next round of the playoffs.
Logano was not in a must-win situation Sunday but the victory sure didn’t hurt. A blown engine earlier in the race eliminated Penske teammate Brad Keselowski from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, and Martin Truex had the same poor fate.
So the race at the end really came down to Hamlin and Austin Dillon, who were jockeying for the last transfer spot into the round of eight. Hamlin finished third and Dillon was ninth. They ended the round tied in points, and Hamlin advanced on a tiebreaker .
“We’re on house money at this point,” said Hamlin, who likely would have needed to win Sunday if not for the engine failures to Keselowski and Truex.
Dillon, on a frantic dash over two overtime laps to gain as many spots as possible, called the outcome “heartbreaking.”
“It sure stinks to lose it on a tiebreaker,” Dillon said.
Also eliminated Sunday was Chase Elliott. Advancing are: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Logano and Hamlin. There are four Toyotas remaining in the field, all from Joe Gibbs Racing. Stewart-Haas Racing has Kurt Busch and Harvick – but the two had a heated exchange after the race over alleged contact on the last lap – while Hendrick Motorsports has Johnson for three Chevrolets in the field. Logano is the only Ford driver.
“Feels good to win on a clutch moment like that with the pressure on,” Logano said. “I think we ran like a champ.”
The race was stark difference from the spring stop in Alabama, when 35 cars were involved in at least one accident and two cars went airborne. And last year, it appeared that Kevin Harvick intentionally caused an accident on an overtime restart to help his championship chances.
But for mile after mile Sunday, the drivers behaved.
The only glitches came in a harried sequence early in the race in which three championship contenders had uncharacteristic gaffes within minutes of each other. First, Logano left pit road with a jack wedged under his Ford, and he had to return to pit road to have it removed. Then Hamlin was flagged for speeding, then Truex lost an engine.
Keselowski’s engine went with 43 laps remaining after he’d battled climbing temperatures on his car because of debris on his front grille.
“It is unfortunate for Brad,” Logano said. “It happens as a leader picking some (debris up). We picked it up, just not as much.”
Keselowski was dominant for a huge chunk of the race, even as he battled climbing temperatures on his Ford. Then, with 43 laps remaining, his engine blew and Keselowski was sent to the garage.
Kasey Kahne spun with six laps remaining to bring out the caution for a heart-pounding final restart.
The caution had terrible timing for Hamlin, and was a gift for Dillon. Hamlin was trying to hold off Dillon for the last transfer position and the Kahne spin gave Dillon another chance to gain points that would keep him in contention and bump Hamlin from the playoffs.
The restart was with three laps remaining.
The push was intense for a lap, then a spin by Alex Bowman brought out the caution for an overtime finish.
Over the team radio, Dillon was told to concentrate.
“Focus forward, man. Focus forward on what we’ve gotta do. That’s what matters, OK?” Dillon was told by a team member.
Dillon gained two spots in overtime, but it wasn’t enough to pass Hamlin in the standings.
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