NASCAR’s most consistent driver came from worst to first at Richmond, joining an elite group of drivers who won in their 300th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start.
Starting from the back of the field adds tension to a driver’s day, often failing their goal of winning a race. Team Penske driver Joey Logano not only dealt with the challenge, he succeeded Sunday.
The No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford led the Penske banner with a win at the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia.
It’s Logano’s 18th career win and became the sixth driver to win in their 300th career start, joining NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers Ned Jarrett and Rusty Wallace. Denny Hamlin was the last driver to accomplish this feat at Talladega Superspeedway May 4, 2014.
In an interview, Logano said he gave it his guts to win at Richmond.
“Coming from the back, being my 300th start and to bring the car to victory lane felt really good,” Logano said. “That’s all I had and won in a car that might’ve not been the winning the car. It’s something to be very proud of and our team’s execution was there. We put ourselves into position to race hard at the end.”
Logano qualified fifth Friday but a transmission change relegated him to the rear of the field and didn’t lead until the penultimate restart.
Logano took the lead from teammate Brad Keselowski on lap 371. The race was slowed down seven laps later as Ryan Blaney cut down a tire and slapped the turn three wall.
Blaney’s issues brought out the ninth and final caution of the day, leaving the race in the hands of the crew chiefs.
Logano stayed out until the last second and ducked down to pit, relinquishing the lead to points leader Kyle Larson who stayed out.
Five other drivers stayed out for track position while Logano, with four fresh tires, restarted seventh.
It took five laps for Logano to hunt down Larson and passed him on the outside with 17 laps to go. Drivers with fresh tires then obliterated Larson and finished 14th.
In the closing laps, Keselowski cut down Logano’s lead down to less than a second but came up short of his third win. Logano won by .775 seconds and improved from fifth to fourth in the points standings, 65 points behind Larson.
Logano said the final restart helped him pull away and eliminated an opportunity for Keselowski to catch him at the end of the race.
“Brad was the fastest car and was so fast,” Logano said. “We had a great restart to get enough cushion but he was catching me couple tenths a lap at the end and I was running so hard. I couldn’t do it without my team. (Penske) 1-2 finish feels good and something to be proud of as well. It’s nice to finally break through and get a win.”
The 1-2 finish Sunday was Team Penske’s second in two days as Penske’s IndyCar Series drivers Simon Pagenaud and Will Power also finished 1-2 at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona Saturday.
In a post-race conference interview, Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon said the team gave it a great effort throughout the race.
“It was a pretty easy call for myself and a great effort by everybody,” Gordon said. “Pit crew gained us spots on pit road early in the race and kept fighting us forward. Joey did a great job on being disciplined and not abusing his car and doing what he needed to maximize what we had in the first two stages. Nobody’s car was good and Joey just got in the right spot at the right time, pretty proud of everybody’s effort.”
Gordon said the No. 22 team jumped a pit cycle and anticipated late race cautions.
“We came to pit road and started the short pit cycle on lap 315 and bought us track position,” Gordon said. “We typically have cautions at the end so our split didn’t need to be 72 to split 144. It needed to be split up about 110 laps because I thought we’ll see a caution with 20-35 laps to go. It seems to be where we see cautions at Richmond and we had multiples.”
Gordon said Logano was matching Keselowski’s lap times but pitting became necessary to improve Logano’s chances of winning.
“Brad had a little more speed than we did but as the race went on, I thought we closed up to him,” Gordon said. “Brad was leading when we short pitted and it was a tougher call because we were matching Brad’s lap times and forward passing cars. I felt that our best play was to get tires and start passing more cars. We got better as the day went on and that’s encouraging. It’s one thing this team does a phenomenal job of is continuing to focus forward and battling through situations.”
The story surrounding the NASCAR garage this weekend was the announcement of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. retiring from Cup racing after 2017 Tuesday.
Earnhardt, Jr.’s first race after his announcement went awry on lap 345.
Exiting turn one, Earnhardt, Jr. was on the top groove but a storming Jimmie Johnson slammed into Earnhardt, Jr., damaging both cars.
The race went from bad to worse 13 laps later as Earnhardt, Jr. spun in turn three.
Earnhardt, Jr. finished 30th and remained 24th in the standings.
Johnson rebounded from the accident and finished 11th but it dropped him from sixth to eighth in points.
Earnhardt, Jr. said Johnson didn’t saw him when they collided.
“Jimmie was coming to pass me, I was running the top and really wasn’t watching the mirror so I didn’t know he was there,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “(Spotter) T.J. Majors was giving me pretty good warnings about guys getting on my inside. When you’re running the top, you don’t have to worry about it because everyone takes care of you but Jimmie didn’t know I was there. He came off the corner and didn’t know my car was there. It was an explosion.”
Earnhardt, Jr. said the accident knocked out his sway bar and finished the race without the piece hooked up.
“The car held off pretty well and ran the last bit without it,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “It wasn’t a great day. We did make a lot of adjustments in the last run and I was pretty happy. We were trying a wild strategy staying out and I was pretty comfortable it was going to work because our lap times were pretty decent and everyone else was coming to us that pitted. It wasn’t going to be bad but it’s just terrible luck, I don’t know what to do. We were probably going to finish anywhere around from 10th to 15th, not all that awesome but we just had terrible luck.”
Earnhardt, Jr. will be vying for a turnaround at Talladega Superspeedway at Talladega, Alabama May 7, a track synonymous to the Earnhardt family.
The Earnhardt’s has won at Talladega 16 times with Earnhardt, Jr. winning six including four straight from Oct. 2001 to April 2003.
Team Penske has won four out of the last five races including a sweep from both drivers last year. Keselowski is the defending spring race winner.