By Reid Spencer
KANSAS CITY, Kan.—In a race that saw Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup favorites Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fall by the wayside, Joey Logano earned a ticket to the Eliminator Round of the Chase with a hard-fought victory in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Logano beat rookie Kyle Larson to the finish line by .480 seconds to notch his fifth victory of the season, tied with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski for most in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year. The win was Logano’s first at Kansas and the eighth of his career.
Kyle Busch ran third, posting his first-ever top five at a track that has plagued him mercilessly in races past. Martin Truex Jr. came home fourth, posting his first top five of the season and his second consecutive top 10. Carl Edwards was fifth, with fellow Chase drivers Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin right behind him in sixth and seventh, respectively.
Logano can now enjoy the next two races at Charlotte and Talladega worry-free, assured of earning one of the eight spots in the Eliminator Round.
“It makes Talladega a lot easier, that is for sure,” Logano said. “To know we are onto the next round, we can focus on a few more races coming up, and we’ll keep trying to capitalize like we’re doing. …
“It’s so much fun to race these cars lately. Everyone at Team Penske has given me great stuff to work with. It’s awesome to be back in Victory Lane again. I felt we had a good car all weekend, but I wasn’t 100-percent sure–but once that top (lane of the race track) opened up, it just took off.”
Clobbered in a Lap 85 wreck also involving Greg Biffle, Justin Allgaier and Josh Wise, Johnson finished 40th, matching his worst result ever in a Chase race (2005 at Homestead) and faces an uphill battle toward a possible record-tying seventh series championship.
Johnson goes to Charlotte next Sunday last among the 12 remaining Chase drivers, 27 points behind teammate Jeff Gordon in eighth place. Two weeks hence, at Talladega, the Chase field will be cut from 12 to eight drivers.
Earnhardt led 45 laps before a flat right front tire sent him hard into the Turn 4 wall on Lap 122 of 267. Earnhardt limped home in 39th place and dropped to 11th in the Chase standings, 25 points behind Gordon, who salvaged a 14th place finish despite hitting the Turn 4 wall after contact from Jamie McMurray’s Chevrolet.
Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, was running fifth when he blew a right front tire and slammed into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 160. He finished 36th and is 10th in the Chase standings, 22 points behind Gordon.
Johnson, Earnhardt and Keselowski weren’t the only Chase drivers to have issues. On a day that saw all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers tag the wall, Kasey Kahne damaged his No. 5 Chevrolet after a restart on Lap 235.
Kahne had taken a wave-around after an early pit stop had left him a lap down and was mired in traffic when the car got away from him in Turn 2. He finished 22nd.
Polesitter Kevin Harvick led 61 laps but brought his car to pit road for an unscheduled stop on Lap 215, mistakenly thinking his right front tire was going down. Harvick lost a lap but used a wave-around and some hard racing in the closing laps to salvage a 12th-place result.
“I thought I had a flat tire and pitted, because you see all the trouble that is going on (with other drivers having tire issues),” Harvick said. “(We) missed it on the handling a little bit today. We qualified well and had good track position.
“That saved us in the beginning of the race, and when I thought I had a flat, just got us behind.”
Both Logano and Larson agreed that the final restart of the race on Lap 240 was critical. Logano surged into the lead and, in clean air, was able to keep Larson behind him.
“I thought we were pretty equal and were running about the same (lap times) there on the last run,” Larson said. “Just a good finish, and we were so even that I couldn’t do anything. I was hoping I would get a run on him in traffic, and all the lappers were giving us the top, so it kind of made it kind of easy for him to run the top.
“Another second and can’t be too disappointed with it. The wins will be coming, so I just have to be patient, and with every time I’m in the top three, it’s just going to make the wins feel that much better.”