Quietly, in the developing eye of the car racing storm at Richmond International Raceway late in the Toyota Owners 400 Saturday night, you could almost see Joey Logano take his index finger and place it over his mouth. It was a sign to his legion of fans that his consistency, and their patience, were about to be rewarded.
Logano, who began the night 17th, moved his way into the top 10 40 laps into the race, and pretty much stayed there. The #22 was in the top five at every 20-lap interval from Lap 100 to Lap 340. But the focus of fans and pundits moved from early race leader Brad Keselowski, to Jeff Gordon, who had the strongest, most consistent race car for much of the night, and hadn’t won at RIR since Sept. 9, 2000.
But when it mattered most, coming off the ninth and final caution flag of the night, Logano was in fourth behind leader Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Gordon, just ahead of Keselowski. It was time for good old fashioned Saturday night short track racing.
From the return to green, Junior’s #88 car was not a factor. As Gordon threatened to go around Kenseth to retake the lead, Keselowski joined them. But two laps later, here came the 23-year-old Connecticut native to make it a four-car race.
Suddenly, at the start of Lap 396, Gordon got into the back of Keselowski, who saved his ride, but not before more bumping with both Gordon and Kenseth on the backstretch. With both cars drafting behind the leader Kenseth up top, NASCAR’s version of the Red Sea parted for Joey Logano. Two laps later, he was all by himself.
“We were running well for 20 to 25 laps until we’d lose a little front turn,” explained Logano crew chief Todd Gordon. “When the last caution came out, I felt good about our opportunity. Joey does a really good job closing.”
A move by the leader going into the eighth caution of the night at Lap 378 when Denny Hamlin spun out but, amazingly, was not hit by any other car, mentally prepared Logano for his run to Sprint Cup Series win number two this season, clinching a berth in the 2014 Chase for the Championship.
“Matt (Kenseth) drove a good race, but he kind of jacked us up on the second-to-last restart and it actually helped us out because it got Joey mad, and he drives really well when he’s mad,” Gordon explained.
With two wins, Logano can spend the summer focusing on preparation for the Chase, which begins just after NASCAR’s next stop in Richmond Sept. 6.
“We have nothing to lose now; it’s all about going for wins and having fun out there, making sure we’re ready when the Chase starts,” Logano noted.
While Gordon, who arrived in Richmond and left as the series points leader, was clearly disappointed in not going to victory lane, he was as confident as he was in the midst of his greatest career run, taking three of five Sprint Cup crowns between 1997 and 2001.
“We’re running really good and I’m excited about that. Anytime you’re running this good consistently, week in and week out on all different types of race tracks, it gives you
confidence as a team,” Gordon said. “But you also know, especially this year more so than ever, you’ve got to go close that out. If you’re going to lead that many laps, have that good a car, you’ve got to go get the win.”
Gordon was referring to the new rule that states drivers must have at least one Cup race victory to qualify for the new 16-driver Chase field unless you are the points leader Sept. 7 without a race victory. Gordon is convinced his Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet is knocking on the door, and about to beat it down.
“We can win races anywhere we go. When we run like this, we will win,” proclaimed Gordon.
Kyle Busch, who took four tires on the final caution, roared to finish third on the fresh rubber, which was the subject of controversy all night long. Tire problems plagued several drivers, causing multiple cars to catch fire on the right front rim. Clint Bowyer, Cole Whitt, Reed Sorenson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all fell victim to the issue.
Whitt’s fire was so bad, burning chunks of rubber from his tire filled the start of pit road, causing drivers to have to stay on the track for a couple of extra laps during the fourth caution until the mess could be cleared away. Sorenson’s car caught fire straight to the back. He was quickly yanked out of the machine by a quick-thinking member of Kasey Kahne’s pit crew while others extinguished the flames.
Before the race was even over, Stu Grant, Goodyear general manager for worldwide racing, was having to address the media on his tire’s troubles. Busch explained how it felt to be using the right-side tires, which featured a multi-zone tread with two compounds.
“It’s too hard of a compound,” Busch explained. “We were all really on ice out there, basically. It was like having a hard tire. The effort they made for the left-side tire, softening it (to improve grip), you could have taken them off. It didn’t feel like they did anything.”
Goodyear ran testing at RIR last October in preparation for debuting the tires, which had only been used on mile-and-a-half tracks previously, the last time at Texas Motor Speedway April 7.
The night was, as always, filled with personality tensions, some that boiled over more than others. Pole sitter and rookie Kyle Larson spun out in turn one of lap one when Clint Bowyer tangled with the #42. Larson finished 16.
“He and Keselowski kind of spun the tires and I just got such a big run when he moved up (the track),” Bowyer explained. “Then I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to the bottom if you’re going to give me the bottom.’ Then at the last minute he arced it in and I just wasn’t ready for him. I’m so glad he didn’t hit the wall.”
Kenseth and Keselowski had words on pit road after their bumping during the crucial final laps, but the biggest fireworks were saved for drivers finishing 18th and 19th as Marcos Ambrose found Casey Mears after the race. A Mears shove led to an Ambrose right-fisted punch that was caught on video. It went viral so fast, Logano watched the fisticuffs on a reporter’s laptop in the Media Center following his press conference.
Punches, hot tempers, burning tires, four-wide racing, bumping, and a winner who led Laps 306 to 337 and still wasn’t on most fans’ radar when the final push began with nine laps to go.
Just another Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.