LOUDON, N.H. — By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service — Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images photo — Out of the maelstrom that was New Hampshire Motor Speedway sped Joey Logano, who took control of Sunday’s Sylvania 300 on a restart with 27 laps left and held on to win the second race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But the crux of Sunday’s race wasn’t about Logano’s fourth victory of the season and the second straight for Team Penske in the Chase. It wasn’t about Logano winning for the seventh time in his career and punching his ticket into the second elimination round under NASCAR’s new playoff format.
It wasn’t about Sunoco rookie Kyle Larson posting his second straight top-three finish. Yes, Larson ran second, passing third-place finisher Kevin Harvick on a green-white-checkered flag restart that took the race three laps past its scheduled distance, but Larson was almost an afterthought amid the chaos that scrambled the Chase standings.
It wasn’t about another strong run for Jamie McMurray, who finished fourth, or about a top-five for six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who came home fifth.
It wasn’t about the crazy afternoon of polesitter Brad Keselowski, who ran back and forth through the field like a yo-yo, spun on Lap 194 of a scheduled 300 and nevertheless had a chance to win the race at the end before falling back to seventh on the restart that took the race to overtime.
No, the crux of the race wasn’t about the winner. It was about those who survived the crucible of pressure the Chase creates — and those who didn’t.
It was about uncharacteristic mistakes on pit road. It was about the aggression and desperation on the track that left the cars of six of 16 Chase drivers in relative states of damage and disrepair.
It was about Aric Almirola’s heroic drive to a sixth-place finish after the heartbreak of a late engine failure last week at Chicagoland Speedway. It was about a 13th-place finish for AJ Allmendinger, who re-entered the Chase conversation, as did Almirola, by avoiding the calamities that placed some of their more potent peers on the cusp of elimination.
But first, credit to Logano, who survived a succession of restarts in a race littered with cautions — 13 of a total 15 in the last 134 laps — and prevailed on tires that, thanks to crew chief Todd Gordon’s astute call with 53 laps left in regulation, were superior to those of the drivers in contention on the final restart.
Logano won Sunday’s race at a track that gave him his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series — but a win that will always have an asterisk in Logano’s mind because it resulted from a fortunate pit call in a rain-shortened race.
The call for four tires on Lap 247 helped Logano on Sunday, but he had to earn the win, and he did so with a bold charge past Harvick and Keselowski on the Lap 274 restart.
“I thought we gave it away at that point,” said Logano, who traded track position for the new rubber and restarted 16th on Lap 251. “But four tires were good, and we had some good restarts and were able to get ourselves back up there. We worked hard. This is my home race track, the coolest place to win for me. I could never pick a better race track to win. I watched my first Cup race here when I was 5, and I won that other Cup race here, but I just felt like I had to win one the right way here, and this means so much.
“I’ve got to thank all the boys at Team Penske. We’re doing what we’ve got to do to win this thing right now — both teams are — and I’m proud of that. This is my home track, so it means so much to me.”
If Logano was elated with the victory, other Chase drivers experienced a gamut of emotions that ranged from relief to abject misery.
Kyle Busch crumpled the hood of his car in a wreck that started when Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth got loose in traffic on the backstretch. Busch’s team did yeoman’s work to keep him on the lead lap, setting up an eighth-place finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought his No. 88 Chevrolet to pit road for an unscheduled stop on Lap 123 to tighten a loose wheel — the result of a hurried-but-unsuccessful attempt to tighten the lugs — and lost a lap in the process.
But Earnhardt regained his lap under caution and salvaged a ninth-place finish, so no harm done to his hopes of advancing after next Sunday’s race at Dover.
Kenseth survived the melee with Busch on Lap 188 but was gobbled up in a wreck with Paul Menardon Lap 270 and finished 21st.
When Busch slowed after contact with Kenseth, he was rear-ended by the No. 5 Chevy of Kasey Kahne, who obliterated the nose of his car. Kahne finished 23rd. Ryan Newman also got a piece of that same accident and came home 18th.
But the real casualties of the afternoon were Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, who finished 36th and 37th, respectively and saw their hopes of advancing to the next round take a serious turn for the worse.
Hamlin led early but a problem with the fuel probe in his No. 11 Toyota prevented his crew from filling the fuel cell. All told, Hamlin lost four laps as his team tried to rectify the issue.
But Hamlin’s woes were far from over. On Lap 180, he slid into a Turn 2 wreck involving Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan, knocked his right front wheel out of kilter and took the car to the garage. He lost another 34 laps before returning to the track.
Kurt Busch had to return to pit road on Lap 109 to tighten a loose wheel. Busch fell one lap down after Harvick passed him on Lap 162, but got the lap back as the beneficiary under a debris caution called on Lap 170.
But that was a brief reprieve. Busch was running 15th when he clobbered the Turn 3 wall on Lap 221. He lost 35 laps in the garage before returning on Lap 255.
After Sunday’s race, only 12 points separate Kenseth in eighth from Almirola in 16th, with Carl Edwards, Allmendinger, Kahne, Newman, Hamlin, Biffle and Kurt Busch in between. The tightness of the standings sets up a free-for-all next Sunday at the Monster Mile for the remaining spots in the Chase’s second round.