Team Penske served notice Saturday night that the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is still very much a two-team battle, after Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski swept the top two spots in the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Logano methodically ran down Matt Kenseth and passed him with 44 laps to go and drove on to victory, as Keselowski also got by in the late going to secure the runner-up spot. Kenseth wound up third in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.
The victory was the third of the year for Logano, tying him for most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race victories with Keselowski and Hendrick Motorsports drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For his career, Logano now has six Sprint Cup race victories.
More to the point, with two races left in the Sprint Cup regular season, Penske and Hendrick collectively have won 15 of 24 races this season, clearly establishing themselves as the title favorites.
For Logano, 24, who has emerged as a star in his second year with Penske, it was an emotional victory. "What a year we’re having," said Logano. "This has been so much fun. The past six or seven races have been unbelievable. We’ve been running up front, man. It’s just so much fun."
Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, made a game run at the end but couldn’t quite catch his teammate. "Boy, I wanted it, too," said Keselowski. "I wanted to win for everybody on this team. But a Penske one-two is something to be proud of. I know Roger (Penske, team owner) was watching and I’m sure he’s really happy."
For Kenseth, he knew his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota didn’t have the speed of the Penske Fords, but he all but locked himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with an excellent third-place run. "We missed it a little bit, but overall it’s a good night," said Kenseth.
It was a typical busy night around the 0.533-mile high-banked Bristol oval.
Kevin Harvick started on the pole after setting a new track record of 131.362 miles per hour during Friday’s qualifying session. At the start, Harvick was flanked on Row 1 by Jeff Gordon.
Harvick started from the preferred outside lane and led easily once the race began. Gordon went into the lead for the first time on Lap 38, using a pick from Danica Patrick to muscle his way past the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
Kyle Busch, meanwhile, was charging hard, moving to second on Lap 53 and into the lead two laps later.
On Lap 61, NASCAR brought out a competition caution flag. Under yellow, Busch got busted for speeding on pit road, as did Jimmie Johnson. The penalties put Kenseth into the lead until Lap 104, when Logano got past him.
On Lap 126, Brian Vickers got loose and hit Aric Almirola, triggering a big crash that also snared Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson.
After a round of pit stops, Denny Hamlin emerged with the lead on Lap 133.
It would be short-lived, however. On Lap 160, Harvick tried to pass Hamlin and instead turned him into the frontstretch wall, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. also tagging Hamlin in the process.
Under the ensuing caution, Kasey Kahne stayed out and assumed the lead, which he held until Lap 238, when he got balked in traffic and was passed by Jamie McMurray.
Keselowski went to the point for the first time on Lap 265, taking the lead on pit road after a caution for a Patrick spin.
McMurray gradually ran Keselowski down and when the Team Penske driver got pinned behind the lapped car of David Ragan on Lap 312, McMurray retook the point. McMurray went on to lead a race-high 148 laps.
Things tightened up around the Lap 400 mark, as Kenseth and Logano both closed on McMurray for the lead.
A caution for debris on Lap 432 sent most of the leaders down pit road, but Kenseth stayed out and took over the top spot.
The Penske Fords of Logano and Keselowski started running Kenseth down and caught him with about 50 laps to go.
Finally, on Lap 457, Logano past Kenseth and from there that was all she wrote, as Logano sailed to his third victory of the season.