The old kid in town turned into the new kid in the wild-card standings.
Although the Pure Michigan 400 evolved into a traditional fuel mileage battle with veteran Mark Martin dominating the closing laps, it was his protege Joey Logano with enough petrol to go the distance.
“I noticed he was lifting early because I was catching him on entry,” Logano said. “He was able to pull me on exit. I wanted to get by him because I knew the 29 (Kevin Harvick) was too fast and trying to get the clean air on the Ford.
“It was crazy racing Mark Martin, my childhood hero. I was able to race against him in Pocono last year for the win. It is cool racing against a guy like that.”
Logano earned his first win for Penske Racing from the pole and his third Sprint Cup career win overall. More important at this juncture of the season — with three races to decide the field for the Chase — Logano, 23, climbed to 13th in the points standings and, with a win, ranks third for a wild-card position.
“This is huge for our Chase hopes,” Logano said. “We needed this to have a shot of getting in the Chase. We are close now, but we can’t make any mistakes. This sure does help a lot.”
On the final restart on Lap 178, Logano made what he called “the move of the race.” He took then-leader Martin and Harvick three-wide by pulling the No. 22 Shell Ford down to the apron to secure second place behind Martin’s No. 55 Toyota.
Martin led 23 of the final 27 circuits. Several laps into the final restart, Martin warned crew chief Rodney Childers that he had not touched the brakes since the race returned to green. Childers replied, “It’s win or nothing.”
Four laps before the checkered flag, Martin ran out of gas.
“Nice try,” he said after finishing 27th.
Harvick, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top five.
“We had the speed to pull away at will,” Martin said. “One more yellow would have done it. That was a great call. We’re going for ‘W’s. It wouldn’t have been a great call if we didn’t have the speed to close the deal. But we had the speed to close the deal, so I applaud. I’d much rather be leading than fighting back there for 10th or 15th.”
Particularly if Martin was hoping for one last hurrah with the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing team before his move to Stewart-Haas Racing.
As of race end, Martin insisted, “I still have contracts as of right now. I have to have releases from those before anything can happen and I don’t have that.
“I’ve got a good car to drive either way, I’m a blessed man.”
Logano knows the feeling. Three weeks from now, he could be enjoying his shot at the Chase to the Sprint Cup.
Logano believes that consistency will be the key to qualifying for the playoffs. He described his season as a “roller coaster” over the first 23 races trying to find the balance between being steady and being aggressive.
“We’ve been very strong, even the beginning part of the season we had some issues, was able to work through that and found our consistency, got all the way up to 10th in points a few races ago,” said Logano, who was ninth after Fontana in March.
“Just goes to show, as long as nothing goes wrong — knock on wood — we’ve been pretty good. We’ve had some speed in our cars and have been in the top 10. We have to keep that momentum and that consistency for the next few races.”
Kurt Busch continued making a charge for the single-car teams on Sunday.
The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy posted his third top 10 in as many races and jumped to ninth in the points standings with his second podium finish since Pocono. It’s his best showing in the points this season with only three races to decide the Chase field.
Although the No. 78 team continued to struggle on pit road, Busch proved once again what made him a champion. He entered the pit in sixth place during the eighth caution, only to exit 14th. On the Lap 162 restart, Busch went from 14th back to sixth.
“I was all fired up,” Busch said. “We were running 14th. (Martin) Truex was ahead of us, (Brad) Keselowski was ahead of us, (Greg) Biffle was ahead of us, (Kasey) Kahne was ahead of us. You can’t run 14th and gain on guys. And I had a restart where the seas parted, and I went to the high side and we got a lot of positions on that one restart. So we’ll just keep plugging away. We’ve got three (races) to go (before the Chase), and we’re in the mix.”
Although Menard is not in the Chase, his fourth-place finish was his team’s best of the season. The No. 27 moved to 17th in the points standings with the team’s first top-five run.
“We really needed a good run,” Menard said. “We started off the season strong and just fell off the last couple of months. We have had good cars. We just haven’t been able to put together a race and we have been crashing a lot, and we just don’t do that.
“Really proud of everybody at RCR, with three cars in the top 10 and the 78 (Busch) being the fourth car. Also just proud of RCR and everybody on my team. Slugger (crew chief Labbe) made great calls about when to take two tires, when to take four, and made great adjustments all day long.”
Marcos Ambrose also had his best result of the season. Ambrose qualified 26th and worked his way into the top 10 over the final 20 laps to finish sixth — the second-best Ford.
“That was a fun day, guys,” Ambrose told the crew. “Thank you.”
2: Number of Logano’s three career Sprint Cup wins have been earned from the pole.
41: Points lead by Jimmie Johnson over Clint Bowyer.
68: Laps led by Penske Racing cars at The Captain’s home track.
Brad Keselowski had the difficult choice of racing for the win or running out of gas.
“I don’t want to pit,” Keselowski said.
“It’s a big risk if we don’t,” replied Wolfe.
“You know I want to win, I want to win,” Keselowski said.
“I know you do,” Wolfe answered.
With the coaching of crew chief Paul Wolfe, the defending Cup champion selected to pit from the lead on Lap 175. Keselowski restarted 17th and finished 12th, but he maintained eighth place in the points standings.