Penske Racing swept the front row in qualifying for the first race of the Chase, with Joey Logano winning the pole hours after NASCAR placed his team on probation for allegedly cutting a deal with another organization to help him make the championship field.
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Logano turned a lap at 189.414 mph around Chicagoland Speedway on Friday to bump teammate and defending NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski. Keselowski did not qualify for the Chase but Logano did make it in at Richmond, where he was aided by at least three other drivers last Saturday night.
It all came out in two separate investigations into the closing laps and carried over into Chicago, where NASCAR summoned Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports in for a Friday morning meeting to discuss an alleged deal made for David Gilliland to give Logano pivotal track position to make the Chase.
The Penske team denied wrongdoing — radio transmissions couldn’t prove they had any involvement in Front Row’s bargaining — but NASCAR spent most of the day reviewing the incident.
After booting Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field earlier in the week for Ryan Newman because of Michael Waltrip Racing’s manipulations at Richmond, there was a chance Logano could be kicked out, too.
Instead, NASCAR took the unprecedented step of adding Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver to the field and placed Penske and Front Row on probation through the end of the year.
Logano, who beat Jimmie Johnson’s 2005 track record of 188.146 mph, said he never thought he’d be kicked out of the Chase despite the vitriol he was seeing on social media.
"There wasn’t any worry in my mind that we weren’t going to be in the Chase. I felt like we deserved to be here," Logano said. "I realize there are a lot of people on Twitter that are really mean. I’ve read enough of it, and I thought, `Wow, this Joey Logano guy’s a real jerk.’ Then I realized, `You know, maybe I’m not.’
"Hopefully this helps prove them all wrong, that we deserve to be here, because this team has got what it takes and we’ve proven that all year long. I guess we have to do that for 10 more races and prove them wrong a little bit more."
The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland, where NASCAR will have a 13-driver championship field for the first time since the title-deciding format began in 2004.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who qualified third, made light of the controversy.
"The question I asked when coming in here is maybe qualifying third I could make the Chase, too," he said.
Chase driver Kasey Kahne was fourth and followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Next was Gordon, who had an emotional week watching the fallout from Richmond unfold. He thought he missed the Chase on performance, then learned the spin with seven laps to go by Clint Bowyer was a deliberate attempt to manipulate the outcome for Truex’s benefit.
Things just got worse from there as Gordon learned of another plot by MWR’s drivers to help Logano push Gordon out of the Chase, and then of the Penske and Front Row potential bargaining. He came to Chicago aware NASCAR was still reviewing the situation but not hopeful it would change his situation.
He learned he’d been added to the field watching NASCAR chairman Brian France make the announcement on television before qualifying.
"It was hard to not hear rumblings about what may occur, what may not occur. We just tried not to get our hopes up," he said. "I’ll admit, it’s been a rough week. It was a lot of ups and downs of emotions for this entire team. I’m very thankful to be in, and I know it’s under the most unbelievable circumstances I’ve ever been a part of in my racing career, and I wish that all of this hadn’t happened. Now here we are as a 13th car and in, now we just try to take that opportunity and make the most of it."
Chase drivers made up the next four spots as Greg Biffle was seventh and followed by Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and points leader Matt Kenseth.
Bowyer was the lowest qualifying Chase driver at 24th.