By Matt Weaver (BRISTOL, Tenn.) — It’s been written here before that this is one of the best times of the year to be a NASCAR fan and the Bristol Night Race proved it once again as the Race to the Chase took numerous dramatic turns in the rolling hills of Thunder Valley.
@JoeyLogano held off Brad @Keselowski over the closing laps to win the Irwin Tools Bristol Bristol Night Race — an event he called one of the biggest mama jamas of them all upon taking his seat in the media center for his media debrief.
Going to Victory Lane in the Night Race is cool enough, no doubt, but Logano also made several other notable statements (verbal and otherwise) on Saturday in regards to his current place on sport’s totem pole.
Those who follow the sport regularly inherently understand that Logano has the speed and momentum to win a championship but his third win of the season felt like the first public coming-of-age moment for the former wunderkind dubbed Sliced Bread. Only the toughest of the tough win at Bristol — names like Earnhardt, Wallace, Gordon and Jarrett — bonafide Sprint Cup Series champions.
On Saturday, Logano out-dueled another champion in his teammate Keselowski in yet another display of power from Team Penske as they once again prepare to take on NASCAR’s traditional juggernauts, Hendrick Motorsports, in the ever-approaching Chase for the Championship.
For whatever reason, Logano has been greatly overshadowed — at least publicly — by Keselowski this season. Even during the post-race press conference, both teammates were peppered with questions about Logano’s readiness to contend and if he has been underrated in advance of the remaining 12 races.
After all, entering this season, Logano was fresh off his first playoff appearance and had never won more than a single race in a given season. This year is remarkably different though as Logano has found a home in Team Penske and with crew chief Todd Gordon.
And despite seven years of Sprint Cup experience, Logano is still just 24-years-ol and in the prime of his physical and mental acuity.
With his third win of the season, Logano ties Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Keselowski for the most in 2014 and is in a tie for the top seed two races away from the playoffs. His fourth place points ranking and 721 laps led this season are additional affirmations of his season, regardless of what those who are still thinking on him may think.
“I don’t care what they think of us,” Logano said. “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do. They can underestimate us. They can overestimate us if they want and I don’t really care. We’re going to go out there and do the best we can, do what we’ve been doing … It’s definitely the best shot I’ve ever had at winning the championship, I can promise you that, so I feel very confident going into it.”
Logano has been blistering fast at every track this season and if not for a snafu on the final restart at Michigan, would likely be sitting on back-to-back victories and sole ownership of the top seed in the Chase.
It’s no secret that Logano was rushed to the Cup Series by Joe Gibbs Racing and that Logano wasn’t prepared at the time for the spotlight and scrutiny involved with driving the famous No. 20 entry. He admitted so to Popular Speed at the start of the season, in fact.
However, those formative years may be the key to his winning this championship this season.
At Gibbs, he replaced a champion in Tony Stewart and the whole world expected him to continue the trend. Paired with the architect of Smoke’s first two championships in Greg Zippadelli, Logano was issued the pressure of a two-time champion. Logano doesn’t appear to be sweating the pressure of the 2014 championship battle yet.
He’s never been more confident and comfortable in his career and much of that is likely owed to his tenure with Coach Gibbs. The inherent pressure of contending for a championship is all that Logano has ever known since his 2008 arrival.
Now it’s time for Logano to earn the hardware that goes with his newfound swagger.
Harvick v. Hamlin
One of the literal highlights of the Bristol Night Race on Saturday was the incident between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin which occurred while the two were fighting for the lead in the middle stages of the race.
The details of the crash can be reviewed here but the short version was that Harvick lost his car under Hamlin and plowed into his fellow contender, an ordeal that ended Hamlin’s night right on the spot.
New NASCAR rules prevent a driver from leaving his car until after safety workers arrive on the scene, an obligation that Hamlin dutifully complied to but he still took his shot at the driver he believed wronged him. In traditional Bristol fashion but without leaving the track apron, Hamlin chunked his HANS device at Harvick’s No. 4, nailing it with the accuracy of a Stephen Strasburg fastball.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp says he was unaware of whether or not Hamlin had committed actions detrimental to stock car racing. In short, it will be or has been reviewed.
The importance of safety cannot be understated in NASCAR but it’s my personal hope that the sanctioning body lets this one slide. Hamlin never left the comfort of safety workers and never stepped foot on the gray concrete racing surface. It’s Bristol Baby, and it ceases to be when these sort of emotional outbursts are eliminated from the equation.
The attendance on Saturday night at Bristol was one of the best from the past five years at the Last Great Coliseum and Hamlin surely sold some additional tickets for next year’s race, just as he did last season with his now ill-fated rivalry with Logano that began in the spring.
The Race to the Chase is On
As stated above, this is the best time of the season to be a NASCAR fan. As if the Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond swing isn’t entertaining enough on a micro level, the macro level and the implications of making the Chase have added a new layer of intrigue and excitement to the end of the regular season.
Based purely on points, it appears that the 16 Chase drivers are locked in with winless Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle pulling even further away from their pursuers on Saturday night. With that said, a Kyle Larson or Austin Dillon win over the next two weeks, not the most unrealistic outcome, would literally change everything.
The win and you’re in format has done exactly what it was advertised to do thus far and everyone on the outside looking in has to win the metaphorical games six and seven to make the Chase or be doomed to near-obscurity over the final 10 weeks of the season. Combine that with the resurgence of popular drivers like Earnhardt and Gordon and NASCAR has a real dream season brewing.
Enjoy the ride.