Joey Logano won the drama-filled Can-Am 500 Chase elimination race at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, keeping his 2016 Sprint Cup title hopes alive.
Logano held off a bevy of challengers on second green-white-checkered overtime finish to win the race at PIR in his No. 22 Team Penske Ford. Kyle Busch finished second to secure the only other available berth in the Championship 4 group that will race for the championship next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“This feels so good. I’ve never felt this good about a win before,” Logano said. “There was so much on the line and everyone brings their A-game when it comes to winning championships — and this team did it.”
None of it was accomplished easily.
Matt Kenseth appeared on the verge of winning the race and advancing to the Championship 4 race at when he wrecked on the first green-white-checkered overtime finish. Kenseth appeared to come down in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Alex Bowman, the Dale Earnhardt Jr. substitute who was attempting to win his first NASCAR race.
In a flash, Kenseth’s 2016 championship hopes were gone – setting up a second OT restart.
This time, Logano led the field to green, starting on the outside of the front row alongside Kyle Busch on the inside. Both were fighting for their own championship lives, as was Phoenix track specialist Kevin Harvick – who started third and needed to win the race to advance to the Championship 4.
Logano surged ahead and was not seriously threatened the rest of the way. Rounding out the top five in the finishing order behind Logano and Kyle Busch were Kyle Larson, Harvick and Kurt Busch. Bowman, who started from the pole and led a race-high 194 laps, finished sixth.
It seemed Kenseth would win the race going away until Michael McDowell had a tire go down and hit the wall with just two laps remaining in regulation, bringing out the caution and setting up a green-white-checkered overtime finish.
On the OT restart, with Kenseth on the outside in the front row alongside of upstart non-Chase driver Alex Bowman. As they got into Turn 1, Bowman tried to block Kyle Busch and Kenseth pinched down on Bowman, who seemed to have nowhere to go.
Kenseth went spinning off, and so did his Chase chances, opening the Championship 4 door for not only Logano but Kyle Busch, the defending Sprint Cup champion. Busch actually blamed himself for getting into Bowman and causing Kenseth — his JGR teammate — to wreck, although video of the incident appeared to possibly indicate it was an issue more with Kenseth and his spotter.
“You know, I just feel really bad about what happened there on that last restart,” Busch said. “It just wasn’t what I anticipated having happen, and I just feel bad. The 20 (of Kenseth) should have been the Gibbs car to go through (to the Championship 4), and I was just trying to make a position there on the 88, felt like I was to his inside and had the position. Otherwise if he turned down on a guy and chopped him you’re going to get wrecked, and he did, and it translated into the 20 crashing. That’s not how at all I foresaw that going.
“I was hoping I could get the 88 underneath him and force him up and have him kind of block the 22 (of Logano) and check up the outside row and then I could have a position between me and the 22 to get myself and the 20 in.”
Earlier, Chaser Denny Hamlin and his crew chief, Mike Wheeler, attempted a Hail Mary-type strategy on a restart that ultimately backfired on the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. While the rest of the leaders and Chase contenders came to pit road when the caution flag came out with 57 laps to go, Wheeler instructed Hamlin to stay out and save fuel.
But Hamlin was on old tires, and he could not hold off Logano for even a full lap before Logano passed him to regain the lead.
When another caution came out for debris with 47 to go, Hamlin was hanging onto second and had no choice but to continue to stay out on the track. This time, he lost one position after another following the ensuing restart – taking him from being in the Championship 4 to way out of it.
While all the Chasers kept slicing and dicing their way, dancing in and out of the Championship 4 picture, Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet continued to be the fastest car on the track.
As the laps wound down, Kenseth, Logano and Kyle Busch were running 1-2-3 – but with Bowman bearing down on them.
Bowman passed Busch for third with 17 to go, then went to work on trying to catch Logano. Two laps later, Bowman passed Logano for second.
Then Busch passed Logano to move into third.
They remained that way until McDowell’s wreck brought out the caution that set up the chain of events that knocked Kenseth out of the championship hunt, and ushered Logano and Kyle Busch back in. Chasers eliminated from title contention along with Kenseth were the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates of Harvick and Kurt Busch, and Hamlin.
Once Logano got in position for what at last ended up being the final restart, he knew what he had to do and took off, leaving all other Chase contenders and the rest of the field in his rear-view mirror.
N0w it’s onto the Championship 4 race at Homestead, where he will battle Kyle Busch, Johnson and Edwards for the 2016 championship in a winner-take-all season finale in which the highest finisher of the four will earn the title.
“I had a good restart there at the end and holding off Kyle to try to get this thing into Miami,” Logano said. “We’re racing for a championship now. We did exactly what we had to do. We’ve got to go to Homestead and do the same thing. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
Logano said this win measures up with the best he’s had in his career — and that includes the Daytona 500 at the start of his 2015 season.
“I’m speechless right now. I feel like I just won the Daytona 500 again,” Logano said.