Joey Logano, knocked out of a chance to compete for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship because of a crash with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville, will race for the title this year after winning a race at Phoenix on Sunday that, ironically, saw Kenseth eliminated due to a crash.
Kenseth had taken the lead late in the Can-Am 500 after taking just two tires on his final pit stop. He was well ahead of second-running Alex Bowman when a crash by Michael McDowell set up an overtime finish.
On the first restart, Kenseth took the initial lead, while Bowman, driving the No. 88 in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., didn’t get up to speed immediately.
Then, as Kenseth entered Turn One in the lead, he pulled to the bottom of the track and made contact with Bowman, who had recovered and was coming fast on the inside groove. Kenseth spun out of contention for a Chase berth, and Logano inherited the lead.
Logano then motored away from fellow Chase driver Kyle Busch to get the win, while Busch held on for second place to secure the fourth and final spot on points in next Sunday’s Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The highest finisher among the Championship 4 drivers – Logano, Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards – will be the 2016 Sprint Cup champion.
Johnson, Edwards and Logano advanced because of their wins in the Round of 8, and Logano said his victory on Sunday was as big or bigger than any of his 16 previous Cup victories.
“This isn’t just a race,” Logano said. “This is a championship.”
“We raced [Phoenix] like it was Homestead because we had to, and what an amazing feeling to be able to succeed under that amount of pressure and to have a race team that is truly better under pressure.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of that, and to have the opportunity to have the pressure on us.”
Logano said his Phoenix win puts him in a good frame of mind heading into Homestead, unlike in 2014, when he left Phoenix feeling nervous about the finale.
“This is not that feeling,” Logano said. “This is that feeling that ‘Hey, we’ve got confidence. I know we can do it.’ ... I don’t feel like it’s a long shot like it was last time. It was my first time there, I’m racing for a championship. ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’ This time I feel like we’ve been here before.”
Among those who won’t be there for the championship round are Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, all of whom failed to advance despite finishing in the top seven at Phoenix.
Sunday’s race also was a showcase of the talents of the 23-year-old Bowman, who started on the pole and led a race-high 194 laps before fading to sixth at the finish after the contact with Kenseth.
Bowman, who has spent most of his time in the Cup series driving back-marker cars, said there’s a big difference in what he’s been driving and a top-flight car like the No. 88.
“I think I’ve had four Cup races [at Phoenix], and I don’t even know if I’ve finished inside the top 30 in any of them,” Bowman said. “Then I came here with Hendrick Motorsports and led almost 200 laps.”
“There are a lot of guys in the garage that can get the job done and run up front; they just don’t get the opportunity to show it.”
“I’m just thankful that I was given the opportunity to show it [Sunday]. Our race car was really good all day. Best car on long runs by far. It was just a lot of fun.”
So far, Bowman has no firm plans for 2017.
“I’m still waiting for the right opportunity to come along,” Bowman said in a media session prior to Sunday’s race. “There’s nothing that has really fit that has come along. I’ll still probably have my day job at Hendrick Motorsports driving the simulator.”
“We’ll go from there.”