There was drama aplenty throughout the field in Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. That’s what happens when a crucial NASCAR Chase race is run on the circuit’s fastest and most unpredictable track.
Joey Logano, facing possible elimination thanks to his precarious eighth-place position in the standings, won the third and final race of the second round in a green-white-checkered finish, clinching a spot in the eight-driver semifinals, which will begin next week at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. He beat rookie Brian Scott, whose surprising second-place finish was the best of his career, and Denny Hamlin, who needed every bit of his third-place finish to advance in the Chase.
Logano joins fellow second-round winners Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick in the round of eight, along with five others – Kurt Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, as well as Hamlin – who advanced on points.
Logano, who won all three second-round Chase races in 2015, didn’t have the luxury of those previous victories at Charlotte and Kansas to fall back on this season. He was tied with Austin Dillon for the eighth spot, so nothing was guaranteed – especially at a track as dangerous as Talladega.
“This morning you wake up, you’re kind of like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ ” Logano said. “This is the first time in the Chase format that I’ve come into Talladega without a win to be locked into the next round. The feeling of the weekend is definitely a lot different when you know you’re not locked into the next one.”
Logano will also go to Martinsville not having a controversy hanging over him. Last season, he knocked Matt Kenseth out of the way to win at Kansas in the second round. Kenseth returned the favor at Martinsville, ending Logano’s title chances.
“You always grow or you hope to grow every day,” Logano said of that experience. “You hope to rest your head at bed every night and say, ‘I learned this today, I’m going to be better tomorrow.’ I learned some valuable lessons last year. I learned a whole new level I didn’t even know I had. Now I know how to reach that level mentally inside a race car to make things happen and be a great leader for my team.”
The race was filled with intrigue beyond what Logano provided. Hamlin tied Dillon for eighth, but Hamlin’s third-place finish by .006 seconds ahead of Kurt Busch broke the tie and allowed him to advance. Dillon finished ninth, a hair behind Aric Almirola.
Hamlin said he didn’t know where he stood with Dillon late in the race. All he knew was that at least a fifth-place finish would allow him to advance.
“I told (my team) I didn’t want points updates,” Hamlin said. “But that’s almost when I probably should have gotten one to figure out what I was going to do. But (Dillon) is in the middle of the pack. He’s fighting and getting positions. He could change two positions in the last 100 yards. So you can’t really predict it. I knew I just had to try to finish as good as I could.”
Hamlin’s JGR is providing the Chase with half of its remaining field. To help in doing so, Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Edwards took “points racing” to a new level by staying near the rear of the pack all afternoon, keeping out of trouble to preserve their spots inside the top eight. Not coincidentally, they finished 28th (Edwards), 29th (Edwards) and 30th (Busch).
Logano won despite dragging a car jack around the 2.66-mile track for one lap after an errant pit stop early in the race. More importantly, he took advantage of a blown engine by Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski – who led a race-high 90 laps – to win.
Keselowski would finish 38th, two places better than last-place Martin Truex Jr., another championship contender whose title hopes vanished when his motor gave way on Lap 144.