ThatsRacin

Joey Logano wins first NASCAR Cup championship with late pass over Martin Truex Jr.

Joey Logano poses next to his car in Victory Lane after a late-race pass of Martin Truex Jr. allowed him to drive away with the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Joey Logano poses next to his car in Victory Lane after a late-race pass of Martin Truex Jr. allowed him to drive away with the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. cjuste@miamiherald.com

As Joey Logano slowly heaped second by second onto his lead, stretching his margin out front over the last 10 laps of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the inevitable finally began to become apparent:

Logano would finally, at long last, after close defeats and missing the playoffs entirely the season before, win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.

When a late caution with less than 20 laps to go forced a restart, it was Truex and Logano jousting for the lead. And while Truex narrowly held it for a few of those swings, he could never quite get away.

A narrow window was all Logano needed. After side-drafting with Truex, yo-yoing for the lead in what would certainly define this season, Logano managed to pass him with about 10 laps to go.

After pushing Truex at Martinsville three weeks ago to even get to the Championship 4, Logano didn’t need any extracurriculars to get it done Sunday. His lead slowly grew and grew, and by the time he finally crossed the finish line in first?

Well, at that point the inevitability of it all struck Logano, too. And the tears had already started to fall.

Race breakdown

Stage 1: Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch battled for the lead as soon as the race started, with the rest of the championship contenders following right behind. But after initial pit stops, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick surged from the middle of the pack to the front, with Harvick narrowly taking the first stage. Busch, Logano and Truex Jr. finished third, fourth, and fifth respectively.

Stage 2: Harvick and Larson dueled for the lead for most of Stage 2, rotating back and forth with the championship contenders close behind. On the last lap of the stage, Harvick got caught in lapped traffic and was forced to slow down, leaving enough room for Larson to catch and eventually slingshot past the No. 4. Meanwhile, Logano finished in third, Truex was fourth, and Kyle Busch was sixth.

Stage 3: After Larson hit the wall and forced a caution with about 75 laps to go, it allowed Logano and Truex to battle for the lead coming out of the restart. But needing to pit with about 35 left, Logano and Truex both followed Harvick down pit road. Harvick was first off, and then Logano after him. After a late restart, Truex briefly jumped out to another lead, only for Logano to eventually pass him with the short-run speed he had all day, and then Logano rode that lead to his first title.

Three who mattered

Joey Logano: After Logano had led for most of the afternoon, Truex passed him with 49 to go as Logano’s tires finally hit a breaking point of sorts. But with 10 laps left, after a pit stop, he regained the narrow lead over Truex and slowly built that margin up until he crossed the finish line.

Martin Truex Jr.: After struggling in Stage 1 and the beginning of Stage 2, he slowly gained on Logano throughout the final stage until it got to the point where he could pass the No. 22. With 10 laps left and barely holding onto the lead, Truex couldn’t stave off Logano, and then couldn’t catch him, finishing second in his final race for Furniture Row Racing.

Daniel Suarez: He got bumped by Brad Keselowski late in the race and spun out, forcing the late-race caution his Joe Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch needed to win a championship. If not for that caution, Busch would’ve run out of fuel or had to pit and sacrifice all his track position.

The NASCAR Ford Championship weekend takes place at the Miami-Homestead Speedway, ending with the Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex and Joey Logano are the finalists.

Observations

There was some criticism of the Joe Gibbs Racing team when owner Joe Gibbs persuaded Denny Hamlin — who won the pole Sunday — to give up the first pit stall for Kyle Busch, and while it ultimately helped the team, it wasn’t without flaws. When everyone pitted at the conclusion of Stage 1, Busch’s crew stumbled with his right front and also dropped a lug nut, slowing him down and costing him six spots to restart the race. Later in the race, Busch’s air hose also got caught during a stop and cost him another four spots.

After more than 600 races and seven Cup Series championships in 17 years together, Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 officially marked the final race for Jimmie Johnson and his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus. Next season, Knaus will move to Charlotte native William Byron’s No. 24 team, while Johnson will pair with Kevin Meendering from the Xfinity Series. Johnson finished Sunday’s race in 14th.

The first caution of the race — and weekend, including the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series championships — for something other than the end of a stage didn’t come until 139 laps into the race, for a piece of debris on the track.

They said it

“We did it. We won the championship. I can’t believe it.” - Logano.

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