Few weekends have gone as well as this past weekend for Penske Racing’s Joey Logano. He started the weekend at Michigan International Speedway by establishing a new track qualifying record with a speed of 203.949 miles per hour and culminated with him putting his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford in Victory Lane for his third career victory.
In the process, he not only asserted himself as a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contender, but turned the final three weeks before the Chase cutoff into drama that can only be matched by Hollywood. Logano is one of a handful of competitors looking to solidify their spot that includes the defending Sprint Cup Series champion, a four-time Sprint Cup Series champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver, among others.
“We kind of decided we needed a win a couple of weeks ago,” Logano said following his victory. “That’s what we got to do. We should decide to get more wins, maybe we’ll win more.
“We need to try to figure out how aggressive we need to be. That’s a conversation we’ll have throughout this week. Right now, as long as we’re consistent, knocking off top 10s like this team has been doing, if we get another win, it’s going to help us get in the Chase, but it is definitely a great help for our Chase hopes.”
While Logano’s Chase hopes remain high with a win to serve as a tiebreaker for one of the two wild-card positions, his teammate and defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is trying to right the ship toward successfully defending his crown.
Keselowski, currently eighth in the Sprint Cup standings but just eight points from falling out of the coveted top 10, remains winless on the season and has tallied just seven top-five finishes in 23 starts.
Gambles like the one he and crew chief Paul Wolfe made last weekend at Michigan could ultimately hamper his quest for a championship run. The team opted to gamble with fuel mileage and it ultimately backfired as he had to stop and refuel, resulting in a 12th-place finish.
For Keselowski, minimizing mistakes and finding consistency during the final three weeks will set up his team for success.
“It isn’t like we weren’t trying before, it is just obviously we are down to the wire,” Keselowski said. “You don’t have a lot of opportunities or wiggle room to screw up and recover from it. I think that is the biggest difference. I am not going to approach it any differently. You know your mistakes are magnified at this point in the season.”
Recent misfortune by Dale Earnhardt Jr. has put him on the proverbial Chase bubble. Finishes of 30th at Watkins Glen (multicar accident) and 36th at Michigan (blown right front tire) have sent him reeling. During his two-week downslide, he has fallen from fifth to seventh and is just 20 points from falling outside the top 10.
With no wins to fall back on for the 11th or 12th Chase berths, his Hendrick Motorsports team has not hit the panic button. A run of consecutive top-10 finishes prior to the team’s string of bad luck has Earnhardt Jr. remaining optimistic.
“There are guys in worse position than us,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We ain’t got to outrun just one guy; there are a lot of guys. And all of them have got to have clean races, just like we do. I think we’ll be all right. We’re not an 11th-place team. We’re a top-five team. We’re consistent. We’re more consistent than most. We’ve just got to shake this luck, whatever is going on; it’s something different every time. We’ve got good speed and we’ve just got to keep our head up and keep working hard and things will be all right.”
For four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, the pressure is mounting to secure a victory during the three remaining races prior to the start of the Chase. Gordon is 14th in the standings and winless. A victory during that three-race stretch may be his only hope of making his eighth consecutive Chase appearance.
Gordon understands the challenges that he and the other Sprint Cup Series drivers in contention for the final Chase positions will face during the next three weeks.
“It’s going to be a battle all the way through the checkered flag at Richmond (International Raceway),” Gordon said. “A win would certainly help our chances, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I think a string of top fives and top 10s could get us a top-10 spot in the standings.”