Pressure Is On To Make Strides Toward Chase In 'Bristol Bash'
Get ready for NASCAR’s “Bristol Bash.”
The IRWIN Tools Night Race on Saturday night, Aug. 24 at Bristol Motor Speedway could be the pivotal race for one of the two Wild Card positions that are available in NASCAR’s “Race for the Sprint Cup Championship.” And when Joey Logano scored his first victory for Penske Racing in the Pure Michigan 400 Sunday, Aug. 18 at Michigan International Speedway, he beaome a serious contender to make “The Chase.”
In fact, positions eight through 17 are separated by just 31 points with three races remaining. So drivers in the top 10 but without a victory this season could see their Chase hopes evaporate over the next three contests, beginning with Bristol.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is eight in the standings but does not have a victory. Kurt Busch is also winless and ninth in the standings.
“I'm excited that we're running well,” Busch said. “Now I'm just in that Chase mode where we have to get in. You can't celebrate with a third place finish. You just have to feel confident and to know that you can go back next week and do it again.
“The biggest thing is just staying out of trouble. Bristol, trouble can happen at any corner. There's going to be 500 laps that we have to perform there where we have to protect our car and still finish well.
“There's still just three weeks to go where we could get in a little fender bender, some itty bitty thing happen the next three weeks, and that will put us on the outside.
“Excuse me if my blinders are on.”
Ironically, Logano is driving the same ride that used to belong to Busch when he was at Penske Racing before he was bounced from the team for some highly publicized tirades in 2011. Busch drove for team owner James Finch and Phoenix Racing last year and moved to Furniture Row Racing this season and has that ride on the verge of making The Chase.
“This is tremendous,” Busch said. “Jumping in with the Furniture Row guys last year, running six races together, got a lot of the bugs worked out. It allowed us to discover things about ourselves, some weaknesses on the team.
“Each section through this season, like every six races, we can lump them together and say that we've improved every time we've gone through a chunk of six races at a time.
“Now here we are. We're 23 races in, got three to go to get in the Chase. It's an amazing feeling to be in position right now, have a group of guys from Denver, Colorado, in the Chase right now. That's what we have to do, make sure when the door closes, the music stops, that we got a place.”
Greg Biffle has the 10th position -- the final points-entry position for the Chase, which means there is quite a battle for the two Wild Card spots.
Kasey Kahne is first in the Wild Card standings with two wins in 11th place. But after that, the pressure is on several drivers, including the winner of this year’s NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind.
Martin Truex Jr. is second in the Wild Card with one win in 12th place. But Logano is closing in now that he has scored a victory. That leaves Newman two positions out of the Chase with his Brickyard win his only trophy this season.
Credit Logano with putting even more drama into NASCAR’s Wild Card battle and giving team owner Roger Penske his first victory since making the switch from Dodge to Ford this season.
“We're close,” Logano said. “We're close. This is a hard fought win throughout this whole Penske team, this 22 team in particular, gone through a lot this season. Our win is well deserved. They gave me a great Shell Pennzoil Ford that was capable of winning. We kept tuning it in, getting a little better, a little better. When it was up to me on the last restart, I had to be very aggressive to get by the 29 (Kevin Harvick) and do what I had to do. Here we are.”
A Wild Card position is within Logano’s reach, and he knows what he has to do in order to grab it.
“I think we’ve got to be consistent,” Logano said. “This is something Todd (Gordon, crew chief) and I talk about before we come to the racetrack every weekend, how aggressive we need to be to try to get into this Chase. We kind of decided we needed a win a couple weeks ago. So we did one, we got one. 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, yeah, it's going to help us get in the Chase, but it is definitely a great help for our Chase hopes.”
Logano contended for victory in the season’s first race at Bristol back in March. But that contest was more famous for Logano charging Denny Hamlin in the garage area afterward the race in an angry response to a late-race incident between the two. The hard feelings would culminate the following Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., when the two drivers were battling for the victory in the final turn of the final lap. Logano’s car hit Hamlin’s Toyota, sending it into a spin and a crushing impact into the infield retaining wall that broke Hamlin’s back.
Logano had gone from “The Kid” to the “Bad Boy” in a seven-day period beginning at Bristol.
“I look like a villain, don't I?” Logano said. “If that doesn't toughen you up, nothing does. This team has gone through a lot this season. That's what I've meant by some of it. Obviously, there are other things we've gone through. They don't quit. They keep pushing hard.
“We've got to do that for years to come, not just the rest of this season or next four races. We have to keep doing that as long as we're all together. Hopefully that's a very, very, very long time. If we keep doing this, we will be.”
Last year for Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano led 139 of the 500 laps in this race before finishing eighth. He was contending for victory in March before his run-in with Hamlin and finished 17th.
Although Logano considers Bristol one of his better tracks, he has just one top-10 finish in nine previous starts.
Last year, team owner Roger Penske was able to enjoy Keselowski’s championship run, and that gave the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Although Keselowski is winless this season and has a precarious position of eighth in the standings, it is important for the team to get Logano into the Chase, also.
“Well, I'd have to say we're all here to make the Chase, win the championship,” Penske said. “We've had cars in the Chase continuously almost since the beginning. It would be a disappointment if we didn't.
“At the end of the day I have to look at the glass is half-full. To me that's important. I guess we'll look at the scoreboard in three more races and find out whether it's been a success or not. But I'm going to tell our guys to do what they've been doing, work smart and bring their car home. Same thing I told Hornish as he sits there where he is now in the Nationwide. He's got a win now. Believe me, he's got to continue. That's what we've got to do here in the next three races.”
And Penske believes Logano has all the qualities that can make him a future champion, comparing him with one of the greatest drivers in Indianapolis 500 history.
“We've had so many great drivers,” Penske said. “I think I answered the question the same way before. I really focus on the drivers we have today. They earned the right to race for our team, represent our company and our employees.
“Joey fits the mold. He reminds me a little bit of Rick Mears. Understated, stands on the gas. I can just see him maturing. As he came to our team, he had a great opportunity with Gibbs. I watched him. He beat the hell out of us in the Nationwide so many races. We knew he knew how to win. I think giving him a chance to come with us, he's just matured and he's exactly what we expected.
“As you saw (at Michigan), he's not afraid to stand on the gas when it counts.”
And standing on the gas when it matters the most is going to be the determining factor in which drivers claim the final Wild Card position in the final three races of the regular season, beginning Saturday night in the “Bristol Bash.”