Instead of a new winner, Bristol Motor Speedway offered up a stark reminder.
Much of the attention heading into this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has been focused on the chances of veterans Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.
Joey Logano, who qualified for his first Chase only a year ago, served notice Saturday night after his win in the Irwin Tools Night Race that he is now looking for his first series championship.
“I don’t care what they think of us, we’re going to do what we’ve got to do,” Logano said after holding off Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski for the win.. They can underestimate us. They can overestimate us. I don’t really care.
“We’re going to go out there and do the best we can do.”
The Sprint Cup Series victory is Logano’s third of the season and sixth of his career. With 12 races remaining this season, Logano already has tripled his previous best season wins total.
Logano now has the unanticipated opportunity to enter the Chase as the No. 1 seed when the 10-race playoff begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway – he is tied with Gordon, Earnhardt, Johnson and Keselowski in wins.
“We’ve got a good plan going forward on how Team Penske is going to test for this Chase,” said Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon. “Last year let us know what we needed to do and then the success early in the season kind of let the stress level come down.
“It’s really changed how we’re going to race the next two races as well. You want to be successful as much as you can, but you also want to make sure you keep your head on the big picture.
“We need to make sure we maximize our opportunity at every race track in the Chase.”
Logano and his No. 22 Ford team certainly did Saturday night.
Logano moved into the lead for the first time on Lap 104 of 500 and remained in the hunt for the win much of the race.
He was sixth on a restart on Lap 438 but second among the cars that pit for new tires, as four drivers – Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kyle Larson and Paul Menard – remained on the track.
Within 10 laps, Logano was in line to challenge Kenseth for the lead and completed the pass on Lap 456.
Keselowski made a desperate dive-bomb attempt to get around Logano exiting Turn 4 on the last lap but to no avail.
“Every time I’d get close to Joey, I’d pick up a massive aero push up off the corner and couldn’t do anything,” Keselowski said. “I lost too much speed to do anything.
“I couldn’t even get close enough to really do a bump-and-run. Last lap I dive bombed it in there on a prayer hoping it would stick or he would slip. I made it look good, but it really wasn’t close.”
Kenseth finished third, Johnson was fourth and Kurt Busch was fifth.
Gordon, who finished 16th, continues to lead the series standings and holds a 27-point lead over Earnhardt.
The August night race at Bristol is known for producing drama on and off the track, and there was plenty Saturday night.
Kevin Harvick wrecked then-leader Denny Hamlin on Lap 161, and before Hamlin left for an ambulance ride to in the infield care center, he tossed his HANS safety device at Harvick’s car as it came back around the track.
Kyle Busch, who led early in the race, was penalized for speeding on pit road and then was collected in a five-car wreck on Lap 125.
Later in the race, Busch and his crew chief, Dave Rogers, got in a heated exchange on their team radio over the damaged car’s handling. Busch ended up parking his No. 18 Toyota on pit road, leaving his crew to push the car to the garage area.