BROOKLYN, Mich. – Joey Logano's win in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway falls into two categories: game-changing and potentially season-changing.
And if he goes on to win the Sprint Cup championship 13 weeks from now, Logano's first win for Penske Racing and the third triumph of his Cup career could wind up being life-changing.
Sure, there's plenty that has to be done before that, but Logano's win Sunday could be the start of something as big as Tony Stewart's five-win rally to win the Chase in 2011 and Brad Keselowski's run to the title last season.
Winning from the pole, Logano moved up from 16th to 13th in the standings. He also became the second-highest of four drivers vying for the two wild-card berths to make the Chase.
In other words, if the Chase was to begin today, the 23-year-old Logano would be in it (along with Kasey Kahne).
But the Connecticut native doesn't want to merely back into the Chase as a wild-card. He's not only in it to win it, but would rather make it into the playoffs with a guaranteed top-10 berth after the final Chase qualifying race at Richmond in three weeks.
With Sunday's win, is Joey Logano a bonafide contender for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and potentially the championship?
With 646 points, he's not far from that goal after Sunday, just 17 points out of tenth place (currently occupied by Greg Biffle, with 663 points).
"This is huge for our Chase hopes," Logano said. "We needed this to have a shot at getting in the Chase. We are close now but we can't make any mistakes. This sure does help a lot."
Logano has to seize upon the momentum from Sunday's win and ride it through the final three pre-Chase races at Bristol (Saturday night), Atlanta and Richmond. He's ready to do just that.
"If we can close it out with two more top-10s, I think that'll be enough to get us in (as a top-10 Chase qualifier)," Logano said.
When team owner Roger Penske chose Logano to fill the driver's seat of the No. 22 Ford, some eyebrows were raised. But Logano rewarded Penske's faith in him not only with Sunday's first win for the team—and Logano's first Cup win since June 2012 in Pocono—it was also Logano's third win overall this season under the Penske banner (the other two coming on the Nationwide Series).
"To come out here in Michigan, in Ford's backyard, with RP (team owner Roger Penske), to get the pole, lead laps and win the race is awesome," Logano said. "As much as we've gone through this year, it's well deserved. I'm stoked right now."
There was a bit of irony in Sunday's outcome. Logano's teammate, Keselowski, was leading the race late and appeared headed for his first win of the season. But crew chief Paul Wolfe told Keselowski that he was likely three to four laps short of fuel to complete the race.
Rather than gamble, Wolfe went with the conservative approach and had Keselowski pit for a splash of fuel and two right side tires.
As a result, instead of winning his first race of the season, Keselowski finished 12th. He remains in eighth place in the standings, but that position is anything but secure with three races left prior to the Chase and leaving Michigan just four points ahead of 10th-ranked Biffle.
As much as he knew Wolfe's call was the right one, Keselowski wasn't happy.
"I guess we made the right call, but I ain't gonna like it," Keselowski was quoted as saying in Ford's post-race driver quotes transcript. "You just know you don't have a chance to win (unless he pitted). We were leading the race and one yellow with the way track position is right now, one yellow can either win you the race or lose you the race. That really sucks."
Keselowski shouldn't feel all that bad as two other top-10 drivers suffered a worse fate. Points leader Jimmie Johnson, who came into the race with a 75-point edge over Clint Bowyer, saw that margin cut to just 41 points after Johnson's engine blew up on Lap 57, leaving Johnson with a 40th-place finish.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase chances also took a significant hit, finishing 36th in the race and dropping to seventh in the standings, just 16 points ahead of 10th place. Like Keselowski, Earnhardt has also not won a race this season.
"This bad luck, we need to shake that," Earnhardt said in Chevrolet's post-race driver quotes transcript. "We just can't keep having this every week. It's been biting us every week."
(Unless indicated, all quotes were obtained by the writer.)
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