Rick Hendrick, from Hendrick Motorsports, hugs driver Jeff Gordon after Gordon won the 45th Annual Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Blade/Amy E. Voigt
BROOKLYN, Mich. — Joey Logano kept finding his way back to the front of the pack and continued to put himself in prime position to win his second race at Michigan International Speedway in the span of a year.
With fewer than 30 laps left in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400, the 24-year-old driver had led 86 laps of the 200-lap race and appeared to be in a spot where he could capitalize on yet another restart.
But with fewer than 20 laps left, Jeff Gordon zapped any ideas that Logano had involving celebrations in Victory Lane.
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Unlike Friday, when he won the pole, Gordon didn’t just win because he was fast. Strategy became the key for Gordon. With a deft move off the final restart on lap 183, Gordon scooted around Logano between the first and second turns on the 2-mile superspeedway to take the final lead.
“Even though Joey got out there and he was kind of sitting on an island by himself, we tracked him down and I was able to get to his left rear,” Gordon said. “I drove him back, and it gave me a ton of momentum. I was able to shoot to the bottom and get by him.”
Gordon thought he’d won the race right then. Logano persisted, and even threatened Gordon’s celebration plans.
“When he was behind me, he just drove in there and it stuck,” said Gordon, who is atop the Sprint Cup driver points standings with 816 points, three ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “He got me loose and got underneath me, and I thought it was over. My car got loose, I lost some momentum. He must have wiggled a little bit too. I was sort of able to drag race him, get back to his right rear, Kevin came behind me, then we kind of went by him.”
Gordon’s move jumbled the lead pack. Logano fell back to fourth and Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard moved into second and third, and Logano didn’t recover until the end of the race, when he came out of Turn 4 and beat Menard in a sprint to the finish.
“It was restart after restart after restart,” said Logano, who finished third, behind Gordon and Harvick. “I won every single restart. I was on the front row, except the last one. And here I am. It’s kind of frustrating.
“For the most part I almost had him there, then kind of rode around in fourth hoping for a restart because the fourth spot is where you want to be. I realized we weren't going to get the restart and tried to go for third from there.”
Three cautions between laps 168 and 179 changed the complexion of a race that some believed would come down to fuel mileage.
Brad Keselowski hit the wall after a flat right front tire, which brought out the sixth caution on lap 173 and reshuffled the race field. A seventh caution came two laps later when Brian Vickers spun out in Turn 4, and the final caution came on the 179th lap, when Kurt Busch attempted to block Logano from the inside. Logano escaped that threat, yet Busch lost control of his car, hitting the wall.
Then came the final restart. Alan Gustafson, Gordon’s crew chief for the No. 24 Chevrolet, emphasized the importance of restarts, even a few that may not have been crisp.
“If you can get clear, you're probably going to win the race,” Gustafson said. “Is Joey maybe not maintaining his speed consistently? Probably not. Do I blame him? No, I don't blame him. Was Jeff making sure that Joey didn't break his momentum? Yes. Do I blame him? No.
“They're trying to win. I don't feel like either one of them crossed the line. I don't have a great perspective on it. But I really enjoyed the race, to be honest with you. That was great racing. I thought, ‘that's how you race hard.’ I thought the two of those guys did everything they could do, including Kurt [Busch], who went over the edge, they did everything they could do with their cars to win the race. That's what the emphasis is about on the sport. It was on display today.”
Initially, Logano didn’t want to elaborate on his finish. But he didn’t get up from the podium in the media center. Instead, he grinned and reiterated that he has a team capable of winning the Cup championship, despite relinquishing the lead on Sunday.
“That's the message I want to put out there,” said Logano, who is currently fifth in the 16-driver Chase for the Championship field. “I want to put out for my team that we're strong enough to do that. I think we showed that today.
“We're close. We’ve still got to keep working hard. We’ve got to find that next level here in three weeks now to be this strong in the Chase. But right now we're in the hunt.”