Success and failure can hinge on the strangest thing, as Penske's Joey Logano found out on Sunday during the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.
As he pulled away from his pit stall after a routine stop under caution on lap 123, Logano was told that the fuel can that had been refilling the #22 had snagged and been dragged out of the crew member's hands and out of the pit box area. That meant an automatic penalty which dropped him all the way to the back of the lead lap.
"When those situations happen you try to stay calm, but it was just so hard to do because there's so much on the line," Logano admitted after the race. "I wasn't mad at anybody, I was just frustrated trying to get up through the field and trying to pass cars. When you're doing that you wear your car out so much that we ended up going down a lap."
When race leader Kevin Harvick moved passed the beleaguered Logano, it really did look as though all his hopes of making it through to next weekend's winner-take-all title decider at the season finale at Homestead-Miami were going up in smoke before his very eyes.
"There are a lot of emotions, believe me. When the #4 car laps you, you don't know how the race is gonna play out. You don't know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the lucky dog, or will you get the lucky dog. When you go down a lap it's not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder."
At least one driver out on track had a good idea what Logano was going through. Denny Hamlin came into the race tied at the top of the championship points with Logano; he'd led the first 25 laps of the race before Logano took over, but then suffered his own pit lane calamity with a flat tyre that meant that he, too, was dropped to the back of the field and also lapped - twice, in the Joe Gibbs Racing driver's case.
"I think Denny and I had the exact same day out there," agreed Logano. "Both of us had a little issue on pit road and we got stuck back there, went down a lap."
That left them vying for the 'lucky dog', NASCAR's rule by which the first driver a lap down when a caution comes out gets a free pass around the safety car to get their lap back. A record number of cautions for Phoenix - 12 in total - meant that both Logano and Hamlin were able to get back onto the lead lap later in the race despite their early setbacks.
"We missed the lucky dog by one [the first time] and then got our lucky dog," recalled Logano. "We had a decent car but when you're trying to work your way through the field and race really hard you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble. We were able to adjust our car to that and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely."
Not that the dramas were over yet for the 24-year-old. His car sustained some damage colliding with Danica Patrick as both cars sought to avoid an accident up ahead in which Hamlin's JGR team mate Kyle Busch spun out on lap 212 and collect Clint Bowyer in the process, resulting in a red flag suspension while the wreckage was cleared up. While the #22 wasn't badly hurt in the incident, it has nonetheless picked up a tyre rub that needed attending to when the pit lane reopened.
"We got some damage avoiding the #18's crash and was able to fix that and recover again to get ourselves back in," he said. " I was turning down to miss the #18 the #10 was there and we banged doors fairly hard ... It was just a fender rub. We had the red flag to talk about it a little bit, which is always nice to kind of calm down and get a game plan before the pits open and all we really needed to do was pull some fenders out and keep them from rubbing and get racing again."
Thanks to quick work from the Penske pit crew, Logano was able to continue his recovery drive after the red flag and ended up in the top six - more than good enough to see him through to the final round of the Chase on points.
"I was able to recover for a sixth-place finish after all that," he smiled. "My hat's off to all the Shell/Pennzoil guys on this team. They deserve to be in the final four. We proved it throughout this whole Chase and really this whole year, and I'm glad to be sitting here and going for it and have some fun next week.
"It was definitely a drama-filled day, for sure," he added. "It's not what we wanted. We were hoping for just a normal, uneventful day to just get a nice top ten was all we needed, which is what we ended up doing, but it was definitely eventful along the way."
Hamlin also made it through, as did race winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman is the fourth driver in the line-up, after a last lap overtaking move on Kyle Larson saw him finish one point ahead of Jeff Gordon to take the final play-off spot at Homestead.
All four go into the season finale with their points once again levelled out, meaning that no one has any advantage in the final showdown for the 2014 title. With no bonus points on offer for most laps led, next week's race comes down to whichever of the four can finish in front of the other three.
"Everybody has the same amount of points," said Logano, insisting that he had as good if not better chance of winning the title as anyone. "It's all about how good your team is and I feel like I've got the best team.
"I'm proud of my team and proud of everyone who has helped get us to this point, and we're gonna have some fun next week going for a championship."
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