Joey Logano claimed his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race win since September 2013, with a dominating display at Phoenix International Raceway that saw him comfortably out in front for 176 of the 200 laps of the Axalta 200 on Saturday afternoon. Fellow Sprint Cup regulars Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick were left trailing in his wake, seemingly unable to to anything about his iron grip on the race.
"It felt good," said Logano as he celebrated a comprehensive win. "When I came across the line I thought, finally! It took a long time to get to our next win. We have been finishing second the last four races before this one and we were so close to winning them. Obviously we have a lot of poles and things are going well but we always just needed a little bit more speed. It was awesome to get it today.
Full Xfinity Series race results from Phoenix
"I was able to take off faster on restarts and get a nice lead and then Matt's car was looser than mine so that is why I was able to get a lead," he continued. "Once we started running a few laps I would get tight and he would start catching up to me because his balance was a little more free. I kept hoping for lap traffic because I was better in traffic and that is where I made up time."
Logano had started from pole position after sweeping all three rounds of qualifying earlier in the day, finishing with a flourish by setting a new track record at the one-mile, low-banked tri-oval, his best lap of 26.627s (135.201mph) breaking the previous benchmark at Phoenix International Raceway set in 2011 by Kyle Busch. Logano's 28th pole in 137 series starts put him 0.091s ahead of Kevin Harvick, which meant that the same two drivers were on the front row for both the Xfinity and Sprint Cup Series races this weekend albeit in reverse order.
Logano led for the first 50 laps which included a caution for debris in turn 3 on lap 48. Harvick's pace surprisingly wasn't quite as good, and he was soon moved aside by Matt Kenseth in the Joe Gibbs Racing #20 and Austin Dillon in the Richard Childress Racing #3. Kenseth was able to win the race off pit road with a two-tyre call, and duly led his team mate Erik Jones and the rest of the field to the restart. However, the older tyres on the #20 soon told and Logano was back around both JGR interlopers to resume the lead again on lap 63 despite having to deal with heavy traffic on the way.
Once the race settled down again, the discrepancy between the old and new tyres was minimised and Kenseth was right on Logano's rear fender as the pair broke away from their pursuers with Jones three seconds further back. That advantage was neutralised with the second caution of the day which came on lap 93 when Landon Cassill hit the wall in turn 3, prompting a new round of pit stops under caution which this time was won by Dillon who exited pit lane ahead of Logano, Regan Smith and Brian Scott, with Kenseth and Jones dropping to fifth and sixth for the restart ahead of Harvick and Ty Dillon.
Logano wasted no time retaking the lead at the restart with Smith following him through past Dillon to take up the shotgun position. Dillon - having tried the two-tyre gambit this time - then soon faded further and surrendered third place back to Kenseth down the backstraight on lap 107. While Kenseth then reeled in Smith to reclaim second place, Logano was busy surging away at the front and was over two seconds clear when the third caution came out on lap 122 for Peyton Sellers' #97 Obaika Racing blowing its Chevrolet engine and depositing fluid on the track.
HScott Motorsports' Brennan Poole stayed off pit road to briefly lead at the green flag, but inevitably it was only seconds before Logano and Kenseth picked up where they had left off and were back fighting over the lead, with Brian Scott in third after Regan Smith dropped back having tangled with the slower Poole at the restart. Before anyone could pull out any real advantage the race was back under yellow again on lap 138 after JR Motorsports' Chase Elliott spun out in turn 2 while battling over sixth place, the reigning Xfinity champion complaining that Dillon had pinched him down low to spark the incident.
There were few takers this time for pit road, although Elliott was joined in coming in by his team mate Regan Smith who wanted a new set of tyres ahead of the new restart on lap 143 which saw Logano still firmly in charge and quickly extending a comfortable one second lead over Kenseth at the front while Harvick managed to pass Scott for third. Scott was subsequently soon passed in turn by Dillon and Jones as the race went green all the way to the finish, during which time Poole paid for staying out during the final round of pit stops by running dry on lap 189.
With no further cautions on offer to help him out, Kenseth put his foot down in the closing laps and did what he could to reel in the leader. He had Logano's margin down to just under three tenths of a second when time ran out and the chequered flag handed the Penske driver his 22nd Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) Series career win, with Kenseth almost six seconds ahead of Harvick who had had his hands full in the closing laps with a strong challenge from Austin Dillon and Erik Jones.
For Logano, it was a perfect dress rehearsal for Sunday's Cup race. "I learned some things for tomorrow I think, which is good," he said, as he contemplated how he might be able to outperform Kevin Harvick who is the runaway favourite to claim his fifth Cup win in the last six outings at Phoenix.
"I wouldn't say we are the only guy that has the speed to run with him, I wouldn't say we are the speed to run with him either," said Logano of his prospects. "I look at the times and we were just a little bit off still. They have it figured out with that #4 car right now and I have to be able to catch up to them. At least we beat them today, which is good.
"We have a shot at getting them tomorrow starting on the front row and we will try to lead some laps off the bat there and maintain some track position and race them as hard as we can to beat them," he added. "This is his territory for sure so to be able to race with him and try to beat him is going to be a lot of fun and a big challenge but there is no reason we can't do it."
In fact Harvick didn't lead a single lap in Saturday's race and instead it was Kenseth who proved to be the big threat to Logano, indicating that Sunday's race might turn into a three-way fight at the front just as it had in the Xfinity event. "I'm sure Kevin is going to be the guy to beat, he has been the last few years here and there were some other guys that were real fast in practice too," said the JGR driver. "Hopefully we will get a good balance tomorrow and we'll have a good day."
As for Saturday, Kenseth was left ruing dropping too far back at the final restart to be able to reclaim lost ground in time to overhaul Logano before the chequered flag.
"For whatever reason after our last pit stop we just didn't fire off as fast and I had way less grip than every other pit stop," he said. "I knew that was probably not going to be good for me. He got away pretty good and then when I was just kind of trying to save my tyres and then when it was time to go I just got tight running him down with all the lapped cars. Just couldn't quite get there ... I thought we had a car that could have won, I just couldn't get there and couldn't get it done."
With none of the top five drivers eligible for points in the Xfinity Series, the biggest scorer in the championship this week was Ty Dillon who crossed the line in sixth place ahead of Chase Elliott, Brendan Gaughan, Regan Smith and Brian Scott rounding out the top ten. Dillon extends his lead in the standings to 14 points over Chris Buescher, who could only manage 14th place in the Roush Fenway Racing #60.
"We have a little bit of work to do yet," admitted Buescher. "It was a tough day. Hard fought. The guys did a good job on pit road and we got what we could there. We just had a couple little mechanical issues that kind of held us back. We will have to go get 'em next week."
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice speeds and full Xfinity Series championship standings.
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