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After prolonged stints at the front for Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, it was Joey Logano who emerged as the dominant force in the final third of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway to record his fourth victory in 190 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
"It's been a heck of a season so far," he said after surviving a late green-white-chequered finish to cross the line half a second ahead of Jeff Gordon. "We're finally here. I feel like we gave away a couple already this season, so this car is fast. We're here to be a force all year.
"I'm so excited I can't even speak right now," he continued. "I'm stoked. It's super-cool. Texas Motor Speedway is one of the coolest race tracks. The first time I came here I got my butt handed to me really bad, so to win at this track means a lot."
The start of the race had been delayed by almost a full day following poor weather on Sunday that forced a postponement until just before midday on Monday. Even then, the weather was cloudy and overcast, and forecasts threatened further showers that left everyone on edge and keen to get on with the race and reach at least half-distance to ensure it would be officially in the books.
The first 11 laps of the race were run under yellow behind the safety car in an effort to warm the track up and also check that the ongoing issue with 'weepers' - water that had permeated the track and which was now oozing out of track seams - had been sufficiently resolved to allow oval racing at high speed. During this spell, a number of cars including those of Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Travis Kvapil and Justin Allgaier were caught out by high-velocity air coming from the still-circulating jet dryers and suffered some minor damage to hood and roof flaps, which NASCAR allowed them to repair on pit road without losing their track positions in the process.
The race finally got underway with a green flag, but less than two laps later the caution was back in effect after Dale Earnhardt Jr. dipped his left-front wheel into the still-wet infield grass and the #88 took off into a hard impact with the outside wall at turn 1 which left the car badly damaged and in flames, although Earnhardt himself was able to climb out of the wreck. Debris from the accident managed to impact his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson who had been running just behind, leaving the #48 with windscreen damage, and there was also some minor damage to the cars of Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger from the aftermath.
"Just didn't see the grass, didn't know the grass was down there," Earnhardt admitted. "I just didn't have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can't run through there they way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part."
After a lengthy clean-up, polesitter Tony Stewart kept the lead for the restart on lap 26 alongside his Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Kevin Harvick, but Harvick's spell at the front was shirt lived as the #4 car suddenly developed an engine problem with the Chevrolet engine sending up smoke distress signals sending him to the garage. That left Stewart with a two-second lead over Carl Edwards, who had picked up second place ahead of Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne and Jeff Gordon going into the scheduled competition caution on lap 49 to allow all teams to check set-ups and tyre wear, Stewart winning the race off pit road to lead again at the green flag, with Keselowski and Gordon soon moving up ahead of Jamie McMurray in fifth as Edwards struggled with "super loose" handling as the sun started to emerge and track temperatures started to climb.
Keselowski finally succeeded in taking the lead from Stewart on lap 78 and held it until the start of green flag pit stops which got underway from lap 91, after which Keselowski retained the lead ahead of Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon, Stewart dropping out of the top six with reduced pace on this new set of tyres. Keselowski too started to fade as the stint wore on allowing both Hamlin and Gordon to pass him, and Kyle Busch also completed the pass to put the #18 into the top three after a disappointing qualifying had left him starting from 29th place on the grid.
The start of a new round of green flag pit stops was signalled on lap 136 and a speeding penalty deposed Hamlin and made the lead a situation vacant for Busch to briefly try out for size on lap 145 before Gordon got back up to speed and made the pass on lap 153, going on to build up a 1.7 second lead over Busch by the time the race reached the halfway point on lap 167. The race had been uninterrupted for over a hundred laps by the time the fourth caution of the day came out on lap 176 for Kurt Busch sliding into the infield grass at turn 4, and Gordon beat Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer in the race off pit to lead at the restart on lap 184.
Keselowski had put all but 14 cars a lap down and had just been joined at the front by his Penske team mate Logano when Kurt Busch went into a power slide through turn 1 following a flat left front tyre, bringing out a new caution on lap 220. Keselowski won the race off pit road ahead of Logano and Kyle Busch, while Gordon dropped to fourth in front of Bowyer and Hamlin, but it was Logano who took to the front for the first time of the day at the restart on lap 227. A debris caution followed on lap 255, and while Logano retained the lead second was now in the hands of Gordon ahead of Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch with Hamlin in sixth place, and Bowyer forced to pit a second time with a missing lug nut before the restart on lap 260.
Logano pulled out a lead of over five seconds over Keselowski who had quickly recouped second from Gordon, but there was still one final round of pit stops required before the finish which got underway just before lap 300. Biffle was the big gainer, climbing into third ahead of Kyle Busch, but the final stops did nothing to disturb the Penske lock-out at the front. It looked as if the race would finish without further yellows in which case Logano had his provisional Chase place locked and loaded, but then fate intervened in the form of Kurt Busch who suffered his third incident of the day - smacking into the outside wall in turn 2 after another left rear tyre failure. It came just seconds before Logano was able to take the white flag, which meant that the green-white-chequered restart came into effect with Logano's lead over Keselowski wiped clean.
Gordon and Vickers both took two right side tyres only to give them the front row for the restart ahead of Logano and Keselowski, who along with the rest of the leaders had gone for four fresh tyres for the occasion, but Keselowski's hopes were promptly extinguished when he was given a pit lane speeding penalty that promoted Kyle Busch up to fourth alongside Logano, who was determined not to lose out after coming so close. He quickly dispatched Vickers leaving just Gordon still ahead at the white flag, but going through turn 2 for the last time Logano was able to pull off a pass and make a run for the finish line, while behind them Busch was able to dispatch Vickers but ran out of time before he could depose Gordon from second spot.
Logano's victory makes him the youngest ever winner at Texas Motor Speedway at 23 years, 10 months, 14 days and he is also the seventh different winner in the first seven races of 2014 - a statistic that could well have significant impact on the Chase as there are only 15 spots in the Chase for race winners, with the tie-breaker in the event of more being the number of wins followed by championship points. That could mean that some of those who felt they were locked in by winning a race already might not be as secure as they had initially assumed.
Despite missing out on the win on Monday, Jeff Gordon goes top of the Cup championship standings, four points clear of Matt Kenseth. Carl Edwards is in fourth despite falling back to 14th place in Texas, while Logano rises four spots to fourth just ahead of Kyle Busch. The other drivers to have won a race already in 2014 aside from Logano are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Kyle and Kurt Busch.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings