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The first seven races of the year saw a different winner every week, but now we've had two drivers score repeat wins in the last two outings - Joey Logano this week adding Richmond to the Texas win he picked up at the start of April, meaning that like Kevin Harvick he is now all-but guaranteed of being in the Chase come September.
"It feels great," said Logano when asked about how it felt to be locked-in to the post-season play-offs this early in the season. "I want to start winning some races in the Chase now. These cars right now are so good and Penske is doing such a great job with these cars right now. I am just the lucky guy that gets to drive these things.
"We kind of thought with one win you're going to be all but locked in, but this really secures you," he added. "Having a couple wins this early in the season and in two completely different race tracks make you very confident for the rest of the season."
Logano's Penske team mate Brad Keselowski had been the dominant force in the early stages of the race, the #2 having started on the front row alongside Ganassi rookie Kyle Larson who had been handed pole after NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying had been washed out at Richmond International Raceway on Friday. Larson's good luck didn't last long however - he was quickly spun out on the first lap by contact with Clint Bowyer to bring out the first caution of the evening.
"Right at the last minute, he arched it in, and I just wasn't ready for him. I tried to get on the brakes and got into him," explained Bowyer later. "I really hated that happened.
"I really like Kyle and I'm a big fan of his. Him and the #2 kind of spun their tyres [at the green flag] and I got such a big run on them and he moved up," he added. "I just wasn't ready for him. I tried to get on the brakes and just got into him. I'm so glad he didn't hit the wall. I was afraid he hit the wall and ended his night. It certainly didn't help it at all."
Larson's car was undamaged by the incident but had to take the restart at the rear, eventually going on to secure a solid midfield finish in 16th. Bowyer was ultimately not so lucky, a problem with the right front tyre setting fire to the #15 on lap 160 which saw him classified in 43rd and last place at the end of the night.
Keselowski led at the restart through to lap 31 when he was overtaken by Kevin Harvick ahead of the scheduled competition caution on lap 40. Harvick won the race off pit road but Keselowski proved too strong on fresh tyres and passed him on lap 55 to pick up the lead once more, with Hendrick pair Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also looking strong and Joey Logano muscling his way through the field to soon join the top five. Pit stops under a debris caution on lap 100 saw Keselowski drop five spots and handed the lead to Gordon. Although Keselowski quickly rebounded to second, Gordon was still able to hold him off for the lead. A debris caution and pit stops on lap 160 enabled to Keselowski to edge in front after the restart, and Logano briefly made it a Penske 1-2 before Gordon rallied and raced his way back to the front on lap 209 shortly after the midway point of the race. Keselowski had dropped to fourth behind Logano and Harvick by the time the next caution came out on lap 226 for a spin by Reed Sorenson in turn 3 following a tyre blowout.
Gordon retained the lead after the round of pit stops but now he had his hands full with Logano who managed a brief spell at the front before Gordon clamped down and reasserted his authority once more. He was again out in front when the next yellow came out, for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hitting the wall in turn 3 on lap 295. Gordon's team mate Earnhardt won the ensuing race off pit road leaving Gordon battling for second with Logano at the restart - which the youngster won, immediately going on to press home his advantage by closing up on and passing the #88 for the lead on lap 306, stretching out a solid lead over Keselowski who had followed him through into second. However both Penskes waned during the green flag laps that followed, Logano handing the lead back to Gordon on lap 338 while Keselowski slipped all the way out of the top ten.
Gordon now faced a new threat to his former domination of the evening as Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth moved forward to pick up second place from Earnhardt with fewer than 50 laps of the three-quarter mile short track remaining. Sure enough, it took Kenseth just five laps to wipe out Gordon's one second comfort margin and on lap 362 the #20 cruised past into the lead of the race for the first time of the night, just ahead of a caution on lap 369 triggered by debris from a tyre going down on Jimmie Johnson's car that allowed the field to make its final round of pit stops under yellow.
"Really thought we had a decent car and was going to run in the top-five, top ten at the worst," sighed Johnson, who had already lost multiple places with an earlier tyre issue. "We had one run where we cut a right-front and the next run another right-front. Not exactly sure why we had that issue, but we did have back-to-back tyre issues there. That really just kind of put an end to our night. We didn't have anything for the win, but I thought we could run top-five."
Kenseth led Earnhardt, Gordon and Logano off pit road with Ryan Newman up to fifth spot. The restart was aborted by a spin by Kenseth's JGR team mate Denny Hamlin on lap 377, and the next green flag was scarcely any more successful with JJ Yeley's engine blowing up on lap 384 leaving a trail of oil on the track. That meant the race was down to a nine-lap shoot-out for glory, with Kenseth taking the green flag in the lead while behind him Gordon, Keselowski and Logano went three-wide in their bid to challenge.
"The #88 in front of me didn't have the best [restart] and once we started racing there were three cars in front of me and I thought I had a shot still," Logano explained afterwards. "The #20 started blocking the top because the #2 car was so fast up top for the first 10 laps of a run, and eventually I had enough room to turn up underneath him and get enough clean air on the car to take off."
Logano took the lead with four laps to go followed by Gordon, while Kenseth and Keselowski grew distracted with their increasingly heated disagreement which continued even after the chequered flag. "It just came down to really a four way battle between the #2, the #20, the #24 and #22 and we had a great car for the short runs and we got up there challenging for the lead," said Keselowski. "The #20 car ran me off the race track so I made sure to give him a bump and that was what Joey needed to win the race."
"We were racing for the win and I thought the track was wide enough with how high people were running all the time," said Kenseth of his battle with Keselowski. "I don't know he was mad because I ran into him a little bit getting into (turn) three, but we're going for the win.
"I ran him up to the third groove or so, but I've witnessed him racing that way a lot like I think he did to Jimmie at Texas a few years ago," he added. "I thought once we got to the straightaway I left him enough room unless I wasn't clear, I need to re-watch it. I guess he's upset about that and we were all going for the win, that's what we're supposed to be doing."
The Kenseth/Keselowski clash enabled Kenseth's JGR stablemate Kyle Busch to pass them for third place, the #18 having gambled on taking four fresh tyres which enabled him to power his way up from 16th place in the final run. "Somehow I found a fourth lane out there and got around everybody, I had enough tyre grip to make that all happen. I think they had eight laps on their tyres and we came in and put tires on and we looked like heroes," said Busch, who had been fairly anonymous all evening up to that point. "I have no idea the last ten laps. I have absolutely no clue. I started 16th and finished third - that's about all I know. Pretty crazy with everything going on. I was shaking in my seat just because of how fast I was passing guys."
By contrast with Busch's elation over clinching third, Jeff Gordon was left disappointed with second place after leading for a race-best 173 laps of the 400-lap race. "Tonight we really didn't have a good short run car; we had a really good long run car - for about 40 or 50 laps it was about the best car out there," he said. "Matt was making his car really super-wide, which you've got to do to try to win, and we were just battling hard, and it just didn't come down the way that we needed it to. We needed a little bit longer run."
Further down the field, tempers flared on pit road after the race when an altercation between Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears turned physical, Mears shoving Ambrose away and the TV cameras then cathing Ambrose throwing a punch which appeared to connect before the crew members pulled the two men apart - something that will likely land the Australian in trouble with NASCAR officials when they review the race and hand out penalties. "We're looking at the video," confirmed NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, indicating that he didn't think it was anything too serious. "It doesn't seem to be much. We'll take a look Monday and Tuesday."
But that sideshow didn't distract from the celebrations in victory lane where Logano was jubilant about his fifth victory in 192 Cup races, his first at Richmond and moreover his second of the season - with all that entails. Under the new Chase format for 2014, the 15 drivers with the most wins in the first 26 races of the season make it through to the championship play-offs (provided they finish in the top 30 in points and attempt to qualify in every race.) While one win likely secures a berth providing there aren't too many one-off victories, two certainly seals the deal for a driver. With the security of being locked into the Chase with his second win, Logano said that this would gave him the freedom to really enjoy the rest of the regular season in the meantime.
"At this point we really have nothing to lose," he agreed. "It's all about going for wins and having fun out there and making sure we're ready for when the Chase starts. We've put ourselves in a good position this early in the season, and we're going to have some fun!"
The 16th person going into the Chase is the points leader (if that person doesn't already qualify on wins) and at the moment that is Jeff Gordon, whose second place at Richmond puts him five points ahead of Matt Kenseth who like Gordon is yet to secure a win so far in 2014. The other drivers to have claimed victory so far this season are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Kyle and Kurt Busch.
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