Joey Logano became the season's fifth three-time winner in a thrilling Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday. The No. 22 joined teammate Brad Keselowski with three wins each, fully completing the swing in performance he built since finishing 40th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Penske Racing's one-two finish Saturday night could signal that they will be serious challengers for the Sprint Cup when the Chase for the Championship begins after just two more races.
Saturday night's outing at Bristol delivered everything the fans expect from a short-track race. There was close racing with plenty of contact, angry drivers, and battles throughout the field. It was an incredibly competitive race that saw a number of different drivers take their turns out front. The teams that were able to make their cars work in traffic ultimately prevailed, but the race offered plenty of opportunities to use different it strategies as well.
Joey Logano - Logano was the first car to run down Kenseth for the lead after NASCAR's competition caution. By the halfway mark he had led just shy of 30 laps, and was a solid top-5 contender. By the time the race was approaching its conclusion, Logano found himself chasing down Kenseth again, ultimately making a pass for the lead with less than 50 laps remaining. Logano took advantage of solid pit work to give himself that opportunity, but deserved to be at the front after having such a strong night. In the remaining laps he held off teammate Keselowski, firmly wresting control of Penske Racing's momentum. Logano has just one top-5 in Atlanta, but he still carries plenty of upside potential.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth used a two-tire stop under NASCAR's competition caution to vault into the lead, which he held until the lack of grip allowed others to catch him. It didn't take too long for a caution to give Kenseth a chance to change those tires, but he had slipped a few positions by then. Throughout the race distance he held station inside the top 10, and worked to make sure he could challenge at the finish. Another gutsy call to not stop under a late caution gave the No. 20 track position, but it wasn't enough to hold off the two Penske Racing teammates. Kenseth did well to finish third on old tires, though, and can hopefully look forward to scoring his 2014 wins in the new Chase format.
Jamie McMurray - When the spoils are on the line McMurray can typically come up big. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been a contender often this season, but hasn't sealed the deal. He came to the fore about halfway through Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race, and made sure the drivers behind him would have to work hard to make the pass, pulling out a substantial lead at times. Ultimately, a late caution put McMurray in traffic when he pitted and others elected to stay out. His car didn't react well after the stop, and McMurray was relegated multiple positions. It was disappointing after appearing the have the fastest car just prior. He came home in eighth position, a result that didn't reflect his full potential.
Kevin Harvick - Despite contact with Denny Hamlin when racing for the lead, Harvick looked like the No. 4 that dominated the early races of the 2014 season in Bristol. The championship contender was exceptionally fast in practice, and set a track record when he qualified on pole for Saturday's race. He quickly jumped out to lead ahead of Jeff Gordon and battled other contenders all night. The final caution and pit stops dropped Harvick down the order, but after leading 75 of the race's laps he has to feel his confidence building with just two more races remaining until the Chase. This team has overcome its midseason slump, and could come out of the gate swinging in Chicago.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin was leading when Kevin Harvick misjudged the exit of his turn, tapping Hamlin in the rear and sending the No. 11 spinning. Hamlin's car bounced off of the inside wall, and then collected Dale Earnhardt Jr., effectively ending the night for both drivers. Upset with the incident, Hamlin threw his HANS device at Harvick under caution, and may see action from NASCAR as a result. Bristol's contact ended a two-race run of top-10 finishes, and tallies just his second finish outside of the top 10 since finishing 42nd at Kentucky in June. Hamlin had been building momentum for the Chase, and will now need to start over this week in Atlanta where his average finish is 17.8.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt was an innocent bystander in Hamlin's crash, which ended up sheering off the entire driver's side of his car. Damage was extensive, and it eliminated Jr. from the possibility of scoring a decent finish once the team made the decision to go behind the wall for repairs. Earnhardt has had a wonderful 2014 season to date, though, and Atlanta is another track where he has won in the past. His eight top-5s and 12 top-10s at the Georgia oval give him an average finish of 12.3. The Hendrick cars have had a lot of speed recently, which could be just one more thing going Earnhardt's way to help him erase the damage he took from Bristol.
Kyle Busch - Busch's bad luck continued Saturday night. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was hit with a speeding penalty during the first round of pit stops, and then was tagged from behind by Clint Bowyer as the No. 18 slowed to avoid cars colliding ahead of him. The incident wouldn't have been near him had the speeding penalty not put him in traffic. The pace of the race leaders was such that Busch never fully recovered after making repairs, and was multiple laps down to the leaders as the race hurried to its conclusion. Busch has now missed finishing inside the top 10 in four consecutive races, which is not the streak he wants to be on as the Chase approaches.
Aric Almirola - Almirola's run of terrible luck continued last week. He was the one that came off the worst of the race's first major incident. Almirola had been working his way through the field after starting at the rear, but contact in a chain-reaction incident put his car on the back of a tow truck. It has now been six races since Almirola last finished inside the top 10, and only once in that span has he even finished in the top 20. The team is confidently in the Chase, but will need a massive turnaround in form to advance much further than the first knockout round. Richard Petty Motorsports worked a miracle to get here, and the team will need another to turn things around.
Marcos Ambrose - A potentially strong finish Saturday night for Ambrose was thwarted by a flat right-rear tire before 200 laps were complete. The Australian typically races well at the short tracks, but was bitten by bad luck on Saturday. He quickly lost laps to the leaders and suffered contact later in the running, which forced a finish deep in the order. Chances for the No. 9 to make the Chase are rapidly slipping away, and a berth in the playoffs don't appear likely at the moment. In eight tries at Atlanta Motor Speedway Ambrose has only scored one top-10 finish. His average result there is 20.2, so he'll need to deliver something special to make a mark this week.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - After a dismal season in 2014 Stenhouse must be wishing that the entire 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule would be made up of races at Bristol. His best finish of the season, second, came in March's Bristol race, and he backed up that performance with a solid top-10 run Saturday night. It had been five races since Stenhouse scored a top-10, and he only managed to nab two in the last 15 races before bagging another at Bristol. By all accounts Stenhouse should be feeling like he is on shaky ground after this season, but nights like Saturday will do a lot for his confidence. Last year he started on pole in Atlanta, finishing 16th, but a return to the scene of that effort should be good news for this team as well.