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NASCAR Barometer: Logano Wins Alabama 500 as Field Narrows

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2015 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Joey Logano overcame a disastrous first pit stop Sunday at Talladega to win and advance to the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The victory was an upset by Penske Racing, who had fallen behind the competition in recent weeks. Teammate Brad Keselowski dominated the race until his engine expired, but Ford otherwise overachieved after losing ground to both Toyota and Chevrolet in recent weeks.

The next three races will set the stage for the final showdown in Miami to determine which driver will hoist the Sprint Cup at the end of the campaign. Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. will be on the outside looking in. The next round of Chase eliminations commences this week in Martinsville and will end with half of the remaining drivers to battle for the top finish in Miami in the winner-take-all season finale.

UPGRADE

Joey Logano – Logano left pit road with the jack still attached to the car in his first pit stop of Sunday’s race. He had to return to pit road to remove the jack, which also caused the penalty assessed because of removing equipment from the pit box. That issue was not enough to hold him back from working his way to the front of the field to win Sunday’s race and advance into the next round. The next three-race round starts anew for the No. 22 and everything still is left to fight for. Logano has started on pole for each of the last three races at Martinsville but has a best finish of second at the track, which came all the way back in 2010.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin did the opposite of his teammates at Talladega on Sunday and started the race fighting at the front of the field. That strategy paid off for the No. 11 team as Hamlin was within striking distance of victory, which was just enough to ensure his place in the final eight drivers still in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Things may even get better for the team this week. Hamlin has five career Martinsville wins. He crashed out of the race there earlier this season, but with the championship on the line, he should be capable of much more this week. Before that DNF he had a run of three consecutive top-10 finishes at the track.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse has never been a stranger to success on superspeedways. Sunday’s race in Talladega proved to be more of the same for the driver of the No. 17 machine. He started the race in sixth position and successfully navigated all 500 miles to close out the afternoon with a fifth-place finish, his fourth top-five of the season. Roush Fenway Racing hasn’t had much to be proud of in recent seasons, but Stenhouse’s performance on Sunday is one of those rare opportunities to pat themselves on the back. The team continues to improve nearly every week, and that bodes well for a complete return to form in 2017. Next week is Martinsville, however. Stenhouse has never finished in the top-10 there.

Kurt Busch – Arguably the best driver yet to win a restrictor-plate race showed again why he should never be counted out at Talladega or Daytona. The Stewart Haas Racing driver started seventh and outlasted faster machines to finish fourth last week. That was enough to advance to the next round of the championship, and that could be all Busch needs to remain in contention to win a second championship in Miami. Everything restarts for the remaining Chase contenders this week in Martinsville, and the next three races will determine who fights for the title in Miami. Prospects look good for Busch, who has two circuits wins along with at least 20 laps led in four of the last five races there.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski – Sunday’s race seemed to be Keselowski’s race to win. The driver started on the front row and dominated much of the distance until overheating caused an engine failure late in Sunday’s race. The failure came at the worst possible time and put his championship hopes to bed. To make things worse, Penske Racing has been slipping behind the rest of the competition and may struggle to score victories in the final races of the season. Keselowski hasn’t won at Martinsville, but he did finish second at the track last season. Still, any top finish will come too late for the No. 2 team. Their season is virtually over, and fifth in the standings is the best they can hope for.

Martin Truex Jr. – A rare blown engine proved disastrous for Truex in Talladega. The Furniture Row Racing team was the first to suffer a detrimental issue in Sunday’s race, which put the nail in the coffin of Truex’s championship dreams. After the strongest season in his career, Truex was unable to advance to the final eight drivers eligible to win the Sprint Cup due to the mechanical failure on Sunday. It was a heartbreaking outcome for the team that arguably has been one of the strongest throughout the 2016 season. His best possible finish now is fifth in points, and he will turn his attention to achieving that aim in Martinsville. Truex finished 18th at that track earlier this season and has a best finish of fifth.

Chase Elliott – Circumstances conspired against Elliott having success again on Sunday. The Hendrick Motorsports driver did all he could to move forward in the race on Sunday but was unable to move far enough to earn a spot in the next round of the Chase. The young driver has been one of the most promising rookies of recent seasons, but his championship run has come to an end. However, he can still fight for wins and one may very well come before the season ends. Martinsville may not be that venue, however. In two Sprint Cup starts at the track, his best finish is 20th, which came in the spring race earlier this season. Perhaps the championship pressure being off his shoulders will inspire stronger finishes.

Greg Biffle – What could have been a top result for Biffle ended against the wall after he collided with Jeffrey Earnhardt late in Sunday’s race. Biffle moved toward the center lane coming off of the final turn at Talladega, which was the wrong move with Earnhardt’s car directly underneath the No. 16. When the distance was complete, he was scored in the 15th position, but one wonders what could have been given the speed shown by the Ford teams throughout the Talladega weekend. The team now must look ahead to the remaining tracks. However, Biffle has never finished in the top five at Martinsville. His best finish at the track was seventh in the fall of 2007. He started 14th and finished 12th there earlier this season.

Austin Dillon – Perhaps Dillon shouldn’t have even made his way into the final 12 drivers in the Chase, but the fact is that he was there and put up a valiant fight to advance to the final eight. It wasn’t enough, though. Dillon was eliminated from the championship hunt on a tiebreaker with Denny Hamlin. A single position separated him from elimination and advancement last week at Talladega. It was a heartbreaking result for a driver who has yet to score his breakthrough victory in the series. He must now focus on building momentum for 2017. He scored his best ever Martinsville finish earlier this season; one of his four top-five finishes this year. A repeat would go a long way to banish Sunday’s disappointment.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Brian Scott – Scott landed his best-ever finish, runner-up, at Talladega on Sunday in one of the most unlikely finishes of the season. He found himself starting alongside Logano on the front row in the final restart of the race by working himself into perfect position up to that point, and he did an admirable job hanging on to the second-place spot when the overtime laps were complete. It was a remarkable finish from one of the underdogs of the sport. His best finish prior to Sunday’s race had been 12th last year at Kansas. He has one Sprint Cup start at Martinsville where he started and finished 26th, but Sunday’s result will still feel like a career day for the young driver.