By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
There was a moment with about five laps to go in the Ambetter Health 400 that Joey Logano thought ‘I screwed up’ with the most dominant car of the race.
Logano had led 139 laps of the 255 completed to that point and was able to drive it through the field anytime circumstances separated him from clean air. To that point, he had done it again on the final run and had pulled himself side-by-side with leader Brad Keselowski but couldn’t bring himself to clear his former teammate.
That would have meant hanging his current Penske teammates out to dry moments after they pushed him to the lead.
“Stayed committed to the bottom because my teammates were down there,” Logano said.
There was not going to be a scenario where Logano was going to win that race having intentionally abandoned Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric.
As a result, the bottom line Logano led had fallen back to even with third-on-the-outside running Christopher Bell. That meant, at any time, Tyler Reddick in second could have dropped down to the bottom to get a push from the most dominant car of the race, a fact Logano was keenly aware of.
“I thought I messed up because there with three, four laps to go, the outside lane got like four cars cleared,” Logano said. “I thought ‘oh, man, too far back,’ (and) one of them is going to pull down in front of me. Now I’m not the leader of the lane.
“And then it all changed.”
And boy did it change quickly too.
Reddick made his move coming to the white flag, dipping to the bottom, but losing second to Christopher Bell. Too soon. Corey Lajoie got a big run on Logano and pushed the Penske 22 down the frontstretch, the defending champion carried the momentum to the outside and even with Keselowski, the 2012 champion realizing that was the moment the race was lost.
“Joey got such a huge run down the frontstretch and there was nothing I could do to stop it other than wreck all of us,” Keselowski said. “That wasn’t going to do us any favors.”
No, especially not potentially wrecking all the car from the organization that lent him a vast majority of his Cup Series success and riches, and another driver he really admires in Corey Lajoie.
But ultimately, Logano was just not going to be denied with a set-up that was obviously the class of the field, a result that was important given the disadvantages Ford has to the rest of the field early this season.
They have not been particularly strong on the intermediates and lone short track this year, but they are really good in terms of horsepower and trimmed out superspeedway-style races.
It’s a win Logano, or at least any of his teammates or Ford stablemates, needed given the early dynamic of the campaign.
“It’s an indication of the direction we went,” Logano said. “I think it’s pretty obvious. I think the whole garage knows what direction we’ve gone at this point, where our strengths are going to be, where our weaknesses are going to be.
“Our strengths definitely obviously when you see a top eight qualifying is Fords, you pretty much know what the strengths are at that point, right? It’s pretty easy to see it.
“Yeah, we knew we needed to come here and maximize our day. Stage win, a pole, leading a bunch of laps, almost had a second stage win if I didn’t make a mistake there. Ultimately at least I didn’t make a mistake on the last lap.”
He said that with a smile, but really a lot of credit goes to the usually aggressive Keselowski, for taking care of all the Blue Ovals up front too. There has always been a lot of admiration and respect between Keselowski and Logano in superspeedway races and that showed here at this still-new Atlanta hybrid too.
“I would like to see a replay to see what I could have done, but right now, I don’t think there was anything else I could do,” Keselowski said.
And it’s true, because once Logano took that push from Lajoie, it was ‘game over’ as best described by the Penske 22 driver.
“My car was able to take a push really well,” Logano said. “When Corey clobbered me at the start/finish line, that gave me such a big run. I thought it’s going to be close to clearing (Bell). I think I can. I committed to the move.
“It was either he was going to have to release the wheel, lift. I was going to come up. When you get a run like that on the last lap, you can’t lift. You just can’t. Brad saw I was on the bottom, so he’s going to block the bottom initially. So, I have to go where he’s not. Where he’s not is going to be up the racetrack.
“I had to get up there and try to slip to his outside. Ultimately, that’s the move that was going to win the race, right? If I got to his inside, you have a chance, maybe a 20 percent chance of winning the race depending on what kind of push you get down the backstretch. Most likely we were not going to win the race.
“When I had a big enough run, open the wheel, get to his outside here, that was kind of the difference maker. Once I broke the plane, pulled him back, it was pretty much game over for him.”
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