By David Morgan, Associate Editor
FORT WORTH, Texas – What seemed to be a run of the mill NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway flipped a switch in the closing laps, wreaking havoc among some of the Playoff drivers.
The trouble started on Lap 300, when smoke began billowing from underneath Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford, signaling an expired engine and the end of his day.
Already at a points deficit entering the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500, Logano didn’t quite have the race he needed, finishing the first stage in 16th and the second stage in 12th, while challenging for a top-10 when his engine troubles appeared.
Taking his car to the garage, Logano would fall to 28th on the leaderboard by the time the checkered flag flew, dropping him 43 points under the cut-off line, which puts him in win or go home position over the next two weeks at Kansas and Martinsville – both tracks where Logano has won in the past.
“It just kind of let go,” Logano said. “It is one of those days when nothing went right. The strategy didn’t go the way we wanted it to early in the race. Cautions didn’t fall the way we hoped they would and every time we started fighting our way back something happened and we ended up like this. Now we know what we have to do these next two weeks. We better go find a way to win.
“We came back from the rear three times throughout the race. I’d like to know how we would be if we just picked it up and put it in a top-three spot. Maybe we would be okay. We have to move on. It is what it is now. We can’t change it. Not many points today, so that is a bummer. We will be fighting from here.”
Finishing the day in 25th, Martin Truex Jr. joined Logano as a Playoff driver that would finish the race behind the wall in the garage.
Truex’s trouble came on Lap 321 when Daniel Suarez made contact with him in Turn 3, sending Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hard into the outside wall. Though his crew made an effort to try and fix the car, the damage was just too much as he climbed from his battered machine and took the mandatory ride to the Infield Care Center.
“I was definitely running tight trying to get all we could and maybe I squeezed him (Daniel Suarez), maybe he came up, I’m not sure,” said Truex. “I don’t even know if we touched. I got loose and when I gathered it up (shown replay). Yeah, we touched for sure. It’s really fast right there and yeah, hit the splitter and went straight to the fence. Tough spot to have contact like that. I don’t know. It is what it is.”
For his part in the wreck, Suarez was unapologetic about the contact, saying: “I don’t know what the f*** he was trying to do, man. I was right there all the time. I feel bad for him. I’m sorry, but I was there, man. I just can’t lift anymore. We’ve got to go.”
The incident cost Truex some 28-points in the standings, moving him from six-points up to 22-points down, with two races left to lock himself into the championship race. So, what will Truex’s game plan be over the course of the next two weeks?
“Try to win one of them, I guess,” the 2017 Cup champion replied.
Denny Hamlin also ran into trouble on two separate occasions late in the race, but luck fell his way as things played out and he was able to rebound to an 11th place finish, salvaging what could have been a much worse outcome for the winner of two races in the 2021 Playoffs.
Making contact with fellow Playoff contender Ryan Blaney on the restart following the Lap 306 red flag, Hamlin’s trouble would begin shortly thereafter as the contact would lead to a tire rub on Hamlin’s car, which eventually let go on lap 315, sending Hamlin for a spin down the backstretch.
After nosing into the inside wall, Hamlin was able to get his car back to pit road for his crew to get four fresh Goodyears on it, but his big break came on the ensuing restart, albeit at the expense of his teammate – Martin Truex Jr.
Following Truex’s Lap 321 crash, Hamlin’s crew had the opportunity they needed to make repairs, although it would put him at the rear of the field for the upcoming restart. Right in the eye of the storm.
Hamlin found trouble again on lap 325, getting caught up in a crash involving Chris Buescher and Chase Briscoe, damaging the front end of his Toyota.
Despite the damage, Hamlin was able to take advantage of the earlier carnage in the race and the thinned field to come home just outside the top-10, keeping a nine-point buffer over the cut-off line heading to Kansas.
“Just weren’t ourselves today in that case and then obviously getting in two wrecks at the end didn’t help, but the fact that there was a lot of attrition and the fact that the team did a phenomenal job fixing the car got us back up to P-11,” Hamlin said.
“It’s insane. I think we ended up gaining a point over the cut, somehow. I don’t know. It’s just a crazy day. The way these cars race where we are packed up for a couple laps, you just never know. It’s going to be the same way at Kansas. Hopefully we bring a fast piece there and we can go there and compete for a win.”