By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Crunch time has finally come in the NASCAR Cup Series as the Round of 8 opener at Kansas Speedway had its moments on a cold Sunday afternoon.
In the end, Joey Logano was the man who took the checkered flag in the Hollywood Casino 400, punching his ticket in the Championship 4, which in my eye was a surprise because it hasn’t been his strongest season. Especially, that it took him this long to get another Cup win because his last victory was at Phoenix, the last race before the pandemic.
Now he’ll be fighting for his second Cup title in the last three years. Thanks in most part of being put out on clean air and holding off the top dog in NASCAR which I’ll discuss about in this latest “Instant Reaction” series.
As always, here’s my takeaways of a rather unique 267-lap contest that impacted a couple of playoff contenders.
A Silent Stage Victory and Subsequent Afternoon
Chase Elliott may have been in control early on, highlighted with a Stage 1 victory. However, the rest of the race was an absolute struggle. Not because his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE lost pace, but Elliott’s radio taking the L. Much like the state of Georgia has been defined in recent memory.
His Hendrick Motorsports crew did everything to get the radio back up without needing to plug new headphones, but it still wasn’t working 100%. Therefore, Elliott had to go old school and rely on signs and signals to make sure when things go down like a pit stop.
The Round of 8 is Elliott’s kryptonite and today may be deemed as another dark chapter. It wasn’t as catastrophic because he could hear his team under caution, but not under green which ire social media as always due to the fact NASCAR didn’t penalizing him for safety concerns. Either way, it’s not a good sign when a driver must put up with a tremendous hurdle.
Elliott still salvaged a respectable sixth-place result, but will go into Texas eight points outside the cutoff.
Championship 4 Implications
If Denny Hamlin is finally going to get that elusive Bill France Cup, mistakes can’t happen going forward.
Yes, everyone knows Hamlin is the only other guy who has rivaled Kevin Harvick for the championship with seven wins, but even Hamlin knows results can be deceiving.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 18, 2020
Today was just an example where no one’s invisible deep into the playoffs. He may have won Stage 2 after holding off Harvick, but far from the ideal result he would want due to his own doing.
While trying to fend off his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch for fifth on Lap 178, Hamlin ran a bit too hard and slapped the Turn 4 wall. The impact cut his right rear tire down, putting him out of contention for the win once making a green flag pit stop.
Fortunately for the 14th place finisher, he has an okay 20-point cushion going into Texas, but the same cannot be said with Kurt Busch, who had already overcame a pit penalty earlier only for his No. 1 Monster Energy Chevy having a rare engine disintegration on Lap 198.
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 18, 2020
Kurt’s in big time trouble with that costly DNF on what will go down as a horrible day for Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s bright as day that he must win to have any shot of making it into the Championship 4, which would be both parties first appearance.
“Everything is so buttoned up these days in the engine department. I haven’t seen an engine problem in years,” said Busch, who finished 38th.
“No fault of anybody at Hendrick engines. We’re running hard here. We were running top-five and there’s a ton of RPM down the front-straightaway with the tail wind. We were right in the mix. We were doing the deal. I just couldn’t quite clear some guys to get into that top-three or four and then our car would come back to us on the long run after about lap 30.”
Right now, I’m just gutted for the entire No. 1 team because they’ve made it this far and stuff like losing power is going to set them back horrendously. If anything, Texas and Martinsville are tracks he’s won in the past, so don’t count him out just yet despite seeing them as long shots.
No Longer the Afterthought Driver
“Joey is a good blocker,” said Harvick after finishing second.
That’s an understatement because Logano did everything to fend off Harvick from capturing his 10th win of the season in a thrilling (unless you’re the 99.6% who said it’s pathetic) green flag run to the finish.
SEE YOU IN PHOENIX!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 18, 2020
I will say Logano has been a total afterthought since the pandemic. So much that I didn’t even have him making it to Phoenix with a title opportunity.
Like most things in life, I was wrong and should’ve not been surprised that his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang would come in clutch when it matters most. That’s how he won his first title in 2018 in the first place, being a spoiler in a season where it’s been defined by a few drivers.
What I admired about Logano’s drive is how he got through lap traffic without skipping a beat and once Harvick went a bit too hard in the corners with two laps remaining, it was game over. Solid performances by both guys, but it’s Logano who got the job done for his third win of the year.
“You come into this race knowing that if you can win this thing you have an amazing advantage. The same thing happened in 2018 when we raced for the win at Martinsville knowing that we have two races to battle for nothing but the championship. I can’t believe it,” said Logano.
“Especially the way the beginning of the race was going and running back there not scoring stage points. It was a good strategy by Paul and good pit stops and now this Shell Pennzoil Mustang is going to race for a championship at Phoenix.”
Compared to Saturday’s Truck and Xfinity Series races, it was a very mild Cup race.
You didn’t have that Kansas fury we’ve seen in recent years and saw a battle unfold naturally. Sure, the product could be much better because Harvick had a hard time getting by Logano. Gotta love dirty air! But when two guys put on a show, it can be enjoyable and I’m not going to let others think otherwise. Not this week.
Is Kansas a good venue to kick off the elimination round compared to Martinsville? Maybe but I’ll give it a couple more years before coming up with a decision.
For now, it’s off to Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) for the running of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500. Austin Dillon is the most recent winner at “The Lone Star State.”