By DONNA-BETH WEILENMAN
Joey Logano swept the Contender Round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship at Talladega, Alabama, Sunday afternoon in a controversial green-white-checker finish with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in hot pursuit.
The calamity happened behind Logano, who got the lead for good when Greg Biffle pitted for fuel during a caution with two laps to go after Jamie McMurray’s car blew its engine.
Drivers would have but one shot at a green-white-checker finish at Talladega, NASCAR decided. But on the restart, El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson and Elk Grove native Kyle Larson spun into the infield before the leaders crossed the start-finish line to begin the final laps. NASCAR ruled it wasn’t an official restart.
Meanwhile, Bakersfield native Kevin Harvick, driving a troubled car, veered to the outside to let others pass. He and his crew said their only chance for a good finish was another caution that would end the race and fix the order of finish.
On the second attempt, Logano and Earnhardt crossed the start-finish line while a dozen cars behind them crashed and spun. Harvick’s slower car drifted to the outside again, where it collided with Trevor Bayne, starting the cascade of squealing tires and crashing metal behind them. Denny Hamlin’s car caught fire, but he escaped unhurt and finished 37th.
Logano, who has never won three in a row, was ecstatic. “Can you believe that?” he said. “This is a ‘big pony’ race track and we had the horsepower.”
Behind Earnhardt came Vallejo native Jeff Gordon, striving for a fifth championship before he exits full time racing at the end of the season. “Talladega can surprise you anytime. I had a lot of fun out there,” he said. “We’re in – we’re in! That’s awesome. It’s been a crazy year for us.”
Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10.
Of other California drivers, Harvick finished 15th, Johnson was 18th, Alpine native Cole Whitt was 22nd, Larson was 24th, Riverside native Josh wise was 29th, Bakersfield’s Casey Mears was 31st, David Gilliland of Riverside was 32nd, Los Gatos native A.J. Allmendinger was 36th and Matt DiBenedetto of Grass Valley was 40th. Unlike in most sports, NASCAR keeps a full field in its playoff races.
Earnhardt’s second place wasn’t good enough to keep him in the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR’s version of playoffs. The crash ended Hamlin’s run, too. Also out after the second round are Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman.
Progressing along with Logano and Gordon into the Eliminator round are Edwards, Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Harvick, the reigning champion, and Kurt and Kyle Busch, who finished Sunday one spot behind his older brother.
The Eliminator round takes racers to Martinsville, Virginia; Fort Worth, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona. The four with the best rankings at the end of that round will battle for the championship in Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida for the season’s final race Nov. 22.
Broadcast of the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway starts at 10:15 a.m. Sunday on NBC Sports.