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Anxious night nets a career first for Logano

September 08, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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First Chase berth doesn't come easy for 23-year-old

RICHMOND, Va. -- Joey Logano stood on pit road at Richmond International Raceway smiling his usual huge smile, a new cap on his head commemorating his berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. His mirth belied the anxiety the Penske Racing driver had to endure to crack the NASCAR postseason for the first time.

“Talk about stress,” Logano said. “I’m 23, and I don’t have any hair left.”

It would have been easy to understand had he ripped it all out in frustration. Logano entered the regular-season finale eighth in points and needing a finish of 11th or better to guarantee his first playoff berth, but his No. 22 car was balky from the beginning and he was two laps down before anyone realized what had happened. With Jeff Gordon charging back from an early loose wheel and Ryan Newman bidding to win the race, what should have been an easy night for Logano instead turned into a grinder right down to the wire.

Never, perhaps, had he been more thankful for a 22nd-place finish that matched his car number. Never, perhaps, had he been more grateful for a wave-around rule that allowed him to get one of his laps back at the very end of the race, and let him pass the two cars he needed to pass to edge Gordon by a point for the 10th and final Chase spot awarded through the standings.

“That was terrible. Man, that’s just scary,” he said. “Obviously, it was just off. It was just off from Lap 1, and I was just trying to hang on to it all night. We got the car better throughout he race, it was just tough to get it as good as we needed to be. We got it to where we could possibly be a lead-lap car, but you’re two laps down. It’s hard to make that up.”

It was a precarious position to say the least. As one of only a few cars two laps down, Logano wasn’t able to pass anyone in the running order. Gordon, meanwhile, got back on the lead lap after his early problem and at one point nosed ahead of Logano in the standings -- until Clint Bowyer spun to bring out the final caution with six laps remaining.

It was the break Logano needed. Crew chief Todd Gordon opted to forego pitting and instead take a wave-around, putting Logano one lap down, and lining up two vehicles ahead of his driver that the No. 22 car was able to pass. Combined with Gordon falling back on the final restart, it allowed Logano to seize the 10th position by a single point.

Through it all, Logano had no clear idea of where he ran in relation to the other drivers he was battling for the Chase. “I didn’t know anything. I just sat in the car and hoped for the best, and did the best that I could do,” he said.

“I didn’t know who was leading the race and what was going on. I didn’t know what happened, what Newman was doing, and who was in and out, and what was going on up front. Every time I asked Todd, he didn’t’ really give us a fire-fire answer. I’m like, ‘Hmm, that means he’s adding things up and it’s way too close.’ I was just glad to see the checkered flag.”

And with it, the first playoff berth for a driver who earlier this season won his third career race, and took a big step forward in his first campaign as a teammate to Brad Keselowski. The reigning Sprint Cup champion finished 17th Saturday and missed out on the Chase, leaving Logano to carry the flag for Roger Penske’s organization beginning next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

“First time for me, so it’s a big accomplishment in my career,” Logano said. “But we’re not going to stop here. We’ve shown in races leading up to this that this (No. 22) team is very, very strong, capable of winning the championship. We’re going to completely forget about tonight and the way we ran, because it wasn’t pretty. But I know we’re a lot better than that, and when he get to some mile-and-a-halfs, that’s where this car is going to really stand out. We’ve just got to play it smart, and now we can go for it. Now we can go have some fun.”

Saturday night’s struggles were an anomaly for a team that had finished eighth or better over its previous six starts, earning more points than anyone else over that span.

“I think at the beginning of the season, if you looked at the oddsmakers, they said he wouldn’t make the Chase. I saw a young man that had courage, that certainly was committed to the team,” Penske said. “He and Brad built a relationship here that I think is one of the best on pit row. And he just got better and better and better. I think he got confidence, and you could see his driving ability here in the latest part of the season with the finishes he’s had. But the main thing people have to realize is, he’s only 23 years old. So this kid is on his way. First time he’s been in the Chase, and I’m proud to say he’s in one of our cars.”

Although Logano made the Chase by one point -- the winless Gordon technically came up two points short, since the Penske driver held the tiebreaker -- he’ll enter his first Chase as the No. 6 seed in the playoff by virtue of his victory earlier this year at Michigan. To get there, he overcame a penalty for a rear-end violation at Texas Motor Speedway that cost him 25 points -- Keselowski also was handed a 25-point infraction.

“We gave him a 25-point bogey with the Texas problem,” Penske said. “For me to think he’s come so far so fast, it’s really reassuring to the team and the guys who have built some good cars. It takes a whole team effort, and this kid is in the shop every day working out. When we’re down, he’s up, and that’s what it takes, like Rick Mears was on the Indy side. We didn’t have some good days, but Rick was always talking about what we did well. That’s where this kid is. I take my hat off to him.”

The stress of making the Chase now behind him, Logano turns his focus to much bolder aspirations -- like winning it. Earlier in the week, Keselowski said his teammate would be his championship pick based on how the No. 22 car had performed in recent weeks.

Saturday night’s whiff did nothing to deter that.

“This team can do it,” Logano said. “We showed all year that we were Chase-caliber, and I feel like we’re championship-caliber now. We’re going to forget about how we ran tonight, put that in the past, and look forward.”

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