Joey Logano won this week the way he lost last week – ESPN

  • WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — NASCAR has spent months trying to create an aerodynamic package that would encourage organic last-lap passes for a win. But some weeks, it doesn’t need an aerodynamic package to create the drama it wants.

    All it needs are long green-flag runs to the end that has drivers and crew chiefs wondering if they will have enough gas to make it to the finish.

    For the second consecutive week, NASCAR’s top series enjoyed a last-lap pass for the win, albeit because the leader ran out of gas.

    Last week at Pocono, it was Kyle Busch running out of gas and Matt Kenseth winning the race. On Sunday, it was Kevin Harvick‘s turn to run out of gas and Joey Logano‘s turn to celebrate with the victory in the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen.

    Fuel mileage races tend to frustrate and excite all at the same time. This is racing, after all, and racers should want to go as fast as possible every lap. This slowing down in order to make it on fuel can be for the birds.

    Just ask Logano.

    “I really have one speed, and it’s just go … and it’s really hard for me to check up,” Logano said. “When you hear that we’re right on it with gas, you just say, ‘Well, I’m going to drive this thing hard, and that’s kind of where I excel.’ “

    Logano and Busch both pitted with 32 laps remaining Sunday, but Logano didn’t worry about late cautions or whether the race could go extra laps. His win in the Daytona 500 and spot second in the standings allowed him to do that.

    Busch, needing a spot in the top 30 in points to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup (only four races remain in the regular season), planned on a late-race caution to bunch the field and opted to race conservatively in order to have enough fuel if the race ended up going extra laps. It ended up backfiring a little bit, leaving Busch in second behind Logano while Harvick coasted to the finish in third.

    “We’ve had really fast cars but the circumstances have just gotten the best of us,” said Harvick, who led a race-high 29 laps. “Hopefully we’re saving that up for the last 10 weeks [of the Chase].”

    Drivers need strong cars to win fuel mileage races. Maybe not the strongest, but one that can run in the top five (just ask last week’s winner Kenseth).

    For drivers who have a win and know they will compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, they don’t mind taking a big gamble. And don’t be surprised if it happens again next week at Michigan, a 2-mile track where NASCAR will experiment with a high-downforce package.

    “We pitted with 40 to go and before the race we thought we could go 32 laps,” Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said. “The caution laps helped. But it still was good.”

    That seems absurd. But with seven laps of caution, there was a chance.

    Busch crew chief Adam Stevens didn’t think there was any chance Harvick would make it and he banked on a late-race caution. Lo and behold, a race that had 16 cautions in the first 60 laps had none in the last 30. What in the world? The consolation prize to Busch: The four-time 2015 race-winner cracked the top 30 in the standings, six points ahead of Cole Whitt despite missing the first 11 races.

    “Points are points,” Stevens said. “I’ll take them. It just sucks. So many people can be so much more aggressive on their pit calls because they’re locked in. We’re on the cusp, and even now we’re in but we’re not locked in.

    “You’ve got to watch your back all the time. It’s tough to call a race like that. But I’m happy the car was fast.”

    Laughing at it all was Logano, who ran out of gas while leading with three laps to go at Pocono a week earlier.

    Just imagine if teams had to go through this in the Chase for the Sprint Cup? The clamoring for a road course in the Chase is high among the fan base, and while the crew chiefs had nerve-wracking but not championship-determining decisions to make Sunday, it would be different depending what was on the line.

    Busch said he probably would have the same strategy. Childers said he’d have to play it safer in the Chase.

    “It’s fun being in a situation to go for it like that,” Childers said. “I’m disappointed that we were only one corner away. But on the other hand, I’m surprised we made it that far. The engineer said we were going to run out with half a lap to go.”

    The crew chiefs could find themselves in a similar situation next week but with little data to go on. NASCAR is bringing the high-drag package used at Indianapolis to Michigan, and with drafting expected to play a critical role, crew chiefs will have to rely on limited data to determine their fuel mileage.

    Childers thinks he will have a good beat on fuel mileage after practice Friday. Logano crew chief Todd Gordon doesn’t totally know what wrinkle the new package will throw into things. Busch said they know a little bit from Indianapolis.

    “It’s a wild card, but that’s cool because it allows the race teams to kind of react to it, and it gives you opportunity,” Gordon said. “Whenever there’s a change, there’s an opportunity to have more success and to beat people in that transition to change.

    “I’m looking forward to seeing what we do next weekend there.”

    Logano already knows what he wants Gordon to do. He wants enough fuel to get to the finish and not have to conserve. That’s the way he likes to race. And at least for the moment, there’s no reason to do it any different.

    “You know coming down to these things at the end of the race, you need a caution or you want it to go green, and whatever ending you’re on, you’ve just got to work the plan,” Logano said. “And if it doesn’t work out? Well, we swung the bat.

    “That’s really the position that we’re in right now with where we are in points and with a win. We’ve got to swing the bat. What do we got to lose?”

    Oh, I don’t know, maybe a Pocono trophy? Or your sanity?

    “I could’ve raced the 22 [of Logano),” Busch said. “I could’ve passed him. I felt like I was better than he was, but my crew chief called in scared on the fuel situation from last week. And I don’t blame him.”

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