KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — So many drivers studied NASCAR’s new championship Chase format and singled out the second round as the one they feared the most.
The difficult three-race stretch of Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega will knock four drivers from the field, and none wanted their championship hopes to be dependent on a good day at Talladega. It meant they had to be solid in the opener of the second round at Kansas Speedway, a notorious track for whittling the field of championship contenders.
Kansas lived up to its reputation Sunday as four Chase drivers finished 22nd or worse in a race that was plagued by tire problems for several contenders. The victory went to Joey Logano, who earned an automatic berth into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and can breathe easier the next two races.
“This is nice to get this win and get us through to the next round and not have to worry about Talladega,” Logano said. “We came into here thinking we need a solid finish — we can’t win the championship (at Kansas) but we can definitely lose it.”
That was the harsh reality for six-time and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, and Logano’s Team Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski.
Johnson was wrecked early and finished 40th, Earnhardt had a tire problem while leading that caused him to wreck and finish 39th. Keselowski was 36th after his tire problem and Kahne thought a tire issue caused him to hit the wall and finish 22nd.
Johnson was level-headed as he spoke from the garage while his crew tried furiously to repair the damage.
“It just means we’ve got to be on our game at Charlotte and Talladega,” Johnson said. “We’ll see how the other Chasers fare. If I can get taken out today, somebody else can later in this event or at Charlotte. Certainly need W’s, I would assume, going forward.”
Earnhardt, who led 45 laps, was encouraged by his best performance so far in this Chase even if he didn’t have the result to show for his effort.
“Just the whole surface of the tire unwound like a string. It just came off the tire and it popped off the corner,” Earnhardt said. “Man, that was a great race car. We hadn’t been running very good the last several weeks.”
Keselowski, one of the most vocal drivers about how frightening he found this stretch of the Chase, was not as optimistic. Although he visited teammate Logano in Victory Lane, he was clearly unhappy with his chances taking a hit because of a problem with his Goodyear tire.
“It was a game of Russian Roulette and it was our turn at the gun,” Keselowski said. “It was Dale Jr.’s turn at the gun earlier.”
The tire issues clearly concerned other drivers in the field. Kevin Harvick, who led 61 laps, pitted from third when he thought his right front tire was flat.
Crew chief Rodney Childers reported to Harvick that all the tires were fine, but the damage was done: Harvick had dropped to 23rd, was out of contention for the victory and had to charge his way back to a 12th-place finish. He apologized to his crew over his radio.
“I thought I had a flat tire and pitted because you see all the trouble that is going on,” he said after the race, explaining his car simply “didn’t turn.”
With only eight of 12 drivers advancing after Talladega, there’s a ton of ground for some very big names to make up in two races. A win over the next two weeks guarantees them a spot in the third round, which begins Oct. 26 at Martinsville. The field will be cut once more after three races and the four remaining drivers will race for the championship at the finale.
Team owner Roger Penske was on both sides of the triumph and heartbreak on Sunday as he celebrated with Logano but worried about Keselowski’s fate. The 2012 champion goes to Saturday night’s race ranked in the bottom four of the Chase standings with Kahne, Earnhardt and Johnson.
“He’s got two more races. We’ve got to focus on Charlotte,” Penske said. “These races, when they’re over, they’re over. Obviously we’ll do whatever we can to help him. The whole team will. But the thing we can’t do is make a big right or left turn here. We’ve got to take on the same track we’re on.”
The victory was Logano’s career-best fifth of the season and tied him with Keselowski for most in the Sprint Cup Series.
“Getting us to the next round, that’s awesome,” Logano said. “I’m having a blast this year, and we’ve got a real shot to win this championship. I feel like we’re one of the teams to beat.”
Kyle Larson — who is not part of the Chase — finished second and was followed by championship-eligible driver Kyle Busch, who finished a career-best third at a track where he has continuously seen his title hopes fall apart.
“I won today,” Busch said, “I just didn’t get champagne and a trophy.”
Martin Truex Jr. finished a season-best fourth and was followed by Chase drivers Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. Austin Dillon, a rookie, was eighth and Paul Menard and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 10.