LAS VEGAS (AP) — Team Penske has a shot at two major championships this year — Joey Logano became the first driver to qualify for NASCAR's title-deciding finale with a win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We're racing for a championship! Let's go!" Logano screamed to the crowd. “All you want to do is get to the championship four when the season starts and race for a championship, and we’ve got the team to do it. I don’t see why we can’t win at this point.”
Logano, who won for the third time this season and third time at Las Vegas, is NASCAR's 2018 champion and advanced to the championship race for the fifth time in his career. Team Penske last month celebrated the IndyCar championship when driver Will Power won his second title.
Logano used a late pit stop for new tires hoping the new Goodyears would give him a shot. He gained six immediate spots, but his Ford was still in eighth on the final restart with 16 laps remaining.
Chase Briscoe restarted as the leader ahead of Justin Haley and Ross Chastain, and Chastain used a sweeping three-wide pass on the bottom of the track to take the lead. Logano charged through the field, but Chastain successfully used several blocks to hold him off.
Logano ultimately pulled alongside Chastain on the frontstretch with three laps remaining to claim the first spot in next month's championship race.
“There was a clear difference in tires there, so we fully believed that we could hold him off and win the race on the tires we had, and Joey did a good job of getting through the field,” said Chastain, who finished second in a Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing.
Kyle Busch, who was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, finished third in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Playoff drivers Briscoe finished fourth in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing and Denny Hamlin, in a Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing, came from 31st to finish fifth.
The race was the first of three in this round of NASCAR's playoffs. The eight remaining drivers will be whittled down to four for the winner-take-all finale at Phoenix next month.
With the stakes so high, the race was fraught with tension from the start and even included nearly a fight between Bubba Wallace and reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Larson. NASCAR said it will review the incident, which included what appeared to be Wallace deliberately wrecking Larson and Wallace pushing an official, and any penalties would be issued next week.
The dustup between Wallace and Larson collected Christopher Bell, who won last week at Charlotte to advance into this round of the playoffs and is now ranked last in the standings following his 34th-place finish.
“We will see if we can go pull another rabbit out of the hat,” Bell said.
Joining Bell below the cut line for elimination were William Byron, Briscoe and Ryan Blaney of Team Penske. Blaney led for 39 laps but hit the wall with what appeared to be a tire failure. He finished 28th, seven laps down.
Logano is locked in to the finale, while Chastain, Hamlin and regular-season champion Chase Elliott are above the cut line. Elliott finished 21st in an uninspiring showing in his Hendrick Motorsports entry.
“I did a really bad job all weekend,” Elliott said. “All-around poor effort on my behalf, and when you perform that poorly, you get poor results. I’m obviously missing something at places like this to compete with the gentlemen that know what they’re doing.”
CHANGES AT SHR?
Stewart-Haas Racing founder Gene Haas said the four-driver roster is being examined as he and co-owner Tony Stewart are in disagreement over who should drive the No. 41 next season.
Haas wants Cole Custer to return for a fourth season, but he said Stewart wants to put Ryan Preece in the Ford. Preece has stepped back from full-time racing this season in an effort to land a top ride; he has made two Cup Series starts with an SHR partner and three starts in the Xfinity Series.
Custer has one victory in 108 starts — it came in his 2020 rookie season — but did win an Xfinity Series race this season. He is the son of SHR president Joe Custer, a longtime confidant of Haas.
“Tony has his point of view and I'd like to see Cole back for another year, at least, but Tony has some other ideas,” Haas said. “It's pretty hard to argue with Tony because he's picked so many good drivers over the years.”
Also at issue is SHR expects two openings in its fleet in 2024. Aric Almirola had originally planned to retire after this season but changed his mind, and Haas said Kevin Harvick has indicated he doesn't plan to drive after his contract expires at the end of 2023. Haas said SHR wants Harvick to sign an extension.
“We're going to lose a couple of drivers, so we really do need to find some big-name talent to be competitive,” Haas said.
Meanwhile, SHR is appealing $200,000 in fines and an indefinite suspension of Custer's crew chief over NASCAR allegations that Custer and SHR manipulated the finish last week at Charlotte to help teammate Chase Briscoe advance in the playoffs. Haas said NASCAR “jumped the gun” with the penalties.
“They don't want people fixing races, but when someone says ‘I think you might have a flat,’ it isn't exactly a code word,” Haas said. “Cole is pretty adamant that there wasn't anything going on, so this is just some circumstances that NASCAR has interpreted in their own way.”
BUSCH SAVES HIS DAY
Kyle Busch spun at his home track, had a tire fall off his Toyota and probably will end his Joe Gibbs Racing career without his crew chief.
And he still finished third.
“Just kept fighting in it and digging hard all day long,” Busch said.
Ben Beshore is likely to receive a four-race automatic suspension as punishment for a tire coming off of Busch's car late in the race. The crowd cheered Busch's failure even though Las Vegas is his home track.
There are three races remaining in the season and Busch is leaving JGR after 15 seasons. He has signed with Richard Childress Racing for next season.
NASCAR races at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the middle race of the third round of the playoffs. William Byron won at Homestead last year, when the track was scheduled as the third event of the season.
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