It was so close to being a great year for Roger Penske’s NASCAR Sprint Cup teams.
Joey Lagano began the season with a victory at the Daytona 500, and after the second elimination round, both he and teammate Brad Keselowski were in contention to make the Championship 4 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But a great racing pass by six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, an intentional revenge wrecking by Matt Kenseth and lots of rain in the desert of Phoenix led to Keselowski and Logano missing out on the title run at the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
All the teammates could do was try for a statement victory Sunday.
And they did, leading 158 of the 267 laps in the final race.
But in the end, Logano’s team made a couple of costly mistakes with car adjustments and a bad pit stop, and Keselowski was done in by an ill-timed caution for debris with only 11 laps to go.
Keselowski was winning the final race and was in good position to hold off second-place Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch, who was comfortably in third with nearly a nine-second lead over Kevin Harvick in the battle for the championship.
But then came the caution. Busch’s team owner, Joe Gibbs, could not hide his anger. As it turned out, however, the caution was just the opportunity that Busch needed to win the race — and seal the championship.
The big loser on the caution was Keselowski. He decided to take the inside lane, which surprised Busch.
“I don’t really know if there was a right one or a wrong one to be honest,” Keselowski said. “We just weren’t fast enough, and I don’t think it would have mattered either way.”
Said Busch: “I don’t know if Brad spun his tires or what.”
Keselowski, who finished seventh in the points standings, said his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford just was not fast enough at the end to hold off Busch and Harvick on the restart.
Keselowski finished third, just ahead of Logano, who had passed Busch and Harvick to lead the race at the halfway mark.
“We had a few good runs and made an adjustment that just took it out of the track,” said Logano, who finished with a season-best six victories and sixth in the points standings. “By the time we got it back, we lost too much track position.”
Logan said a bad pit stop under green also proved costly.
“We couldn’t redeem ourselves after a couple mistakes [Sunday night],” he said.
Who knows how the night would have been different if either Logano or Keselowski was in the hunt for the championship.
Logan’s six victories included three in a row during the Contender round of the playoffs. He was headed to victory at Martinsville, the first race in the final elimination round, when he was intentionally wrecked by Kenseth.
It was payback for a collision at Kansas, where Logano spun Kenseth to win a race that Kenseth needed to advance in the playoffs.
Kenseth seethed about the incident for the next two weeks until he lost it at Martinsville. He had been wrecked by Keselowski. When Kenseth returned his damaged car to the track nine laps down, he made sure Logano did not get the win. The retaliation cost him a two-week suspension and led to a Jeff Gordon victory and Gordon’s chance to retire as a champion.
Keselowski was headed to victory at Texas. He had been dominating the race, starting from the pole and leading 312 of the 334 laps. But he couldn’t hold off Johnson, a master at the 1.5-mile track in Texas. Johnson passed him with four laps to go to win his third consecutive race at Texas and his fifth victory in his past seven races there.
Both Keselowski and Logano needed to win at the penultimate race at Phoenix. But they did not get the chance to go the full distance. After a seven-hour rain delay to start the race, the skies opened again after the race hit the midway point. It never let up. The race was called, and neither Penske driver was in first.