It was the first of three opportunities to earn an automatic berth in the Championship Four so it might seem the 2018 First Data 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway was no more or less important than the two races that followed it.
But Joey Logano believes otherwise.
“That was THE championship race for us because it was a must-win (situation),” Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, said. “Even though it was the first race of that round, the advantage that gave us into Miami was huge.”
Although Logano dominated, leading 309 of the 500 laps around the tight, flat, 0.526-mile track, it was no runaway.
In fact, it took a last-lap pass coming out of the final turn to seal the victory. It took contact from Logano, who nosed leader Martin Truex Jr. out of the racing groove. And it concluded with the two cars momentarily sideways as each sped toward the finish line, just ahead of a fast-closing Denny Hamlin.
It was one of the most exciting finishes of the entire ’18 season, if not the most exciting.
“It should never have happened,” Logano said of the last-lap contact, but he’s not apologizing for what transpired. “If the car was balanced just a tic better, we would have pulled away and (it) would have been a lot easier.
“Hey, it made for a great race and I think everyone enjoyed it. There was a lot of side-by-side racing, bumping and banging, grinding all the way to the finish line. If you’re a race fan, that’s cool. To me, I’m a race fan and I thought it was as cool as could be.”
Truex, who wound up third, wasn’t pleased, noting that he had caught and passed Logano without any contact. “He may have won the battle, but he ain’t winning the damn war,” the Furniture Row Racing driver fumed afterward.
Logano said there was “discussion” between the two competitors at a later date. “It took a little bit,” he said, “to get both of us away from the fire enough to think logically."
“But I look back at it and say if I didn’t win that race, I’m not sitting here as the champion. That was pretty much a key win."
“I think we had to win that race. It was sitting there in front of me and I had to take it; I had to take it. I’ve said before, the goal was never to wreck him, it was never to back him into the fence like we’ve seen there in the past. The goal was to move him over enough to have a drag race to the finish line and that’s what we had.”
This year’s First Data 500 is scheduled for Oct. 27 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, SiriusXM NASCAR) and once again kicks off the Round of Eight for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
In addition to the MENCS race, the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is set for Oct. 26 (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1)
Such close-quarters racing is the norm at Martinsville, which has been hosting NASCAR premier series events since 1949. The track’s unique layout – tight turns and short straightaways – keeps drivers packed tightly together, on their toes and on their brakes.
“You just have this accordion effect when you accelerate, the cars spread out and then you brake, and they come right back to each other,” Logano said. “You’re right on the car in front of you, just bumping and banging. You can’t get away. It’s hard to get a couple of clean laps to get spread out and get away.
“But I will say Martinsville has been really cool lately since the track seems to widen out. Goodyear has brought a different tire and the track seems to be a little wider. That is a good thing.”
The victory was Logano’s first at Martinsville, and one of 23 for the Connecticut native heading into this year’s playoffs.
“Martinsville is special,” he said. “You want to have a Martinsville win (on your resume). You want to have a Darlington win; you want to have an Indy win, a Charlotte win. Those are the ones that kind of stand out to me.
“Martinsville is on that list – Daytona and those others that stand out. It’s an old track and it’s been there forever. You want to have your name on the list of winners there for sure.”