With just enough fuel, Logano takes checkered flag in Michigan

Joey Logano celebrates in victory lane after winning Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, helping his chances to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. (Reuters News Service)

Joey Logano celebrates in victory lane after winning Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway, helping his chances to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. (Reuters News Service)

BROOKLYN, Mich. — In what could be a season-changing finish, Penske Racing driver Joey Logano won his first Sprint Cup race of 2013 in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Not only did the victory allow Logano to climb from 16th to 13th in the standings — leaving him just 17 points out of 10th place in the points race — more important for Logano is that he’s now among the small group of potential candidates to secure one of the two wild-card berths to make the Chase for the Championship.

But Logano said in victory lane that he believes he can win each of the remaining three races before the Chase and hopes to qualify for the 10-race playoff with a guaranteed berth in the top-10 rather than worry about the uncertainty of claiming a wild-card berth.

It was Logano’s first win for Penske Racing, which he joined this season, and his first Sprint Cup win since June 2012 at Pocono.

Kevin Harvick finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. Sixth through 10th were Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle (who won the last two races at MIS) and Carl Edwards.

As is often the case at MIS, fuel mileage was the name of the game. Mark Martin was leading the race but ran out of fuel with four laps to go. On the flip side, Logano drove methodically behind Martin, saved enough fuel when he needed it and then carried that momentum to the checkered flag.

Ironically, the race was won — or in this case, lost — on the final caution and resulting pit stop with 26 laps to go. Logano’s teammate, defending Sprint Cup champion and Rochester Hills, Mich., native Brad Keselowski, looked like he was headed to his first career win at his home track.

But Keselowski was forced to give up the lead and pit for fuel and right side tires. Crew chief Paul Wolfe thought the No. 2 Ford would wind up three to four laps short on fuel and he called for Keselowski to come in, even though it likely cost him the race. Keselowski finished 12rh.

Martin, meanwhile, took over and appeared headed for the win, even though he knew he likely didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the finish.

The race started as a caution-filled affair, with three yellow flags dropped in the first eight laps, all because of spinouts by Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann and the almost synchronized artful spins together of J.J. Yeley and Austin Dillon, filling in for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet.

Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson also struggled early. Because his team had to change engines in his No. 48 Chevrolet, Johnson had to start from the back of the field for the opening green flag.

While he worked his way up through the pack to briefly lead during the first cycle of pit stops between laps 43-46, that didn’t negate the fact that Johnson was forced to make four pit stops in the first 57 laps — only to take his car back to the garage when the backup motor blew up to end his day.

It was the latest chapter in an encyclopedia of bad luck that Johnson has written through the years at MIS. While Johnson has 64 career Cup victories, MIS is one of only five Cup tracks that he hasn’t won at previously — and now has to wait until next June for his next chance (or another failure).

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. also saw his good fate turn to misfortune with 65 laps left in the 200-lap race. Earnhardt, whose last two career Cup wins have been at MIS, was running seventh when his right front tire blew out, sending him into the wall. His team pushed the car back to the garage for repairs, but Earnhardt’s Chase hopes took a serious hit.

With 43 laps left, Kyle Busch lost control of his Toyota and slammed into the wall, ending his hopes of winning. Busch finished 31st.

Earlier, Kurt Busch took over the lead from Logano after the first 28 laps and led 14 before pitting. Unfortunately, a lug nut slipped away during service, dropping Busch brother from first to 15th after his stop.

NOTES: When MIS was repaved more than a year and a half ago, it was expected that speeds would pick up maybe 2 or 3 mph. But with Logano’s qualifying speed of 204 mph (203.949 mph) and Greg Biffle hitting 222 mph in Saturday’s practice, MIS has vaulted to the top of the list of the fastest racetracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, supplanting the two former fastest tracks, Atlanta and Texas. … Rumor has it that Martin may be driving at least one of the upcoming races for Stewart, who is sidelined indefinitely with a broken leg. Martin is running part time for Michael Waltrip Racing and will be moving on at season’s end, with his future plans still unknown.