They raced three-wide across Daytona International Speedway up to eight rows deep and exchanged the lead multiple times Sunday during the final pulsating 20 laps of the Daytona 500.
Jimmie Johnson led. So did Denny Hamlin. And Martin Truex Jr.
But once Joey Logano seized the front with 11 laps remaining, he would not let go.
Not after the race was red-flagged for 6 minutes, 42 seconds because of a two-car accident. Not after the race was re-started with a green-white-checker finish. And not even as eight cars piled up in a heap of smoke, causing the final lap to be run under caution.
Logano, in the yellow No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, beat the veterans to the checkered flag and captured the 57th annual Daytona 500, earning $1.58 million for Penske Racing.
“This is about as cool as I thought it would feel,” said Logano, who at 24 became the second-youngest driver to win the Daytona 500. “I think as a kid, any young racer dreams of winning the Daytona 500. It was absolutely amazing. I was so nervous the whole race … these are our weakest race tracks, the superspeedways, we were terrible at them last year.”
Defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick finished second and defending Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third, both in Chevrolets, and Denny Hamlin was fourth in a Toyota.
The victory continued Logano’s redemption after he lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing following the 2012 season and hooked on with Penske Racing. Logano won a career-most five races last season, including the fall race at Kansas Speedway, and finished fourth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings.
“To see him manage the race, he was never further back than 10th,” said team owner Roger Penske, “and when you have Earnhardt and (Jimmie) Johnson and Jeff Gordon … and all the guys behind him, he had to play fair, but he knew what to do …
“The racing was as good as I’ve ever seen it, other than that mess at the end. For us to be up at the front, believe me, with three Hendrick cars behind you, your odds aren’t very good. We were able to steal one from them today.”
Logano showed his poise under pressure while waiting out the red flag, caused by Austin Dillon sending Justin Allgaier into the wall with three laps to go.
“I was trying to stay relaxed,” Logano said. “We got the push that got us out front, and that was Clint (Bowyer) pushing hard. He wasn’t lifting before he got to my bumper, he was slamming into the back bumper, and that is what we needed to get this Ford out front and here in victory lane.”
During those final 20 laps, the intensity built for the drivers who had jockeyed for the lead during the three-wide racing, which because of new rules packages, provided a refreshing change from the tandem racing of recent years.
“It’s intense, especially when you’re in the middle,” Hamlin said. “You’ve got guys side drafting off both sides of you, and you’re trying to pull them back. There was a good chance we could have ended the race three-by-three eight rows deep but Joey got clear of that anyway.”
Hamlin, a former teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, marveled at how much Logano has grown since joining Penske.
“He’s a different driver really,” said Hamlin. “I think some situations just suit you better. You look at when he left the 20 car, the 20 car (with Matt Kenseth) instantly ran better. When he left, he instantly ran better.
“I just think the situation didn’t work for him. He matured and did his homework. He’s really become one of the elite drivers in our sport. Every single weekend you know you’re going to have to beat the 22. That’s something we didn’t say about Joey just three years ago.
“He’s with a great situation. Their cars are really good. He just made the best of it.”
With the victory, Logano most likely clinched a spot in the 2015 Chase, his third postseason appearance in his three years with Penske Racing.
“We’re going to have fun for the next 25 weeks,” Penske said laughing.