By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Joey Logano used a controversial finish at Talladega Superspeedway to sweep the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs and end Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s championship chances.
The race ended under caution when reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick stumbled on the final restart to trigger a multi-car accident in the middle of the field. Because NASCAR said this week it would make just one attempt to finish the race under the green flag, the field was frozen and Earnhardt was denied the chance to race Logano for the win.
Logano went 3 for 3 in this second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and in doing so the Team Penske driver eliminated two of the top title threats.
Earnhardt, who led a race-high 61 laps Sunday, finished second but was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Also knocked out of the field Sunday was Matt Kenseth, who was spun by Logano last week as the two raced for the win at Kansas. Kenseth, who has been furious with Logano for a week, left Talladega displeased with Harvick’s late-race tactics.
Harvick informed his team under caution he had a mechanical issue that was preventing him from accelerating, but he stayed in line and his inability to go on the restart triggered the race-ending accident.
“It was a pretty tough ending. (He) knew he was blowing up and told everybody he was going to stay in his lane,” Kenseth said. “It just feels like we kind of lost control of the situation.”
Denny Hamlin echoed the sentiments of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. He was caught in the accident and had to climb from his flaming car, and said after that Harvick caused the wreck rather than risk losing positions on the track that would knock him out of the Chase.
“The 4 could only run about 30 miles an hour, I think he saw people coming and he knew he was so probably going to be 30th, the last car on the lead lap, so he caused the wreck,” Hamlin said.
Earnhardt, despite his championship chances coming to an end at his best race track, was surprisingly upbeat. He said he was proud of his second-place finish and wouldn’t question NASCAR’s officiating.
Drivers were unanimously supportive of NASCAR’s decision to make just one attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish instead of the usual three tries — a decision enacted because NASCAR believes it’s too dangerous on restrictor-plate tracks to make multiple attempts to finish the race under green.
“We were thinking before the race they made a good change to go to one on the green-white-checkered and I still feel that way,” Earnhardt said. “Per the rules, we ran second. I can live with that.
“NASCAR makes the calls. I have 100 percent faith in the choices that they make. I’m not going to be too upset about it.”
NASCAR technically made two attempts to finish the race under green. The first restart was waived off when several cars spun in traffic before Logano got to the green flag.
Logano, who won at Charlotte, Kansas and now Talladega in this round of the Chase, was furious with the initial call.
“You gotta be kidding me. That was an attempt! Junior rules, that’s what those are,” Logano radioed, making the implication that the restart was called off to give Earnhardt another shot at the win.
The next restart, with Harvick’s stall, was just as messy, but Logano got to the green flag to make it an official victory.
The field is reset now to even, with eight drivers still in contention when the third round begins next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
“We have to keep this dream rolling,” Logano said. “We have a long way to go. We are back to zero going to Martinsville, so we need to make something happen in the next three races.”
By JENNA FRYER