DAYTONA BEACH, FLA – More than two years after nearly washing out of one of NASCAR's top rides, Joey Logano surged to the front of the sport with Sunday's win in the Daytona 500, a victory that earned Logano an automatic berth in the championship race and ended a rough week for NASCAR marked with multiple wrecks, the injury of a star driver and a headline-grabbing suspension.
Logano surged ahead of the pack on a two-lap sprint to the finish and had command when a wreck behind him brought out a caution that allowed him to coast to the finish line.
After Ryan Blaney's engine failure set up a restart with 19 laps remaining, Logano buckled down for three-wide, white-knuckle racing over the final 50 laps. He surged to the front and seemed to have the race under control, but a caution with three laps remaining forced him to fight for the victory one last time. NASCAR needed nearly seven minutes of stoppage to clean the track, and it set up a two-lap sprint.
Logano sat in his car thinking about a strategy, which wasn't the most comforting feeling.
"You got a red flag, and they give you the opportunity to think of everything," he said.
He won, and then the champagne spray began. After the victory lane party, Logano wasn't sure what he and wife Brittany should do next. The couple was married in December.
"When I first started racing, I wasn't 21, so milk and cookies was my partying. Now I'm old enough," said Logano, who won $1.58 million for first place. "Usually Brittany and I sit down and re-watch the race."
Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick finished second and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the defending race winner.
Logano, who has spent seven years trying to live up to impossible expectations, raced to the biggest win of his career as he continued to reward Roger Penske for catapulting him into one of NASCAR's top stars. Nicknamed "Sliced Bread" when he broke into the Sprint Cup Series at 18 because so many predicted him to be the next big thing, Logano found himself searching for a new job after four underwhelming seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Penske snatched him up before the 2013 season, and the move jump-started his career. He made the field of four drivers in last year's championship finale, and was in contention until a poor late pit stop.
After the win, Logano reflected on the uncertainty he had about his future at 22 years old after losing his place with Gibbs.
"Some of the emotions you go through, you start to think, `Man, am I going to have a job next year?' That's kind of hard as a race car driver," Logano said. "I poured all my eggs in one basket. You don't know what's going to happen.
"Who would ever guess three years down the road we'd be sitting here saying we're Daytona 500 champions? That's crazy. Life is a roller coaster."
He's the second youngest Daytona 500 winner in history, behind Trevor Bayne, who was 20 when he pulled off an upset victory in 2011.
Logano's win gave Ford a sweep of the opening weekend at Daytona. Tyler Reddick won Friday night's Truck Series race driving for Brad Keselowski, and Ryan Reed won the Xfinity race on Saturday for Roush Fenway Racing.
Pole-winner and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who is retiring at the end of the year, led 77 of the first 100 laps and a race-high 87 laps in all. But he was involved in the late accident that helped Logano win. Gordon finished 33rd.