HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — As the reigning NASCAR champion, Joey Logano had no reason to panic when Team Penske had a slower than expected start to the new season.
He was second in the season-opening Daytona 500 but hardly the dominant driver he was at the end of last season, when Logano won his second Cup title. Even worse, Ford was shut out of the first four races of the season, which were won by Chevrolet drivers.
So Logano’s return to the winner’s circle in Atlanta was a much-needed boost for Ford. Chevrolet won the Daytona 500 with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., at California with Kyle Busch and then back-to-back wins by Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron.
But at Atlanta Motor Speedway — led by Logano — Team Penske had the three fastest qualifiers for Sunday’s race. Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney followed Logano in qualifying.
Even better for the Blue Oval bunch? Ford drivers lined up in the top eight spots.
Logano showed that qualifying was no fluke as he dominated the race and then passed fellow Ford driver and former Penske teammate Brad Keselowski on the final lap to claim his first win of 2023.
Team Penske executive vice president Walter Czarnecki was asked if the win was an important statement that Hendrick and the Chevrolets would have competition this season.
“Short answer to your question: very important,” Czarnecki said. “It gets us over the hump.”
Toyota also had a strong showing, with four Toyotas finishing in the top 10: Christopher Bell was third, Tyler Reddick was fifth, Denny Hamlin was sixth and Ty Gibbs was ninth.
Logano’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said he saw Logano’s confidence early in the race. That confidence proved crucial in the last-lap duel between Ford drivers.
“Brad is so good at this type of racing,” said Wolfe, who won championships with both Keselowski and Logano. “Obviously, he’s very good at blocking and being able to manage the lead and I know that. For Joey to be able to make some of those moves and pass him was very impressive.
“When he has confidence in his car, he can make some magic happen out there for sure.”
Keselowski, who went winless last year in his first season as part of the ownership group in Jack Roush’s rebranded RFK Racing team, wound up second.
“We were right there,” Keselowski said. “I’m glad a Ford won. It was a heck of a battle.”
Like Logano, Keselowski left the race with renewed confidence.
“It’s night and day from where we were a year ago, 100%,” Keselowski said. “You just keep running like this with good finishes and the wins will come.”
Logano’s Penske teammates, Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric, finished seventh and 11th, respectively, and Logano said the Ford drivers showed they will be a force on superspeedways this season.
While Logano had not lost confidence in his Ford, he said it was crucial to make a strong showing on Atlanta’s reconfigured superspeedway track because he said it’s clear the Fords are designed to thrive in that style of racing.
“It’s an indication of the direction we want,” Logano said. “It’s pretty obvious. I think the whole garage knows the direction we’ve gone. We knew we needed to come here and maximize our day.”
The win came one week after Logano qualified 16th and finished a disappointing 11th in Phoenix. Asked about the No. 22 team’s mentality entering Atlanta, Logano said: “I wouldn’t say deflated. We know the situation we’re in this year and we know we have to be perfect all the time, and if there’s a team that can do that, it’s this team and we can do it all the time.
“We were not perfect last week at Phoenix.”
Logano and the Fords were saving their perfect finish for Atlanta, where they finally had a chance to run with the Chevys.
“Chevrolets clearly have had an advantage,” Czarnecki said. “So for Ford to come back, not just Joey, means a lot.”