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Friday, May 3, 2013
Heating up at Talladega

By Brant James
ESPN.com

Joey Logano makes his Nationwide Series debut for Penske Racing just in time to defend his win at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday.

The first-year Penske driver replaces defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski -- a Nationwide and Cup winner at the 2.66-mile restrictor plate track -- in the No. 22 Ford for the next several races. Logano overtook former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on a final restart following a massive crash on the backstretch with four laps left last spring to win for the first time at the Alabama track.

Sam Hornish Jr
Points leader Sam Hornish Jr. and his crew know Talladega is a wild card when it comes to winning the Nationwide Series championship.

After a 19-minute red flag period because of a hard hit that sent Eric McClure to a hospital by helicopter, Logano restarted third but pulled behind the front-running Busch. When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Cole Whitt elected not to pull alongside and break up the JGR pod, Logano was able to stalk until the final corner and eke a win by 0.034 seconds.

Logano has never finished worse than third in four Nationwide races at Talladega. His crew brings its own momentum into the race, having won for the first time this season last week at Richmond.

"A win always is good for a team," Logano said. "It will lift the guys' spirits and give them some confidence. It doesn't only do it to a driver, but it does it to a team as well. And it's good for me to come in when the guys' confidence is high. In fact, I joked with Brad last week and told him 'thanks' for getting a win right before I was getting ready to get in the car so the guys' confidence is as high as it's been all year."

Logano will have series points leader and teammate Sam Hornish Jr. for a drafting partner this week, if the results of their early week strategy session are enacted.

"Joey and I have discussed our approach to this race, and we are ready to push/draft each other to the front," said Hornish, who has a one-point margin in the standings over Regan Smith.

Hornish is focused on the front both on Saturday and in the long term, having held the top spot in the driver standings the last seven weeks. In what has been a breakout campaign, Hornish has led three times more laps (254) than any other competitor and more than in his last two seasons combined.

Even at this early juncture of the season, the absence of a Chase-style playoff has Hornish's crew concerned over how a Talladega melee can jumble title hopes.

"At this point in the season, the series standings become more of a factor in terms of how you approach a race," said Hornish's crew chief Greg Erwin. "Talladega brings specific challenges due to the inevitability of a multicar crash. We know we have a car that is capable of winning. We are focused on the championship, which means we will have to balance our approach.

"We'll do our best to position ourselves to finish up front."

Smith enters as a former Talladega winner with an asterisk -- translation: non-winner -- as in 2008 he crossed the finish line first in the Sprint Cup fall race but was placed 18th when NASCAR ruled he had illegally passed official victor Tony Stewart below the yellow boundary line.

Smith was adamant he was blocked below the line before making his pass, and Stewart admitted such, but Smith came away with nothing but a gripe. He returns as a full-time member of JR Motorsports with a fresh perspective on blocking at plate tracks. His move to protect the lead in the final moments of the season-opening Daytona race resulted in contact from second-place Keselowski that cued a massive wreck that sent debris into the crowd and injured several fans. Smith finished 14th.

"With this type of racing, absolutely anything can happen," Smith said. "No matter how much you prepare or how good your car is, it's Talladega. The best car doesn't always win the race there. We just want to keep our good finishes going. Yeah, we want to win races. But the big picture is still there, and that's the points battle. We've really closed the gap on Sam, and we want to keep the pressure on every weekend."

Danica Patrick will also return to the second-tier series Saturday in a Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet. The Sprint Cup rookie with a developing aptitude for plate racing -- winning the pole and finishing eighth in the Daytona 500 -- finished 13th last spring at Talladega.