- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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LOUDON, N.H. -- If I were owner Bruton Smith, I'd rename this place New Hampshire Motor Weirdway, and get some PR pizzazz out of the bizarre finishes here.
"It seems like the ones here recently have been pretty strange," said Jeff Gordon, who should have won Sunday, but didn't, of course -- not at Loudon, he didn't. He finished second -- better than the guy who ought to win usually finishes at this place.
Joey Logano was the weird-way winner, maybe the weirdest way yet.
Logano, 19, became the youngest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup race, but only after spending most of the day looking like the rookie he is -- with "me lost out there, trying to figure out where I needed to be," he admitted.
As if Logano weren't having problems enough with the flat, tight, 1-mile oval, he also spun out with a cut tire and had to have two Lucky Dog passes back into the lead lap to contend with the real contenders, Gordon and Kurt Busch.
But veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli figured out where Logano ought to be, put him there with a calculated chess move, and kept him there even though Logano was almost out of gas when rain saved him, shortening the race to 273 of the scheduled 301 laps.
"He went for it, and I was just lucky enough to be in the seat," Logano said of Zipadelli's call.
Logano, from Middletown, Conn., calls this his home track, and Sunday completed a personal hat trick here for him.
"This is where I saw my first Cup race," the prodigy said, "it's where I ran my first Cup race [last fall, in a troubled debut], and where I've won my first Cup race."
It's rare indeed to hear a crowd cheer when a race is called, but Sunday's announcement brought a roar from the grandstands because the local New England boy had made good, sitting in front on the pit road under the red flag.
Nobody begrudged him that.
"You win 'em any way you possibly can," Gordon said. "I've won because we made a great call and stayed out and it rained."
"It's tough for me to feel bad about a third-place finish," said Kurt Busch, "because of the way we won here last year." Busch won a weird one last June after Tony Stewart dominated the race but Busch stayed out in a mediocre car until it rained.
With about 40 laps to go, the front-runners, including Gordon and Busch, pitted their last time for fuel, under green. They could go the distance, and the 10 cars in front of them still needed to pit, they figured.
Except for one. Logano. All the extra stopping had left him better off on fuel than the other nine.
Attrition brought Gordon to second and Busch to third, and Logano was running low on fuel, when rain brought out the final caution on Lap 268.
That snuffed what should have been a slam-bang finish between Gordon and Busch -- those two had roughed each other up all race on double-file restarts, with Gordon at one point issuing a warning via their spotters that if Busch pushed him wide again, "he won't make it to the next corner."
Before the rain, "I was catching Jeff" for second place, Busch said, "but we just ran out of time."
What made this race at Loudon maybe the weirdest yet was that even under the final caution, there was -- how can I put this? -- some of the best yellow-flag racing I've seen.
I was shutting the motor off, coasting as much as I could. Jeff [Gordon] was trying to make me fire that thing up and burn as much fuel as he could.
”-- Joey Logano
Behind the pace car, Gordon kept pestering Logano, trying to force him to run out of gas.
"I pushed him as hard as I could to keep that engine running under those caution laps," Gordon said of the darting he did alongside Logano, outside and inside, under the caution.
With perhaps four laps of fuel remaining and no way of knowing precisely when the rain would come, Zipadelli had instructed his driver to turn off all auxiliary fans, and even to turn off the engine completely and coast whenever possible.
Logano wasn't keeping up with the pace car, and even though Gordon technically couldn't pass him for the lead, NASCAR does require a driver under those circumstances to maintain a "reasonable speed" to keep from being penalized.
So Gordon messed with the rookie's mind.
"I was just running pace-car speed," Gordon said, "and that allowed me to get outside of him and make him start his engine and use some fuel. And he didn't like it, so he moved up so I could get to the outside of him. So I just went to the inside. I didn't want to push him and I didn't want to back off, because our only shot was for him to run out of fuel."
"I was shutting the motor off, coasting as much as I could," Logano said. "Jeff was trying to make me fire that thing up and burn as much fuel as he could."
Zipadelli figured Logano could have gone "four to six more laps" like that, with Gordon hassling them.
But Zipadelli was done strategizing by the time the caution came out, so it didn't matter.
"In the situation we were in, we were just going to stay out until we ran out of fuel," Zipadelli said. "We were going to ride it out."
"It's not the way you want to win the first one, in the rain," Logano said.
But he had one -- "there's no asterisk beside it," Gordon said.
And so the heralded rookie, perhaps under more pressure than any since Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived in 2000, became the first rookie to win a Cup race since Juan Pablo Montoya -- then a rookie in NASCAR terms only -- in 2007.
Owner Joe Gibbs felt vindicated for moving Logano up so young, and said "I think we can ride this thing for about 20 more years."
"I may not be around for the last 10," Gibbs cracked.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
17dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information