By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
RICHMOND, Va. -- For Joey Logano, this is it.
The Team Penske driver's championship hopes have been distilled into one 400-lap race on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.
If Logano puts his No. 22 Ford into Victory Lane in the Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), he will be part of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff. Anything less, and he will watch 16 other drivers compete for the title in the 10-race playoff.
Logano won the April race at Richmond, but his car failed post-race inspection at NASCAR's Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C., because of a rear suspension violation. Accordingly, Logano lost the right to count the encumbered victory toward qualification for the playoff.
Subsequently, the No. 22 team floundered, knocking Logano out of contention for a playoff spot on points. A victory is his only path to the postseason, and Richmond is his last chance.
"We're in a do-or-die situation," Logano acknowledged before opening practice Friday morning. "Anytime you can win a race in that situation, there is no better feeling than that. Also, returning here after our win in the spring and obviously the drama that followed, it would be very nice to be able to get back in Victory Lane and prove a point.
"I don't see any reason why we can't. We had great pit stops last week (at Darlington). Second place is a failure when you look at the goal this week. It's win or nothing. We have to race that way. Hopefully it all works out. We'll just have to wait and see. We will see what our car has in a few minutes, we will tune on it and give it all we've got."
HAMLIN ACKNOWLEDGES PENALTIES WERE JUSTIFIED
It took a little more than 24 hours for Denny Hamlin's euphoria to turn sour.
On Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, one of the most important tracks to the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Hamlin won the Bojangles' Southern 500 to complete a sweep of the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at the Lady in Black.
But on Monday afternoon, Hamlin began to hear rumblings that all might not be right with his race-winning car, which NASCAR had taken to its R&D center for detailed inspection.
"I heard something on Monday or so -- I think later on Monday or early Tuesday -- that it was questionable, that it needed further review," Hamlin said. "As far as I understand, my crew chief (Mike Wheeler) went and saw it for himself on Wednesday. He deemed it not right (outside NASCAR's rules). So I would agree with the assessment."
The rear suspension violation cost Hamlin five playoff points. He also lost Wheeler's services for two races. What's more, Hamlin's winning Xfinity Series was penalized for the same problem. And a wonderful weekend at Darlington had suddenly lost much of its luster.
"I know personally it had nothing to do with winning the races," Hamlin said of the infraction. "I'd won five other races at that track well before that. I'd love to line 'em up again. That track is special to me. It was a special weekend all in all. It took something that was super positive and turned it into a negative pretty quick."
But Hamlin also said the penalty was appropriate, and if NASCAR decides in the future to take wins away from cars that are out of compliance, Hamlin is on board with that, too.
"Yeah, I think it fits," Hamlin said of the penalty. "I think we can talk about taking wins away in the future. I think it's definitely a possibility ... as long as it's the same for everyone, I think that's key. Make sure that when someone else is in there with the same violation, it gets the same penalty and treatment, even if it's in the playoffs."
EARNHARDT JR. ISN'T EXPECTING A SATURDAY MIRACLE
From the standpoint of a large portion of the NASCAR fan base, no outcome at Richmond Raceway could be better than Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 and qualifying for the playoff in his last season of full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing.
But Earnhardt himself doesn't consider that a likely prospect.
"Just right now, if we had to line up and race, I think we've got about a sixth to 12th place car," Earnhardt said after Friday's final practice at the .75-mile short track. "We could run a fast lap that was a top-10 lap in the first two practices in race trim. After about 30 laps, we were behind the Penske guys on speed and we were behind all the Toyotas on speed by a tenth (of a second) or two.
"We tried some things in the second practice that won't get us front-end speed, but we did some things that I think will help our car on the long run. So we've got to just hope that's going to work for us in the race. But, these races aren't typically long-run races anymore, especially with the stages and late cautions and stuff."
The bottom line? Though anything can happen in a NASCAR race, a miracle might not be in the cards for Earnhardt on Saturday night.
"I haven't thought about any fairy tales," Earnhardt said.