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Spot News Writing
First Place
Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

Coming Around Again

When the powder keg - "The Big One" - finally exploded late in the Daytona 500, Joey Logano had the best seat in the house for the fireworks show.

That's because it took place behind him, in his rear-view mirror, and there was only clear sailing ahead.

An eight-car crash occurred on the final half lap of NASCAR's biggest race, and race officials took a few seconds before ordering the yellow caution flag rather than letting the race end at speed. That decision locked the drivers into the positions they held at that moment, which secured the win for the 24-year-old native of Middletown, Connecticut.

"The Daytona 500! Oh, my God!" shouted Logano, who was cast aside after the 2012 season by Joe Gibbs Racing following four lackluster seasons.

Snapped up by team owner Roger Penske for the start of the 2013 campaign, Logano on Sunday handed the former Indy-car racer and billionaire industrialist his second win in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series opener. Logano's ninth career victory was worth $1,581,453.

Kevin Harvick, the Daytona winner in 2010 and the '14 series champion, had to settle for the runner-up spot. Last year's Daytona 500 winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., rallied - "I made a bad decision" he said of a late-race restart - to salvage third. Denny Hamlin and six-time Sprint Cup titlist Jimmie Johnson completed the top five.

Earnhardt and Johnson's teammate, Jeff Gordon, led the majority of the laps, but he was involved in the onset of the last-lap crash. Making his last Daytona 500 start as he enters his final Cup season, the four-time series champ and winner of 92 races was forced to settle for 33rd.

That blow-up was preceded by a smaller frontstretch crash that came with two laps remaining. NASCAR officials halted the race before the cars completed the 199th lap, or the scheduled penultimate trip around Daytona International Speedway. It put an end to a spine-tingling eight green-flag laps in which the lead pack battled three wide, eight rows deep.

The field came to rest in sight of the flagstand for nearly seven minutes while track crews cleaned up the debris and prepared it for the final showdown.

"The whole team got really quiet. The red flag was just kind of quiet," Logano said. "But I knew what we had to do to keep from getting snookered on the restart."

When the green displayed, the line of cars led by Logano - thanks to a big push from Clint Bowyer - broke away from the pack and roared down the backstretch. But nearing the midway point of the straightaway, Gordon and Austin Dillon tangled, and that set into motion a multi-car conflagration. Logano was home free at that point.

"I saw that we were in single file, the first three cars, and I knew that was a good thing because it would be harder for them to form a run," Logano said. "Then I saw them crash in the mirror but I had a distance to go (to the finish line), and I thought that was good because it was still going to be harder for them to catch up without as many cars in the pack. Then the caution came out anyway.

"That feeling of winning the Daytona 500, I can't explain how cool this is," he added. "I said in an interview that this was our worst racetrack last year, and we worked really hard to figure out how we could get better at it - and all the hard work got us the win today."

Harvick was in prime position to extend his winning streak to three - he closed 2014 with victories at Phoenix and Homestead - but ran out of time.

"I thought we were going to have at least a chance, back up to the 88 there, come up to the 22 coming off of Turn Four," Harvick said of lining up a push from Earnhardt to reel in Logano. "But in the end, that didn't all pan out because of the caution."

Earnhardt lost significant track position on a restart with less than 20 laps to go, and time ran out before he could have an impact on the final outcome.

"You don't get cars that good too often, so you like to try to capitalize," he said. "A little disappointed."

Logano escaped the engine failure that doomed teammate and 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, along with a satellite teammate, rookie Trevor Bayne.

When Logano asked if there were measures he could take to help avoid an identical fate, crew chief Todd Gordon replied, "There's nothing you can do about it. Just keep diggin'."

Said Logano: "Say your prayers."

Minutes later, they were answered.