RICHMOND — From perfect weather and a big crowd to a classic short-track finish and the fisticuffs afterward, NASCAR hardly could have asked for more from its first visit to Richmond International Raceway this year.
Joey Logano emerged as the big winner Saturday night by deftly taking advantage of a three-way battle between former champions Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, and Brad Keselowski, sneaking by them for his second victory.
The way the race ended caused tempers to flare in a big way in the garage afterward. The biggest skirmish had Marcos Ambrose, who finished 18th, confronting Casey Mears, who was 19th. Mears first pushed Ambrose out of the way, and Ambrose retaliated with a thundering punch in the face that appeared to draw blood.
‘‘We’re looking at the video,’’ NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton told reporters afterward of the punch. ‘‘It doesn’t seem to be much. We’ll take a look Monday and Tuesday.’’
Logano’s Team Penske teammate Keselowski seemed to have the fastest car, but with Kenseth fending off both Keselowski and Gordon, an inside lane opened up, and Logano, who started fourth on the restart, was more than happy to make his move.
‘‘Obviously I was able to see that in front of me and wanted to make sure I was close enough that when something happened I was able to take advantage of it, and that’s what I was able to do,’’ Logano said. ‘‘Restarts, anything, it comes down to the end of the race. Patience is out the window. It’s all about just go for it. I think that’s what the fans want. That’s what you’ve got this year.”
Keselowski, who said Kenseth ‘‘ran me off the track,’’ admitted he retaliated by giving Kenseth a nudge that helped Logano go on to win. He pledged to remember the finish for future reference.
Kenseth defended his tactics, as did Gordon, who finished second. Gordon expressed his disappointment at not winning after leading a race-best 173 laps, but said, ‘‘I had a blast tonight.’’
Logano needed 26 races and two trips to Richmond before putting himself in NASCAR’s playoff last season. There will be no such nail-biting this year. His second victory of the season automatically qualified him for 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.