The odds say he’s the worst among the four Championship 4 favorites, but I think Joey Logano should be the best. This may sound crazy, but we may just be witnessing the next great driver and crew chief combo in NASCAR. Yes, Joey Logano and Paul Wolfe have only won three points paying races together and one over the last 31 races. Logano’s win in the opening race of the Round of 8 at the Kansas Speedway was his first since before the pandemic set in. But, the victory also put him into the Championship 4 for the fourth time of his NASCAR Cup Series career as well.
He made the final round in the new playoff format’s inception in 2014. He did it again two years later (2016). He won at Martinsville (VA) in this very Round of 8 opening race in 2018 en route to his first and only championship that year. Now, he’s back again. This time, I think he’s the favorite to hoist this year’s championship trophy on Sunday afternoon in the Arizona desert.
That in turn leads me to believe that he and Wolfe could be a combo that could potentially go down in this new recent history with the likes of Adam Stevens-Kyle Busch, Rodney Childers-Kevin Harvick and Cole Pearn-Martin Truex Jr.
Think about it. Logano hadn’t won a race at all during this pandemic. They struggled to adapt to the new changes but that’s only because he and Paul Wolfe had to learn each other on the fly.
Team Penske swapped crew chiefs on all three teams during this past offseason. It meant that everyone was relearning each other again. But, to start the season, they had the luxury of practice and qualifying.
Wolfe and Logano started out great. They won their Duel. They won the second race of the season in Vegas. They won the last race before the pandemic at…Phoenix — the site of this year’s championship. That’s three wins in their first six races together (including Clash and the Duels in Daytona). Then, the bottom dropped out.
Logano, has maintained all season that their strength is on 750 horsepower tracks. His teammate Brad Keselowski agreed too. But, it was the 550 horsepower tracks to where it would be difficult to adapt.
As Logano put it to me this past summer in the middle of his struggles, he and Wolfe have seen these tracks before, it’s just that they haven’t seen them together. Without the luxury of practice anymore, they were going into race weekend’s guessing. Hence the drop in performance from the start of the year to the resumption during the pandemic.
“Quite a bit,” Logano said on what he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have learned together this year now. “It’s been an amazing challenge, if I’m being honest with you. The beginning of the year with practice, we were able to get to know each other, get to know what I needed with the car, work on it during practice.
“COVID started. Coming back with no practice, we started getting our butts handed to us pretty hard. We were struggling for the first, I don’t know, 15 races back. Just really struggling, trying to get a handle on the car, what direction we need to go. It’s really hard to fix things when you don’t have practice.
“We’re going to the racetrack for the first time together, honestly it’s kind of shooting from the hip from a setup standpoint, just trying to find something that we can hit on that’s decent.
“Over time I feel like we’ve made some small gains there, a little gain here, a little one there, start stacking them up. It seemed to make a decent swing at especially the 550 package here to where we can be competitive enough to put ourselves in position to try to win like we did today (Sunday).
“I felt better about our 750 package ever since we started the season. Still feel great about it at this point. Glad we’re going to Phoenix.”
He’s right too. After two wins in the first four points paying races together, they had one top five over the first 13 races run during the pandemic. They only had four top 10’s in that span too. Then, Texas came around and they finished third in late July. That started the turn around. Logano, had three top five finishes over the next five races and seven top 10’s over the next eight races.
The No. 22 Ford was back.
“For sure,” Logano said on if he and Paul Wolfe have an advantage this weekend. “I think any time you’ve been in these situations before, you know how to prepare for them. Like you said earlier, been in the Championship 4, it’s my fourth time, I know what’s coming my way.
“Yes, it’s at a new track, but I know what the week is like going into it, I know how to prepare for it. Same thing for Paul, right? Paul has been in the Championship 4 before. He’s won a championship with the other Playoff format. But he’s been there in high-pressure moments. He knows how to prepare for it.
“Like I said, we’ve had three weeks to think about it, be ready for it. With those things I feel more confident than ever. I always go back to think about my first Championship 4 round back in 2014. I remember crapping my pants about how nervous I was. If I’m being honest, I was very nervous. I had everything on the line for the first time. I didn’t know if I’d ever get back into the Championship 4 again. You didn’t want to blow the opportunity, right? You just wanted to make sure you made the most of it.
“Now going through it before, knowing how to prepare for what’s coming ahead of you, that battle ahead of you, knowing you succeeded before in the championship round, it really gives you some confidence to go out there and do your job.
Over the last 18 races now, Logano has scored 13 top 10’s. Over the last nine races, he has five top four finishes including two top two results.
With the finals being in Phoenix, a track he won at back in March, doesn’t that make Logano the favorite now, especially now that they have had two weeks to prepare.
“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano continued. “I think it means a lot, if I’m being honest. I think it does. I’ve lived this story once where you really just kind of — you’re not last minute trying to throw together a championship car for Phoenix because you’re trying to build so many other ones. It just gives the team time to really start focusing on a car that can put us in the position to win.
“If you only have so much time in the day, you got to prioritize, you’re going to prioritize to get yourself in the Championship 4 first. Now that we did that, we’re going to have 100% of our time to Phoenix.”
Logano won the first race of the Round of 8 two years ago at Martinsville. He went on to win the championship that year. Does history repeat itself?
The winner of the first race of the Round of 8 has finished either first or second in each of the last four years.
Logano, says that this season does remind him of that championship winning one of 2018.
“I think every year has its own personality that it takes on,” Logano said on Thursday. “Honestly I feel like this year feels a lot like 2018. It’s actually kind of funny because I think about 2018 where we had not the best summer months, then we kind of picked it up as the Playoffs started. Won Martinsville, the first race of the third round, which set us up to race for a championship in Miami that year.
“It’s funny, I brought this up to my guys, I don’t know, a month and a half or so before the Playoffs started. I said, Hey, you never know, you got to keep fighting. You never know when the tides are going to turn, the next thing you know you’re up there in contention to win every week, also race for a championship.
“We went from in the summer months searching for a direction to make our car faster, to being in contention to win. Now in my eyes, like I said in 2018, feeling like you’re the favorites by winning the first race in the third round. I honestly feel that way again.
“Interesting how it’s kind of lining up to be the same. Hopefully it lines up to be the same all the way to the end. A lot of things can happen between now and then. I like our chances. I like where we’re at. We’ll go out there to Phoenix and give it a shot.
“Feels a lot like 2018 so far.
I think it helps Logano for sure now. With next year being a lot like this one, Logano and Wolfe have figured each other out. This could be the next great crew chief-driver pairing in the sport now. Now that their notebook is going to have a season filled up and with stats proving that when they have each other figured out, they’re unstoppable. What makes us think that this will change any time soon?