Joey Logano won the first race of the Next Gen era back in February at the LA Coliseum in the annual Busch Light Clash. With it likely taking a win to score this year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship, it would be a rare feat for Logano in winning the first race and last race of the season.
“Yeah, I feel great about our chances,” the Team Penske driver said. “Honestly, I don’t really care who else is in. It’s about the 22 team winning a second title. That’s what it’s about.
“We just got to do our job and stay focused on us. Racing for a championship, it’s bigger than any other race. You have to learn to handle that pressure. The only way you know how to do that is going through it multiple times.
“I feel like that gives not just myself but my whole race team a clear advantage going into this race on top of some of the other things we already know.
“I feel great about where we’re at. I feel great that we’ve been here so many times and we can focus on doing our jobs.
“I’m in a different position than I’ve been here in the past. I like this position a lot more. It’s a lot more comfortable, I can promise you that. Just being here over and over again, right?
“I was saying earlier, you just know what’s coming around the corner next. You know how today goes. You know how the week before this is, then the weekend itself, race day. Race day is just chaotic the whole time.
“It’s not just another race. It’s not that. Everyone likes to say that. Everyone comes to championship Media Day, says it’s just another race, just act like it’s another race. That’s a bunch of BS. It’s not just another race. It’s bigger than any race you’ve ever been in, and it changes the way you approach it, for sure.”
Logano has had the rare advantage as well as being the only driver from the Round of 8 to spend the last two weeks knowing that he’s racing for a championship in Phoenix. He won the third round opener in Las Vegas. With Kyle Larson winning in Homestead, it meant that Logano came into Martinsville as the only one still knowing that he’s racing for a championship. Why would the other 7 dream of Phoenix when they first have to get to Phoenix?
“We’ve had three weeks to think about our race car and how we want to play the race out, how we want to run practice,” Logano continued. “We’ve had the opportunity to really, really dive deep into Phoenix, so we’ll take that to our advantage and move on.
“Well, it’s really nice because it’s even a bigger advantage than it was when we were racing in Miami because the car has to leave sooner now, right? We had to leave Wednesday noontime to get here on time.
“If you imagine, like, you got to be really prepared because if you race Sunday and you finally realize you’re in, then you have Monday, Tuesday. Wednesday you better be done with everything.
“In that time, the driver has to go do media, the driver has all these other things they got to do on top of that. There’s not time to prep the correct way, whereas our team, we’ve had a couple weeks to really focus in 100%, at least 95%, on Phoenix.
“We had a conversation about Miami. Yeah, sure, sounds good, let’s do it. What about Phoenix? That’s how our conversations were, as they should be. The only one that matters is Sunday.”
That backs up what he said a couple of weeks ago following that South Point 400 win.
“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano said then. “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.”
On how he would approach the final two races?
“We approach them to win, just like we always do,” Logano said on his approach over the next two weeks. “Same meetings and prep like we always do. I just assume that we’ll probably focus a little bit more on Phoenix at this point.”
So does that make him the championship favorite?
It could be easy for Logano to fall into that trap of letting loose the last couple of weeks. Not having to worry about points or wins or anything truly could keep Logano into a dangerous position of falling out of that competitive fire. For drivers like Christopher Bell or Ross Chastain, they’ve had to fight the entire postseason to make it here. They’ve not had the luxury of letting their guard down like Logano has the last two weeks.
Can Logano just flip that switch all the sudden back to the highest of levels and match Bell, Chastain and Chase Elliott who are already there?
“Of course it means a lot, particularly to win that first race in the final round of the Round of Eight I should say, because it lets the team, at least the 22 car team, I won’t say relax a little bit, but use the two following races, which they did at Homestead and last Sunday at Martinsville, to, I’ll say, fine-tune the game, to rehearse, to a certain extent, for Joey to stay sharp,” said Walt Czarnecki of Team Penske.
“He and I talked about it before the race. Believe me, he wasn’t sitting back. He wasn’t waiting. He wanted to stay sharp. He wanted to stay in the game, so to speak.
“That’s what it really allowed us to do. That’s without having the tension of gosh, we’ve got to do something here at Homestead or something here at Martinsville to make the show.”
One thing that does fuel Logano’s fire is that he is looking for redemption on Sunday afternoon and will get it in the form of a championship. It would be his 2nd of his NASCAR career and would join Kyle Busch as the only drivers walking through that NASCAR Cup Series garage with multiple championships to their names.
Of the four drivers vying for the NASCAR Cup Series title this weekend at Phoenix Raceway, Team Penske Joey Logano has to be the most thrilled it will be decided on the one-mile oval in the Valley of the Sun, as he has the most experience at the one-mile track (27 starts) and the most wins (two) among the Championship 4.
In total, Logano has made 27 series starts at Phoenix posting two wins (2016, 2020), seven top fives and 15 top 10s. His average finish is 13.1, seventh-best in the series, and second among the Championship 4.
Expect Logano to be in the mix this weekend at Phoenix, he is ranked in the top 10 in several key pre-race Loop Data categories with an Average Running Position of 11.287, seventh-best, a Driver Rating of 94.7, seventh-best, 304 Fastest Laps Run, eighth-best and 6,202 Laps in the Top 15 (73.6%), sixth-most.
With that said, does this make Logano a first ballot Hall of Famer?
In this new era, ones with a new playoff format and stages, he’s the only driver to win multiple championships and he’s the only one to do so at 2 different tracks with the other coming in 2018 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
His 31 wins rank him tied with Martin Truex Jr. for 28th all-time. Dale Jarrett is one spot ahead of them in career wins but has 1 fewer championship now, but is in the Hall. Matt Kenseth has 39 wins, 1 championship and is in the Hall of Fame.
Why wouldn’t Logano?
I think we’re witnessing a future legend of this sport in the now and one that maybe we’ve taken for granted for all these years. 1 championship is one thing. But to have 2? That puts you in a different category.
It’s an elite fraternity to have won multiple Cup championships. Only 17 people in the history of this planet can say that they’ve done so. Logano could be among them.
He’s a Daytona 500 champion. He’s the youngest winner ever in the Xfinity and Cup Series. He won the inaugural Bristol Dirt Race. He won the inaugural race in Gateway. He also won the inaugural Busch Light Clash in the LA Coliseum.
Yes, 2 of his 4 trips to victory lane (counting the Clash) were in 1st time events this year alone as he won the first race and last of the season.
That’s a far cry from what we were saying about him when he was struggling with Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s a long way from 2009 when he entered his rookie season cocky and expecting great success.
13 years later he has 31 trips to victory lane and a multi-time champion. He said earlier this playoffs at Bristol when he was making his 500th career start that he came into the rookie season expecting way more but left that year worried he may not even have a job.
It was an eye opening experience in NASCAR’s top level. He was taking over a ride that future Tony Stewart left. Mark Martin dubbed him the greatest thing since sliced bread. The anticipation was high and success was already a given. Except that the success was few a far between in his early years.
Logano had just 1 win in his first 126 career starts. It wasn’t until the 15th race of the 2012 season that he finally went back. He had just 3 top 5’s in 2009. Then 7 more in 2010. He had just 4 in 2011.
That left Logano directly on the hot seat entering that pivotal 2012 season. In a ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, it doesn’t matter your age, they expect you to win right away. He wasn’t.
JGR had to turn their focus on finding a replacement for him if he couldn’t’ perform. He didn’t. While he did win in 2012, that was 50% of his top 5 finishes that season. So JGR had to let him walk.
2 wins, 16 top 5 finishes, 60 top 10’s, 5 poles and 337 laps led. That’s not good enough. It was time for a change of scenery for him. His career was at a fast cross roads. At just 23 years old, he was facing free agency already.
But that’s exactly what he needed. In just 1 year at Team Penske, he had led almost as many laps in 36 races (323) than he did in 4 seasons (337) at JGR.
Logano had 1 win, 11 top 5 finishes and 19 top 10’s in his first season in 2013 with Team Penske. A year later, he won 5 times, had 16 top 5 finishes and 22 top 10’s. He’d march all the way to the Championship 4 in the first season of this new format’s inception.
It gave him the confidence that he can perform at the highest level in the highest level of stock car racing. Gibbs brought him up too quickly and Penske gave him a lifeline when he needed it.
Now, 10 seasons in at Penske, Logano has 31 wins, 132 top 5 finishes, 196 top 10’s, 20 poles and 7,648 laps led in the No. 22 Ford. That’s a far cry from 4 seasons at JGR.
8 of his 9 seasons at Penske have seen him finish in the top 8 in points.
“It’s interesting, someone made this observation the other day, in fact we were at Martinsville, and said, Joey is the senior person of the four drivers. He’s the, so-called, grizzled veteran, to use that term,” Czarnecki said of him.
“But Joey has become a leader. He’s become a leader off the racetrack, as well. I’ve seen him mature as a person. He’s in his 11th year now with us. He started in 2013. Just the way he conducts himself both on and off the racetrack, but particularly off the racetrack, the way he deals with our sponsor partners, the way he deals with the media, the way he deals with the foundation work that he does, he’s become a well-rounded individual.
“Of course on the racetrack, we all know what he does. Then internally, he takes the lead in our meetings, as he should, as the most experienced of our three drivers. He’s got a lot to share, a lot of information to impart on the others.
“For sure he’s assumed that role. He’s assumed that mantle. He’s assumed it very well.
“At just 32 years old, he still has at least a decade to up these stats even further.”