AVONDALE, AZ — All four Championship 4 drivers were overly confident during Thursday’s NASCAR Championship 4 Media Day in downtown Phoenix. Now that we’ve moved 21 miles to the south and west 48 hours later, how do they feel on the eve of the Season Finale 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)?
Joey Logano’s mindset never changed. He’s signing the same tune he’s been singing for two days now and that’s not changing any time soon.
“Yeah, I feel great about our chances,” the Team Penske driver said earlier this week. “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.”
He never changed his tone and rightfully so too. He was quick in Friday’s practice session as well as even better on Saturday in scoring the pole in his No. 22 Ford.
“You control yourself, your own mindset, right?” Logano said on Saturday afternoon. “I’ve been saying all week long that it’s not just another race, this is way more than that. I say that because it is. Saying that makes me better. That’s why I go that way. While everyone is saying it’s just another race, we try to take the pressure off, I just don’t believe that’s the correct way of doing it.”
He also has always felt like it’s an advantage to have experience in this race.
“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?” he said on Thursday.
“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.”
After he won the pole on Saturday, he says that it puts pressure on the other three and makes his point.
“Yeah, it keeps the pressure on ’em. That’s the goal when you get here, is keep the pressure on the competition,” he noted.
“This team does amazing under the pressure. That’s why we thrive in Playoffs and Championship 4 type moments. I love it. I love it. It makes me better. I think it makes my whole race team better, as well.
“I’ve been saying, we’ve been preparing. We’ve had a lot of time to go over a lot of things here. Went over a lot last night and this morning with Paul and the team. Made, seems like, some good adjustment. At least for qualifying it showed up. Hopefully that continues into the race.
“Good place to start, better place to finish. First pit stall will be helpful. We got a good pit crew. I think also when you can add that with the best pit stall, camera line is right in front of it, not too far ahead of it, that’s a big advantage.”
He calls himself the favorite again.
“We’ve been the favorite to win since the beginning of the year, if you ask me. That’s my mindset. That’s the way I go to the racetrack.
“If I don’t go to a racetrack like that, I shouldn’t show up. I’ve always said it doesn’t matter what everyone thinks about favorites and odds, all that garbage that everyone posts. I don’t care. I know what my odds should be. I know what I feel like they are.
“I feel great about our position. Like I say, we got a great team, and we’ve proven today we’ve got a good horse. We’re ready to rock’n roll.”
Does he truly feel this way or is this about playing mind games with the competition?
“I don’t need to play mind games,” he said. “Just do my job, right? I don’t need to go out there and do that.”
Meanwhile, the other three said on Thursday that they don’t feel like experience in this race means much. Logano has been here 5 times while this is Chase Elliott’s 3rd straight. Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain are each making their first appearance.
“I would totally love to sit here and say yes, but I just feel like I would be lying, just from the standpoint of having experienced it firsthand, coming in here that first year, not knowing any better, us being able to win it, our first try,” Elliott said on Thursday. “If they had done it out here, it only had been once, or maybe that year was the first year, I can’t remember.
“So, yeah, I would love to say that it matters. When I think back through just that whole experience for myself and our team firsthand, I’m like, It doesn’t make a difference.
“What makes a difference is how you prepare this week and how you look ahead to the weekend, the decision-making, what you want to bring setup-wise, how you execute your practice on Friday, how you do in qualifying Saturday, giving yourself a good or a bad pit selection for your event on Sunday, executing a good 312 laps. That’s what makes a difference, in my opinion.”
Does he change his tune now? He doesn’t despite Logano’s pole and him starting 5th while Bell and Chastain start 19th and 25th respectively. Elliott isn’t getting wrapped up into the hype and hoopla of the moment which in a way, could be an advantage.
“Yeah, I mean, honestly just kind of ready to go from the standpoint of a lot of times I think it’s kind of hard to tell where you’re at, what you have, how the race is going to unfold until the race unfolds,” he said on Saturday.
“Yeah, just ready to get tomorrow rolling and try to execute a perfect day. That’s all we can do now.
“I was pretty pleased with our qualifying effort. I thought we went faster than we did yesterday for a one-lap pace. I was pleasantly surprised with that. Hopefully it holds on tomorrow and we can have a good day.
“I mean, for me personally, it’s still a great opportunity. Really all of the things that I feel like I have applied to me personally, and how I viewed the week, gone about it the past two years, I feel the same.
“I don’t really feel like there’s anything that stands out a ton to me personally, or at least that’s going to change my view on it right now.
“I mean, I think at this point in the year, with all the crazy things that we’ve seen, I don’t think anything should really surprise us anymore, regardless of what it is.
“Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see. Like I said, I have a really hard time sitting here and trying to dissect what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t know. We’ll do our homework tonight and give it our best shot tomorrow. We hope we can get the job done. That’s all I can do.
“I feel like we’ve done a good job as a team throughout the week controlling the things that we have directly in front of us in our hands. Frankly, that’s all I can really do.
“So we’re about as ready as we’re going to get for tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.”
Elliott says he will watch the Xfinity Series race tonight and watch his Georgia Bulldogs football game before calling it a night. Logano will keep it chill with his family.
“My family comes in tonight, so I’ll be able to spend a little bit of time,” Logano said. “Once we’re done with that, we’re ready. We’ve prepared. Like I said, we’ve had plenty of time to go over everything.
“At that point it’s probably take a little break. Last couple days have been pretty intense for everyone when you think of preparing for practice, practice last night, early this morning going over things, all that prep, into qualifying.
“Good night’s rest, maybe a little walk with the family tonight, we’ll call it good.”
That’s the veterans perspective. Bell and Chastain are signing a different tune. Maybe it’s nerves. Maybe it’s because they’re looking up to Logano and Elliott on Sunday.
“I mean, the weekend definitely hasn’t started off how any of us had planned,” Bell said. “I was really happy with the changes that they made to the car overnight from practice to qualifying. I think that was a really big positive.”
Bell says that he’s happy they didn’t race yesterday because his car wasn’t good. The lap times proved that as he was outside the top 20 in every metric. However, they’ve done this before. His better days are on Sunday’s. I mean he came from 20th to the win last week on a track that was hard to pass on. Why not this one too?
“That’s definitely been one of our strengths, is improving over the course of the race, improving over the course of the weekend,” Bell continued. “I am definitely really happy we didn’t race yesterday, that’s for sure. I’m not counting myself out yet.”
Bell says that while he starts in Row 10 again, their mindset doesn’t change.
“Regardless of where we qualified, stage one, at least the first run of the race, is going to be played pretty similar,” he notes. “If we struggle to get track position and we can’t make our way to the front, obviously that will dictate our strategy similar to what we saw the 99 of Ben Rhodes do last night.
“I still believe we had the opportunity to get up front and contend. It’s a matter of getting the thing to do what I need it to do. We’re definitely headed in the right direction.
“Yesterday we struggled pretty bad. Today I felt a lot better. Obviously didn’t lay a very good lap down, but I felt good about how the car drove.
“Yeah, we’ll just have to see what happens tomorrow in the race.”
Chastain had a more somber tune. He was quickest on Friday in practice but his pace faded as the run went on. They made an adjustment to free him up but in turn, it slowed his short run pace which affected his qualifying lap as he was just hanging onto a loose race car.
“That’s why I was late. I was trying to finish my qualifying lap,” Chastain joked on a late arrival to the press conference. “Still finishing turn four.
“I mean, yeah, look, I’d much rather be up front. If anything we’ve shown all year and continue to show is our Trackhouse cars can pass. I can’t wait to pass these guys. It’s going to make for a great story.”
Chastain was more real among the bunch saying that he’s truly scared about the moment but that’s not new either. He has the ability to shut that off when he straps into his No. 1 Chevrolet and expects to do so on Sunday too.
“I feel like I can because I just live in the moment of, like, one box open at a time,” he says. “Right now it’s this weekend. When I’m not actively with my crew or in the car, yeah, I think about stuff. But I’m totally immersed in whatever I’m doing.
“Yeah, talking out both sides of my mouth. Yes, I will be able to appreciate this more in 10 years. But right now it’s everything that I thought it would be. It’s scary as heck. It’s awesome. And I’m living through it. My group is letting me experience it in my own way. They’re giving me space to let me do it. Coaching me along the way, for sure. I got everybody here.
“Yes and no. Like yes and yes. Now and later.
“Driving a Cup car in the Cup Series, it’s always scary. It has been since the first race with Jay Robinson, hasn’t changed since. It’s been scary every race day. So I don’t expect that to change.
“I mean, look, there is some dejection about qualifying, right? We put a lot into it, and I couldn’t put a lap together. Was too loose.
“I just want to speak the truth. I do have those feelings, and they ebb and flow, they go up and down.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes. Once I get in the car, that’s gone. All that fear is gone. Once I got in that first Cup race, the only thing that was different in that race and this race, in that race I was looking around at track, that’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie lapping me, but still I was amazed I was racing against those guys.
“Yeah, once I get out there… When I’m preparing, when we’re prepping for these races and these weekends, there’s no fear. There’s a way we’re going to prepare. We’re going to learn what we can, and we’re going to put that into action when we get to the track.
“I can only control what I can control. I’ll do whatever it takes to be prepared and put that into action in the car. The old saying about, like, we change when we put our helmets on, I know that I do. I can block all of this out. It’s not even that I can, it’s just that it happens. Everything’s gone. There’s no thoughts. Then the conversation I had right before the race, that’s not racing related, if someone asks me with my group on the business side, if we talk about something 30 minutes before the race, they come back to me 30 minutes after, they pick up the conversation like nothing’s changed. I’m like, Start over, what did we talk about? I’ve blocked it all out, it’s gone. It was all about the competition.
“As long as I never lose that, I think that’s what makes me stronger in the car. Doesn’t always help me out of the car. Doesn’t help me up here talking about how scared I am. Once I get in the car, it’s all good.
“But it’s going to be so cool when we start passing people, just one after the other, the next and the next. Like, I get to feel all this about driving a race car. I get to feel happy, I get to feel sad, I get to feel scared, I get to feel nervous. It’s so cool. It doesn’t feel cool in the moment, but it is so cool.”
As far as what he’s doing tonight, it’s the opposite as the others. He’ll be mingling with sponsors and fans to get all that out of the way to keep his Sunday calm, cool and collective. However, he also said he gets in his mind a lot so I expect a lot of nerves his way on Sunday morning.
Which is why I wonder if Logano is right in a sense that the veteran presence is a determining factor.