Logano, Zane Smith off to strong championship defense seasons

Joey Logano is hoping to become the first repeat NASCAR Cup Series champion since Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign between 2006 and 2010. Zane Smith is also hoping for a repeat championship in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series. A back-to-back champion has only occurred just once in the series. Matt Crafton did it in 2013 and again in 2014.

Can Smith join him?

Smith is off to a great start by winning Friday night’s NextEra Energy 250 at the Daytona International Speedway. He won last year’s race and ended up celebrating a championship in Phoenix. Ben Rhodes accomplished that same feat a year prior. Smith is hopeful to continue this trend.

Smith is carrying a lot of momentum into the next Truck race in a couple of weeks at Las Vegas. He won last year’s season finale at Phoenix for his first career championship. His next race was the sports car event the day prior to the Rolex 24 last month here in Daytona. He won that.

He raced his way into the Great American Race on Thursday night and now 24 hours later, he won the Truck Series season opener at the World Center of Racing. In that Daytona 500, Smith finished an impressive 13th in his Cup Series debut.

“I mean, that was something we kind of joked about,” Smith said of this momentum. “I mean, really from the final half of the year last year and then rolling into this year, I just felt like we just had so much momentum. I knew our trucks were going to be good, and firing off practices yesterday was probably the best speedway truck I’ve had. I wasn’t too worried about qualifying much as just worried about getting caught up in someone else’s mess. Sure enough, they were not too smart in the beginning, and I just kind of hung around right behind them and waited for their mistakes, and obviously I didn’t know the rain was going to come and shorten the race, but I knew that how we kept coming in and topping off that we were setting ourselves up to lead that final stage. That’s what we did.

“Obviously just fell a little short of finishing the thing, but I feel like we would have had a great shot regardless.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 16: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Similar story for Logano. While he didn’t win the Daytona 500, he still finished second and is the current points leader heading into Sunday’s race at Fontana.

Tje defending series champion has showed up to Fontana the next year and scored four straight Top-2 finishes including a pair of wins (2018, 2022). That’s a great trend on Logano’s side.

Trends were against him however from the beginning when entering this year’s 65th edition of Daytona Speedweeks. Only six times had the reigning Cup Series champion also came down to Daytona the next February and actually won the Daytona 500. The last time that it actually happened was in the year 2000. Its only happened twice since 1978 overall.

Furthermore, none of the last 12 points paying races at Daytona were won by a series champion in general.

On top of all of this, Logano also won his Duel on Thursday night.

The last driver to win a Duel and the Daytona 500 in the same year was Matt Kenseth in 2012. He’s the only one to do so in the last 18 years. It’s only happened five times since 1996 at that.

Still, Logano had high hopes for Sunday’s Great American Race. He started third and that’s exactly where he was at for the end of the second stage. While his car wasn’t the best, it wasn’t bad either. His No. 22 Ford had a shot of snapping these trends.

Unfortunately for him, those trends rang true.

Stenhouse and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano were battling for the lead on Lap 212 when contact from Aric Almirola’s Ford started Travis Pastrana’s Toyota spinning in Turn 2. Pastrana’s Camry clipped the Chevrolet of Kyle Larson and set it rocketing into the outside wall.

Tires screamed, sparks flew and smoke billowed as the cars of defending race winner Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney all were collected in the chaotic wreck.

But when NASCAR hit the button to illuminate the caution lights, Stenhouse’s No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet had edged ahead of Logano’s Ford, thanks to a timely shove from the third-place finishing Toyota of Christopher Bell, who, like Stenhouse, arrived at the pinnacle of pavement racing from a dirt-track background.

“It’s so jumbled up that it was going to switch two or three more times before we got to the finish line,” Logano said after leading six times for 12 laps on Sunday. “It was nice to be toward the front, but my thoughts were at the moment don’t get too far out because they’re going to run me back over. And they were two wide behind me, so I was trying to figure out what lane do I need to fall into because the bottom was tight and I wasn’t in a good spot at the moment. I was in the lead, but I wasn’t in the best spot knowing that I was about to get eaten up.

Logano will start his title defense with a runner-up finish.

Logano, scored his 150th career Top-5 finish with a runner-up in his No. 22 Ford. It was Logano’s first Daytona top 5 finish since the 2019 Daytona 500. At that time, he had finished 1st, 6th, 6th, 4th and 4th respectively in a 5 year Daytona 500 span.

Since that mark, he was 26th in 2020, 12th in 2021 and 21st a year ago.

“Second is the worst, man. You’re so close,” Logano said. “Leading the white flag lap there, I was up front. Kyle gave me a good push and, yeah, you’re watching in the mirror and you’re three wide across there. I felt like the three wide was going a hurt a lane; looked like Kyle was getting pushed ahead, and then Ricky started getting pushed ahead.

“I knew if I went to the bottom my car didn’t handle good enough. I already got pushed off the bottom once and I thought, if I go down there I’m probably going to get wrecked, and I don’t know if I can get down there in time to throw the block and so I didn’t want to wreck my car either.

“Then you don’t expect them to wreck either. You think you’re racing to the checkered flag and you put yourself in the best position to try to win at the start-finish line, and just caution came out — you wish you could race to the end. Obviously you can’t when they wreck that much.

“Congratulations to Ricky. There’s nothing like winning the Daytona 500. That’s why it stings so much finishing second.

“Still proud of the team, still proud of the effort coming off the championship last year and bringing this Shell-Pennzoil Mustang back toward the front and getting a Ford close to the front. Wish it was in Victory Lane, though.”

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