“Yeah Baby! Bristol again! Get you some!!”
The yell over Joey Logano’s radio as he took the checkered flag at this week’s Bristol Motor Speedway IRWIN Tools Night Race for the second straight year and his festive celebration afterwards was not lost on me. Behind Logano’s affable boyish grin and charming outlook lurks a fierce competitor who is Team Penske’s prime threat to win the Sprint Cup title in 2015.
All of 25 years young but in his eighth season, Joey Logano has demonstrated that he is more than ready to win the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship when the series reaches its final playoff round at Homestead Miami Speedway later this year.
What is more significant is that Logano has found a home at Team Penske, and is arguably their best Championship contender as we approach the Darlington Southern 500, the penultimate race before the Chase begins. Back in 2012, Logano was cut loose from Joe Gibb Racing’s legendary Home Depot #20 Cup car, where he was arguably thrust into before his time at the adolescent age of 17.
Such an assertion that Logano is now Team Penske’s prime threat is perhaps brash, given that Brad Keselowski is the team’s senior driver in his sixth full season, and “Bad Brad” has already won one Sprint Cup Championship back in 2012. At that time, he beat Mr. “Six Pack” Jimmie Johnson, at his own game, and proclaimed that “to be the Man, you have to beat the Man.”
Scrutinizing Logano’s performance, we see a consistent trend of advancement since joining Team Penske. In his first year with Team Penske in 2013, Logano’s average finish was 14.1, which was a dramatic improvement over his prior year performance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Last year, he improved his average finish to 11.3. Now Logano is delivering in the lofty single digit range, with an average finish of 9.0 in 2015, which is second only to Kevin Harvick’s amazing season average of 7.4, as Harvick continues to pick up where he left off last year.
In a head-to-head comparison with his Penske teammate this season, Logano has finished ahead of Keselowski in 15 of the 24 points paying races. Even more stellar, Logano has 14 top five finishes, almost triple the 5 finishes in the top five amassed by his teammate Keselowski. Logano also has led the second most laps this season at 808 (again second only to the Harvick), which is nearly twice the number of laps led by Keselowski.
Last year, Logano advanced to the final Championship 4 round at Homestead Miami Speedway. Multiple issues in the 2014 season finale proved to be the #22 team’s undoing, including Logano hitting the wall early on, as well as a late pit road miscue with 20 laps to go of dropping the jack early, leaving Logano incredibly frustrated and stranded outside the top 20 on the final restart.
None of that baggage from the 2014 season-ending breakdown was in evidence in Bristol on Saturday night as Logano drove a crafty race, hitting his marks with no slip-ups. Bristol can be a scalding cauldron, and even a slight driver error can result in catastrophe. With Harvick filling his mirrors, Logano artistically drove different lines to close the door when necessary, while seamlessly negotiating lapped traffic on the clustered half-mile circuit. Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, called out Logano’s execution as the key to the team’s victory at Bristol. “He performed flawlessly,” proclaimed Gordon after the race. “When it comes down to the time to make it happen, he elevates. Joey never folded and never made a mistake and did what he had to do and executed. It’s a Joey Logano performance.”
The Team Penske boys are hungry to bring Roger another title, no doubt. Still, I’m elevating Logano to the head of the class based on his consistent performance and the shared wisdom that “one must first lose a championship to learn how to win one.” Logano’s time has arrived, as he now exhibits the poise, confidence, and calm demeanor that are trademarks of the Captain’s organization. The current Chase playoff format is inherently chaotic, but I’m staking my claim that Joey Logano will be in the Championship hunt on the final lap of the Ford EcoBoost 400 come November 22nd.
Follow Ron Bottano on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged