When Joey Logano first arrived in the Sprint Cup at the age of 18, he was considered the greatest thing since "Sliced Bread," which became his nickname.
It turned out that Logano was able to slice through fields of cars with more raw talent than judgment. He often angered his fellow drivers and the nickname disappeared. That's all behind him now because, in his eighth season, Logano is headed to the Homestead-Miami Speedway looking for his first Sprint Cup championship and he may well get it.
Needing to hold onto at least a fourth-place finish in the closing laps to advance beyond Sunday's Chase elimination round in Phoenix, Logano went three better and won the race.
You could call it a gimme, since Logano needed two flukes to come out the winner. How often do you see a caution fall due to a crash with two laps to go and then see a veteran leader like Matt Kenseth crash on an overtime restart? On the other hand, Logano earned the big boost of momentum that comes with a victory.
Prior to the drama that put him into the lead, Logano was clinging for dear life to fourth place ahead of fellow Chase contender Kevin Harvick, just enough to get the Team Penske driver to Homestead on points. It was a sign of the times that Harvick, looking for his sixth victory at Phoenix in seven races, raced "the kid" cleanly. And Logano, now 26, did likewise.
"Kevin and I have, I guess, been through our stuff," said Logano. "But it's cool to see how we race each other now, and it goes back and forth every single weekend. It's not a surprise, but it is cool to see that. Man, we're going to Miami now. How about that? I'm still stoked."
Two years ago, Logano advanced on points in the Phoenix race behind race winner Harvick, who claimed the 2014 title in Homestead. At that time, Logano was still a neophyte.
"I remember standing out here, and I think we finished third or fourth that day, and I was like, you know, I wasn't as excited," Logano said. "I was immediately nervous right after the race here."
Now Logano believes his team can win the title. He surely knows the territory. He was a contender among the final four in 2014, when he lost due to a jack problem on the last pit stop service by his Team Penske crew.
Last year, there was the infamous retaliatory sucker punch from Kenseth at the Martinsville Speedway. Instead of being on his way to a fourth consecutive postseason victory, Logano's Ford was in the fence with no momentum in sight and he failed to make the Homestead finale.
How ironic that Kenseth simply goofed this time and Logano sailed into a victory that could not have come at a better time.
"I don't feel like it's a long shot like it was last time," said Logano. "It was my first time there, 'I'm racing for a championship. Oh, my God, what's going to happen?' This time I feel like we've been here before. We've been in these situations."
Instead of winning three straight postseason victories like last year, this year Logano has won two elimination races, one at the Talladega Superspeedway in the Round of 12 and this one at Phoenix, his first on the desert mile oval.
Now, Team Penske may be a team of destiny. None of Logano's competitors in Homestead emerged from Phoenix with much in the way of momentum. Jimmie Johnson was penalized on yet another quirky call from NASCAR officials and then crashed. Carl Edwards, who like Johnson had already advanced due to a victory, finished 19th. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, pointed his way to the Championship 4 after struggling much of the day and only made it because of Kenseth's crash.
Logano will have the added momentum of trying to help team owner Roger Penske become the first to win an IndyCar title and Sprint Cup championship in the same year. The Fords of Penske have become faster during the postseason after drivers Logano and Brad Keselowski initially moved forward on points. Perhaps that's because all of the team's engineers have turned their full focus to the NASCAR program after IndyCar drivers Simon Pagenaud and Will Power finished first and second in their title run.
It's not a point lost on Penske, who is celebrating his 50th year as a racing team owner in fine style and as usual was trackside on Sunday now that the IndyCar season is over. Always a shrewd one, the team owner did his best not to let himself or his team get overconfident about the IndyCar and Sprint Cup double.
"Well, that would be a record, which would be amazing for the team," said Penske. "That's quite honestly -- when we start and you get into the season and you have success in one series and you see you're competitive in another, believe me, it crosses my mind. But at the end of the day, it's a lot tougher to make it happen, to really execute that.
"To be there next week, remember, we're racing against three cars. I think we have as good a chance as anybody unloading there next Friday at Homestead."
In addition to providing the technical firepower at his factory-sized headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., Penske provides motivation and has the experience to keep his team on an even keel. He knew what it was like when Logano was summarily dumped into the wall at Martinsville, comparing it to the year his team failed to qualify any cars for the Indy 500.
"It's a little bit like going to Indy in '95 and not qualifying, walking down to pit lane with 100,000 people watching you go back to your garage a non-qualifier," Penske said. "Those things make your team stronger, and I think based on last year we moved on, and quite honestly, I think Joey and Matt have worked it out on the racetrack, and hopefully personally and professionally they know how to do their jobs."
Crew chief Todd Gordon believes he has a guy who can "elevate" in the literal sense of a star athlete and in terms of motivation. It certainly looked that way while Logano was running a hard, but clean duel with Harvick in the final 10 laps to maintain a fourth place that eventually proved to be decisive. It put him in position to get past the crash of Kenseth and second-placed Alex Bowman to take the lead prior to the last overtime restart.
"I love that we've got speed," said Gordon. "I love that our pit crew has got confidence, and our race team has got confidence. On top of that, we've got a guy that's a closer. I think Joey elevates when pressure gets put on him. A lot of those things, you look at it, and it makes it very optimistic about what we can do next week."
Logano says he'll be able to keep things in perspective.
"I remember last time I was calling Todd. 'What else can we do, is there anything else?' And you get so -- I guess you're looking at every little detail, as you should, but you've also got to be able to turn it off, and that's where I didn't do that before," Logano said. "We didn't do a bad job last time we were down there. We had a fast car and it wasn't awful."
This time Logano says he's approaching it like a normal race weekend where the goal is to win. But the years have proven there's nothing normal about running for a Sprint Cup championship at Homestead -- although for Team Penske trying to land another title is business as usual.
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