HOMESTEAD, Fla. — History says that Joey Logano shouldn’t have won the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series title.
He finished 17th in the series standings and missed the 16-driver playoffs in 2017. No driver in the modern area (since 1972) had ever finished worse than 13th in the standings and turned it around the next year to hoist the championship trophy.
But there Logano was Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, doing wicked burnouts and celebrating his victory in the Ford EcoBoost 400 that propelled him to the 2018 crown.
The Team Penske driver had no illusions for the first half of the year of winning the title. Sure, he won at Talladega but he didn’t have the speed of the “Big Three,” who were winning all the races.
“Twenty weeks ago, I thought, ‘Man, if we get to the round of eight [semifinal round], that’s pretty good this year for where we were at the time,” Logano said. “We were consistent, that’s what kept us up in the points all year long.”
When the playoffs started, Logano wasn’t even the Team Penske driver people had pegged to challenge Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for the championship. Brad Keselowski won the final two races of the regular season and then the playoff opener at Las Vegas.
But as Keselowski was winning races, Logano was coming. He had led 95 laps in the race at Bristol just before Darlington. He finished second at Darlington, 13th at Indianapolis and fourth at Vegas (he led 46 laps at Vegas).
He ho-hummed his way through Richmond for a 14th-place finish and then it was on — a 10th at the Charlotte road course, a third at Dover, a fifth at Talladega, an eighth while leading 100 laps at Kansas, the win while leading 309 laps at Martinsville and a third while leading 54 laps at Texas. A crash at Phoenix? No worries.
“Just as the playoffs went, everyone rose to the occasion,” Logano said. “Everyone picked it up. We talk about it at playoff media day before the season starts, and you always talk about how you have to find another little bit inside of you to just maintain when the playoffs starts because everyone is able to get a little bit better. And then as we do that, we started running better.”
It was at Phoenix where Logano had already declared himself a favorite. Some might have scoffed, but Logano knew what he was talking about.
“You honestly need to preach to yourself sometimes, and I do that as much as I can and to our race team because we didn’t have a reason to not feel confident,” Logano said. “We really didn’t. We’ve executed under high-pressure situations before, and we’ve been here before and done a great job.
“My pit crew was incredible. So I had everyone around me — I just had to go do my job. The hard part was kind of over. Plus, all you guys [in the media] thought we were the underdog. I didn’t think that, but most everyone did. Maybe someone won some money in Vegas.”
They probably did. Logano opened the season at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook at 8-1 odds. At the start of the playoffs he was 20-1 and after the first playoff round he was 20-1. He was at 8-1 odds at the start of the semifinal round and then 7-2 going into Homestead.
“We got stubborn and stuck in our ways [last year] and we felt like this is what worked because we almost won the championship the year before and we were the fastest car down here. We should have won and all this stuff, and then you go to the next season and you get spanked,” said Logano, whose 2016 championship hopes came to an end following a tangle with Carl Edwards.
“[We had] to take a step back and say, ‘OK, we kind of need to think things over.'”
There was another reset after the Talladega win in April that virtually guaranteed the team a spot in the playoffs.
“We took the summer to really look at different avenues of how we make our cars handle, and given the struggles that we had in ’17, we needed to find a different path,” crew chief Todd Gordon said. “So we took the summer actually after the win to try to understand what works for our race cars.”
It wasn’t a straight path.
“That path, I think, at the least you wander on the wrong path there,” Gordon said. “But race by race we worked on what we could.
“And when it came time to be playoff time, we kind of focused back on what have we learned and what do we need to do to be successful through the playoffs. If you look at it, about the 1st of August, we got back on this path.”
Logano will look much further back about where the rebound started.
“The rebound started maybe about four or five races before the playoffs last year, and it’s been a slow but steady climb back to now the top,” Logano said. “It’s just so crazy to think. We dropped like an elevator and we took the flight of stairs back up to the top, man.”
That flight of stairs included a few steps up and then an occasional step down before going back up again.
“You make a little gain here, a little gain here, a little gain there, all of a sudden we’re champions the next year,” Logano said. “What a fight.”