Joey Logano won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, but it’s his team at Penske smiling like it won the war. After all, it was one year ago in this very event where its dreams of two straight championships came crashing down. Severe penalties — only partially reduced on appeal — led to hefty fines and suspensions for both Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe, head wrench for Brad Keselowski. After the tedious and draining appeals process, both car chiefs and the organization’s competition director found themselves on the sidelines for two weeks.
Twenty-five point penalties came along with it, a total that wounded Keselowski’s Chase bid and left Logano scrambling for half the summer. More importantly, there was a loss of confidence and momentum, paired with some mechanical head-scratching, that hung around for months. After all, this team whose rear ends “stood out” (to say the least) could no longer push the handling “gray area” other teams accused them of working. Edgy was replaced by uncertainty; an organization that thrived on an underdog role wasn’t used to spending time in the penalty box.
Don’t think for a second Keselowski has forgotten those moments, especially after missing a shot to defend his 2012 title. So even though a late-race pit road speeding penalty left him 15th — as opposed to second — you better believe he joined in relishing Logano’s win. Team Penske leaves Texas with two victories on the year and, therefore, two cars virtually shoed-in the Chase and with top honors in the Ford camp. Keselowski’s rivalry forged with Kurt Busch last week at Martinsville has also faded into the background, just as the driver had hoped after an awkward week of backing away. Wins within a team have a way of doing that — erasing the drama in a way that penalties don’t.
Let’s not forget Logano’s contribution, his perseverance, highlighting this team’s resurgence. That starts our drive “Through The Gears” as we push through the Texas storms to find answers …
FIRST GEAR: Joey Logano comes into his own
In his second season driving for Penske’s No. 22, it’s safe to say Joe Gibbs Racing’s former prodigy made the right decision to branch out and leave. In slightly over a season manning his new ride, Logano has as many wins (two) as he did driving four seasons for JGR. His 15 top-5 finishes stop just one short of his total in the Toyota camp, while the likely two straight Chase bids qualify as uncharted territory for the 23-year-old.
“You never know when it will end, having great racecars,” he said. “When you have opportunities like today, like we've had this year so far, you need to capitalize on it.”
Texas is a great place for Logano to shine; his four top-5 finishes at the 1.5-miler are the most he’s scored at any Cup track on the circuit. Together, along with Keselowski, they combined to lead 193 of 340 laps and the victory would have never been in question without a green-white-checker finish for Kurt Busch’s blown tire. Even then, a four-tire stop didn’t rattle Logano when it put him behind Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers on the final restart. It was a cool, collected drive to the front from the Middletown, Conn., native that you may have not seen a few years back. The key? The crew chief, Gordon, who treats Logano as a mentee in a way that former head wrench Greg Zipadelli (while still at JGR) never did.
“I might annoy him because I come in the shop,” said Logano, showcasing how he’s bought in. “I basically sit in (Gordon’s) office. He fills me in on everything that's going on. The more I feel like I know about the race car, the better race car driver I can be.”
Turns out the pupil keeps listening — and the potential here is rising.
SECOND GEAR: Is Jeff Gordon a legit title threat?
Texas, while great for Logano, has been rough for last generation’s best “young gun,” Jeff Gordon. His 17.2-place average finish there over 27 starts is the worst for him at any NASCAR Cup track. So it was a bit of a surprise when, after a solid top-5 run all day, Gordon gave them a run for their money during that green-white-checker. Great pit strategy by Alan Gustafson, in the form of a two-tire stop, moved Gordon from sixth to second, where he had one final shot to beat Penske. Inevitably, a win wasn’t to be, but the confidence was palpable as Gordon’s run made him the point leader for the first time since 2009’s Coca-Cola 600.
“I'm real happy with the way our team's performing this year,” he said, even satisfied with his kryptonite — restarts — throughout the course of the day. “Feel like we missed a couple opportunities (on Victory Lane this season). But we're also running really strong, and we're consistently running strong, I know that opportunity's going to come for us.”
Should Gordon be counted as a title contender? Not having finished worse than 13th this year tells me it’s a resounding “yes.” Sure, the four-time champ has led just 67 laps and is still in search of a “breakout performance” that showcases the No. 24 team can get over the hump. But you’d have to think, with the way this team has turned consistent, a victory is right around the corner, right? You’re dealing with a driver who has a history of getting hot, once winning a modern-era record 13 races in the course of a year. That first win could come as quickly as a track Gordon once owned — tricky Darlington Raceway — which lies dead ahead this Saturday night.
THIRD GEAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s costly error
The most televised moment in the Cup race will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slip onto the grass, a misstep that sent his No. 88 hard into the outside wall. Earnhardt, the Daytona 500 champion, had to scramble to avoid the ensuing fire while dirt kicked up from the incident ruined the afternoon for teammate Jimmie Johnson.
“I just made a mistake,” admitted Earnhardt. “I was lower than normal (in the tri-oval) and just misjudged it. It tears the car up pretty good when you run through the grass.”
Dropping to a tie for sixth in points, the driver’s hardly in postseason jeopardy. The way Earnhardt was able to shrug off the mistake, admitting it in public bodes well for the team moving forward. But it’s worth mentioning this mistake is also one drivers like Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and other title contenders simply don’t make during the Chase. That reason right there is the one why so many think Earnhardt remains a step below, for it only takes one misstep these days to knock yourself out of the hunt. There are no mulligans when it comes to September, October and November.
How do you fix a mental boo-boo like that? I don’t honestly know, and what Earnhardt blamed it on (the A-post blocking his vision) seems far-fetched. So we’ll see.
FOURTH GEAR: Runaway rookie race
The much-hyped rookie class of 2014 has turned into a one-man roadshow. Since winning at Fontana a few weeks ago in the Nationwide Series race, Kyle Larson has stepped up on the Cup level. Three top-10 finishes in the last four races have distanced him from the competition much earlier than expected, as chief rival Austin Dillon has gone 11th, 11th, 15th and 21st in the same stretch. Larson was smooth as silk Sunday, driving into the top 10 at lap 60 and sticking there until upping the ante, powering right into the top 5 on the final restart. It’s a knack for getting better throughout the event, along with capitalizing on double-file chaos, that keeps Larson (fifth on Sunday) looking like a potential candidate for Cup Victory Lane this season.
Can anyone else step up? The competition, besides Dillon, has been fairly weak with Parker Kligerman and Ryan Truex simply trying to survive a few more weeks in NASCAR’s eight-man freshman class. Very quickly, and despite the prestige of Dillon’s No. 3 ride and that Daytona 500 pole, this race is looking like Larson’s to lose.
Take a second look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s wreck. There was no SAFER Barrier in the location he first hit. We say it too many times: How, with this technology readily available, is part of the outside wall uncovered at one of NASCAR’s most profitable — and fastest — tracks? Speedway president Eddie Gossage can pay for a giant television screen on his backstretch, but when it comes to safety the wallet appears to run dry. … NASCAR needs to come up with a better way to fight Mother Nature. This race, rain-delayed until Monday, wasn’t called until dragging fans through a four-hour wait. By the time it was pushed back, FOX’s national affiliates had switched off and plenty of fans were left to scramble for rescheduling info. With the forecast bleak all week and weepers slowing up the drying process, the writing was on the wall. So why the huffing, puffing and unnecessary FOX television fill? It all seemed kind of silly to me. Can this sport control the raindrops? No, but there has to be a better way to speed this decision process up without disrespecting the fans who paid hard-earned money to wait. And don’t get me started about the green-yellow start; to take up-to-speed laps away from fans that waited an extra day to see the race makes absolutely zero sense. … Kevin Harvick used to complain about the horsepower disadvantage at Richard Childress Racing. Well, you wonder which choice he’d rather make in 2014 after a second mechanical failure in four weeks. Harvick now has tied for the most DNFs (two) he’s had for any season since 2005. And there’s still 29 races remaining.