For much of this season, Joey Logano has functioned as a forgotten title contender. Clinching his spot early by winning NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 in February, he had the next seven months to “wait around” for the playoffs while others rose to prominence. Rival Kevin Harvick has popped up to have an incredible run, posting his 14th top-2 finish of the year Sunday; Hendrick Motorsports, with Jimmie Johnson winning four of the year’s first dozen races came out as the strongest organization. This summer, when HMS faded their replacement was Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that has all four of their cars still championship-eligible in NASCAR’s Contender Round of 12.
Lost in that is the fact Logano, without the “reset” of this playoff system, would be leading the points by 14 over Harvick. Already posting a career-high 24 top-10 finishes in 30 races he could potentially tie the modern-era record there posted by Jeff Gordon. Charlotte was his fourth victory this season, one behind the career high of five he set last year and only Harvick has led more than his 1,090 laps.
Does that mean Logano can get over the hump this time? An opening came Sunday when some of the JGR cars experienced problems; it’s unlikely now all four will be able to claw their way back into the round of eight. Harvick, while impressive in leading laps throughout the Chase, put himself in a deep hole last round the No. 4 team almost didn’t dig out of. The No. 22, by comparison has been consistently humming along while everyone else has been stealing the spotlight.
“You know, last year we did an incredible job getting ourselves to Homestead,” Logano said. “I felt like we had a great Chase. We executed perfectly. We did everything we had to do to get to Homestead.”
It was there, in the season finale it looked like Logano had the fastest car at points during the race. But a series of late pit problems cost him track position at the wrong time; it was too late to make up the difference and he ultimately lost to Harvick. Can the experience of that failure then help him now, prepping over the next couple of weeks with his trip to NASCAR’s semifinal round already assured?
“The lessons learned were in Homestead,” he claimed. “I feel like we'll be in a lot better shape because we all lived it once and know what we've got to do.”
At Charlotte, the lesson learned was Logano cannot be forgotten as a title contender. Sometimes, others dominate in the early round of a tournament only to fall by the wayside as they go further forward. The consistency of the No. 22 car is going to serve them well heading into the round of eight – and potentially straight through to NASCAR’s Final Four at Homestead.
Through The Gears we go...
FIRST GEAR: Don’t Count Chickens Before They Hatch
In this age of instant information, sports journalists have to offer weekly analysis. That’s dangerous in the case of NASCAR’s playoffs where every three weeks offer a full reset of the standings; it leaves everyone without an advantage and puts simple “racing luck” back into play.
That’s what JGR is dealing with after two of its four cars, flashing such speed throughout the Chase, are in serious jeopardy of missing the next round. Matt Kenseth, winning the pole at Charlotte and leading early, wound up 42nd after contact with Ryan Newman put his car into the outside wall. Seventy-two laps led wound up useless as a 42nd-place finish left him 45 points behind Logano for the point lead, 32 behind Brad Keselowski for the last transfer spot and in a “must-win” situation similar to what Harvick did in Round 1.
“If this is the best I can do,” the sarcastic Kenseth quipped, “It’s amazing I have a job.”
Luckily for him, JGR has run strong on intermediates, a strength which puts the No. 20 car in position to still win Kansas and steal a spot. That won’t help teammate Kyle Busch though, who struggled through “one of those racin’ deals” when he and Kyle Larson made contact just before the entrance to pit road. The 20th-place result leaves Busch 10th in points, in a similar position to Kenseth and without the track record at Kansas and Talladega ahead to feel confident a win is close at hand within the next two weeks.
SECOND GEAR: Hendrick House of Horrors
The self-destruction of Hendrick Motorsports during the Chase continues for a second straight year. Jimmie Johnson, who added insult to injury by blowing an engine at Charlotte is already out of Chase contention. Kasey Kahne, running dead last Sunday after slamming the outside wall twice, never even made the playoffs.
That leaves Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon as the only Chase-eligible drivers remaining.... and at this rate, they’re prepping to join their teammates on the sidelines. Earnhardt hit the wall on his own accord early in the race, never truly recovered and fought through damage to finish 28th, four laps off the pace. Talladega, in two weeks may be his saving grace after Charlotte – Earnhardt won there in the spring and is the sport’s best restrictor plate-racer. However, Lady Luck plays a bigger role there than anyplace else and you wonder if Earnhardt’s due a bad hand.
You can’t say the same for Gordon, still inside the top 8 after an eighth-place finish at Charlotte, but not showing the speed to be a true contender. Gordon’s team is struggling on intermediates and only a combination of late-race adjustments and potent pit strategy thrust the No. 24 team inside the top 10 after a poor qualifying effort. They’ll be hard-pressed to repeat that push at Kansas and then Talladega, the aforementioned Russian Roulette of Cup tracks will be hard to tackle. Gordon was outside the top 30 in the spring and has struggled to “finish” races as of late once the restrictor plate gets bolted on.
THIRD GEAR: Holding Serve
During an unexpected Charlotte day race where top contenders ran into problems, many of the Chase-eligible drivers simply entered Survival Mode. Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards posted top-6 finishes that weren’t flashy but kept them within striking distance of the point lead and well above the ninth-place cutoff to advance into the next round.
Still, for drivers like Truex, a single-car team fighting hard against their multi-car opponents, the unpredictability of Talladega looms. None of them will feel completely safe until the checkered flag falls on what’s become the “wild card” of NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
FOURTH GEAR: Charlotte’s Rough Road
Like Dover last week, Charlotte this weekend featured a dominant leader with limited passing up front. NASCAR’s home track should be a place where the competition of the sport can be celebrated. Instead? Only 14 lead changes, most of them occurring during green-flag pit stops, made it easy to see why plenty of seats remained empty for this rain-delayed Sunday show.
To be fair, Mother Nature wrecked havoc with the plans, scrubbing the race from a Saturday night viewing on NBC. Moving the race back to the cable network NBCSN almost guarantees a fifth straight ratings decline for the Chase. After a surge in support for the new playoff system, this 2015 rules package combined with the way it limits passing up front has dulled enthusiasm. On intermediates like Charlotte there has to be a better way to pass than simply the first few laps after a restart.
Rookie Ryan Blaney, hoping to move up and run full-time in 2016 ran one of his more consistent Sprint Cup races for the Wood Brothers. His 14th-place finish at Charlotte was just his third lead-lap result of the season in 12 starts... Tony Stewart, struggling all weekend, slumped to 26th, his fourth result of 25th or worse within the last five weeks. Stewart, retiring after next season, has publicly backed crew chief Chad Johnston all year but privately you have to wonder if that thought process is changing; two of Stewart’s other teams are busy fighting for the championship... Austin Dillon was the highest finishing non-Chaser Sunday, placing seventh. No one ineligible for NASCAR’s championship has run better than fourth during the first four races of this Sprint Cup playoff.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by ASP Inc.