Upon Further Review: Joey Logano is NASCAR’s lightning rod but could be its next superstar

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He has angered Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, frustrated Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch and pissed off Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

And that’s not the complete list of those who have been upset with Joey Logano at one point or another.

Add Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Cole Pearn and Tony Gibson to that list. Also, don’t forget Greg Biffle and Robby Gordon. And if you want to go further back, add Peyton Sellers’ name.

Logano’s career features a trail of heated exchanges, threats from competitors and a few wrecked cars. While not always blameless, that doesn’t make Logano the devil either. 

Sunday’s altercation with Kyle Busch after the NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway adds another element to Logano’s legacy but begs a question: Why is Logano such a lightning rod to his competitors?

Critics already have their answer.

It often is not as simple as one wants to make it, though.

Logano finds himself in such situations because he’s often running at the front late in races. He and Jimmie Johnson each have won the most races (14) since 2014. Logano also has a Daytona 500 win during that time. 

 It’s easy to say that Johnson hasn’t had as many incidents with competitors and look at his success. That is a fair point, but not everyone races the same way. Logano exudes a different style. An old-school style.

“He’s almost two generations late to his style of driving,’’ NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett said about Logano. “It’s almost like he should have come along in the late ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. You just don’t see that many people this day and time get out and race the way he does.’’

“He doesn’t mind taking it to the edge. He’s going to do everything he can do to try to get around you. They didn’t have to implement the new rules to make him drive hard. He’s been that one that does that. When you do that, and probably because of situations, he might get raced harder than other people get raced in those situations, but he’s not backing down.’’

Look at the high-profile incidents in which Logano has been involved. He was racing for the lead or near it in each.

Sunday’s duel with Kyle Busch was for fourth place when they raced down the backstretch on the last lap. Busch, bloodied in the scuffle on pit road, later said: “He’s going to get it.’’ Of course, that overlooks the contact Busch initiated on the backstretch that sent his former teammate offline and eventually into Busch’s car.

Logano and Hamlin made contact racing for the win on the last lap at Auto Club Speedway in 2013. That came a week after an incident at Bristol between the two former teammates.

Logano angered Martin Truex Jr. last year at Auto Club Speedway as they raced for fourth with 50 laps left. Said Truex afterward: “I’m going to race him differently from now on.’’

Kurt Busch was upset with Logano after last July’s Daytona race when contact from Logano caused him to spin on the last lap as he ran second.

And there was the duel with Matt Kenseth in 2015 as they raced for the lead at Kansas five laps from the scheduled end. After having been blocked earlier, Logano made contact from behind. Kenseth wrecked. A few weeks later, Kenseth exacted revenge by wrecking Logano at Martinsville.

 “He ran me hard,’’ Logano said of Kenseth after his Kansas win. “I ran him hard back. That’s just the type of driver I am, the type of racer I’m going to be.’’

Some will suggest that such incidents are the result of a careless driver. What it shows is a driver who doesn’t back down late in a race.

“I know I wouldn’t want to work on someone’s car that’s going to roll over,’’ Logano said after that 2015 Kansas race.

With that driving style, Logano has advanced to the championship race in two of the last three years. 

It also could help him become the sport’s next superstar.

Beyond Johnson’s seven championships, no active driver has more than one Cup title. The sport awaits its next great champion with multiple titles. There are other candidates, but none is as young as Logano, who is 26 and has shown the ability to compete for a championship at this point.

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“He could get four or five (titles),’’ said NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty about Logano. “If you go off that theory that he’s the guy challenging the establishment, he’s the guy who can take championships away from the establishment.’’

Consider those who have had run-ins with Logano. They’re part of the establishment.

Even though this is Logano’s ninth full season in Cup, he doesn’t turn 27 until May. Kenseth is 19 years older than Logano. Harvick is 16 years older. Hamlin is 10 years older. Kyle Busch is 5 years older.

It’s just like on the schoolyard, the youngest often has to fight hardest to be considered an equal, and no one likes to be upstaged by someone younger.

Logano faces that and other challenges while in the best situation in his career. When he moved up to Cup in 2009 at age 18, it was to replace Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing. That was Stewart’s team, not Logano’s.

When he went to Team Penske in 2013 — after no other Cup teams made much of a pitch for him — it was his team. Taking the knowledge of his Xfinity success and Cup struggles, a wiser Logano could be a leader even though he was 21 years old at the start of that season.

“I think that’s part of what Joey struggled with (at JGR) is you need to be able to put your identity on something and say that may work for him, but it’s not what works for me,” crew chief Todd Gordon said. “I think he and I sat down and talked more about what do you need in a race car to be successful. We focused on that. Him (saying) This is what I want. This is what I need.’ We worked very hard at a lot of things in that respect.

The confidence is markedly different from his Gibbs days and comes from the support of teammate Brad Keselowski, owner Roger Penske, Gordon and the rest of the organization. It’s also backed by a commitment. Team Penske recently extended Logano’s contract to beyond 2023, matching the deal with sponsor Shell-Pennzoil.

“Joey has taken some undue criticism from my perspective based on some of the things that have happened,’’ Penske said last July after Logano’s incident with Kurt Busch at Daytona. “I can name three or four things that certainly weren’t his fault. Quite honestly, I think he’s one of the best drivers on the racetrack out there day in and day out.

“Lot of these drivers can knock somebody off the track and they say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and they move on. They don’t let Logano do that. As far as I’m concerned, I’m behind him 300 percent.’’

With such support, Logano will keep racing the way he has. It’s just as he said in Sept. 2012 after it was announced he would join Penske’s team in 2013.

“I think if you shoot for a top-10 finish, the best you’re ever going to do is get a top-10 finish,’’ Logano said. “You’re always wanting more. They call me greedy, but I think that’s the competitiveness in me, to always want to be better.’’

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Here’s your primer heading into second half of NASCAR Cup playoffs

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If you thought the first five races of the NASCAR Cup playoffs were intense, you haven’t seen nothing yet.

As the 10-race playoffs move into their second half, the final five races will likely be more competitive than the first five.

That’s particularly true in Sunday’s cut-off race at Kansas, where the current field of 12 remaining playoff contenders will be cut to eight after the checkered flag falls.

And then there will be the Round of 8 cut-off race at Phoenix in four weeks that will set the four-driver field for the championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thanks to our friends at RacingInsights.com, here’s some of the top playoff insights that will help fans better understand where we are in the playoffs heading into Kansas:

  • Playoff drivers have won all five races in the 2017 playoffs.
  • The last time a driver who didn’t make it into the playoffs won a playoff race was Denny Hamlin at Homestead in 2013.
  • The last playoff race won by a playoff driver who was previously eliminated from the playoffs was Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2015.
  • Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only driver to go on to win the championship without winning a race during the playoffs.
  • Four of five playoff races so far this season have been won from a qualifying position of sixth or better.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega driving a Ford, ending a four-race playoff winning streak by Toyotas. Also, prior to Talladega, Toyota drivers had won all four poles and all four races in the 2017 playoffs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the pole at Talladega, but finished seventh.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last lap pass for the win, it was the eighth playoff race won with a last lap pass and the only one in the last 29 races.
  • There were 11 cautions at Talladega, the most cautions in the last 18 playoff races.
  • There were a combined 21 cautions in the last two playoff races, the same number as the previous four playoff races combined.
  • Talladega last week: 14 cars running at the finish, 26 total DNFs (including 24 DNFs due to wrecks), three red flags and only two playoff drivers finished in the top 10 – all records for a playoff race.
  • A Chevrolet driver has finished runner-up in each of this season’s first five playoff races.
  • Chase Elliott has finished runner-up three times so far in the playoffs. The record for most runner-up finishes in the playoffs in a season was four by Jeff Gordon in 2014 and Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Elliott has also finished runner-up at both 1.5-mile tracks so far, with three more 1.5-mile tracks still left in the final five races (Kansas, Texas and Homestead-Miami).
  • Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only drivers still playoff-eligible that have scored stage points in every playoff race.
  • The best average finish by a driver in all 10 races of the playoffs is 4.9 by Carl Edwards in 2011. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship, but Stewart won on the first tiebreaker – more wins (five to Edwards’ one).
  • Martin Truex Jr. has led the playoff standings through the first five races of the playoffs, tying Matt Kenseth in 2013 for the most races led by a driver to start the playoffs. Truex also won at Kansas in May.
  • Three drivers have won races during the playoffs in all three years of the elimination format entering 2017: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson all three drivers have yet to win in 2017.
  • Only two of the 135 playoff races were won by drivers getting their first NASCAR Cup win: Clint Bowyer in 2007 at New Hampshire and Brian Vickers in 2006 at Talladega.
  • Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. Entering Kansas, Johnson remains winless in the 2017 playoffs.

Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title

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Jimmie Johnson’s spotter says he’ll be “crossing my fingers” this weekend at Kansas that the mistake he made at Talladega doesn’t keep Johnson from advancing in the playoffs.

Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.

No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.

Johnson goes to Kansas with a seven-point lead on Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by eight points.

Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.

“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’ 

Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders

The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage. 

Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.

Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).

Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.

Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs. 

To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.

Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.

Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.

In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.

That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.

If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.

Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.

The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.

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NASCAR video: A.J. Allmendinger could be spoiler at Kansas

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It’s admittedly been a rough season for A.J. Allmendinger.

In the first 31 races, Allmendinger has one top-five finish and five top 10s.

He’s 26th in the NASCAR Cup point standings, which is on pace to be the worst full-time season of Allmendinger’s Cup career.

But there’s a bright spot for Allmendinger in this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Allmendinger has recorded two top-10 finishes in the last three races at the 1.5-mile track.

And he’s ready to go for another top-10 Sunday.

“In the last few races, the track has widened out for three-wide racing,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a fun race track, run the bottom, middle or top. It’s a place we’ve had success at, we’re ready to go do it again.”

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. on last run at ‘Dega, thoughts on rising new stars (videos)

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In a way, Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway was another example of the changing of the guard in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his last ride around the place, starting from the pole and finishing a respectable seventh.

As a special guest on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America on NBCSN, Junior recalled the thrill of his final Cup race at the sport’s longest racetrack, the emotion that went with it and how he felt his day went overall. Check out the video above for his thoughts.

At the same time, Earnhardt also said Sunday’s race was a good example of how some of NASCAR’s young up-and-coming stars like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are really starting to make their presence felt in the sport.

When Earnhardt retires at season’s end, it’ll be up to drivers like Elliott, Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Austin and Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and others to keep the sport advancing and growing.

Earnhardt also revealed on the show that he had a “passing the baton” moment at Talladega with both Elliott and Blaney.

He also noticed that in addition to the sell-out crowd cheering him on as it has for the last 18 years, a large number of fans cheered loudly and noticeably when Elliott took the lead.

Will many of Junior’s fans ultimately gravitate to start following drivers like Elliott and others as he closes in on retirement at season’s end?

Check out his thoughts in the following video, as well.