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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Furniture Row Racing burning ‘midnight oil’ to fix template issues before Atlanta

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As soon as qualifying for the 59th Daytona 500 was over Sunday, Furniture Row Racing crew chief Cole Pearn and other team members were Denver-bound.

When their plane landed, Martin Truex Jr. said their goal was to figure out “how things got screwed up and where they went wrong.”

During the first weekend of “Speedweeks,” the No. 78 of Truex and No. 77 of Erik Jones missed significant track time in practice. Both cars experienced failed template inspection multiple times, a result of faulty template grids at their Denver shop, NBC’s Jeff Burton reported Monday.

The template issues resulted in roofs of FRR’s cars being too high and the decklids being too low.

While the issues were on their Daytona cars, Truex said Pearn and company are burning “a lot of midnight oil” preparing for the races that come after the “Great American Race.”

“Yeah, it’s been a big issue,” Truex said Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. “(They) have been there working on stuff for Atlanta. … They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them, obviously, and we’ve got a good bunch of guys there at the shop, fabricators and such, so we’ll get it straightened out.”

The fixed superspeedway cars resulted in Truex putting up the fourth fastest speed in qualifying. Jones, the rookie who will drive FRR’s expansion car, was 20th fastest.

“It’s just definitely a setback that you don’t want this early in the season, especially for us,” Truex said. “We were building all new cars because we changed the body style this year (to the) 2018 Camry. Obviously going to two cars, that’s a little bit different.”

Inspection failures were a common occurrence for the No. 78 team in 2016, its first season backed by Toyota.

Pearn was suspended for the spring Phoenix race and fined $50,000 after Truex’s car was found to have a roof flap violation during inspection at Atlanta. Pearn had been on probation for a pre-race roof flap violation prior to last year’s Daytona 500.

The team failed post-race laser inspection in consecutive weekends in the regular season finale at Richmond and opening playoff race at Chicagoland, but NASCAR decided not to penalize the team for Chicago. Following pre-qualifying inspection at Talladega in October, NASCAR confiscated left front jack screws.

“At the end of the day, we have to go through inspection and pass just like everybody else,” Truex said. “The rules are the same for everyone, and obviously we’ve had our issues in the past. But I think it’s funny when you talk to Cole, he gets so angry about it because he’s like, everybody thinks that there’s this master plan, and we’re like these guys that try to get everything past NASCAR. Well, it’s really just not the case. It is what it is, but hopefully they’ll get it fixed, like I said, and we won’t have any issues going forward.”

Truex and the rest of Furniture Row Racing return to the track Thursday for practice and the Can-Am Duel.

Upon Further Review: Don’t overlook these drivers in Sprint Cup Chase

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DOVER, Del. — As the focus remains with the Toyota teams entering the second round of the Sprint Cup Chase, don’t forget about others.

Kevin Harvick already has won a race in this Chase. Jimmie Johnson was “just as good” Sunday as Dover winner Martin Truex Jr.’s team, according to crew chief Cole Pearn.

Both Harvick, who has made it to Miami each of the past two years, and Johnson will continue to be teams to watch — along with rookie Chase Elliott — but don’t ignore the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Keselowski finished in the top five in each of the three opening-round races, and Logano had an average finish of 6.3 in those races.

“Consistency is just as important as winning in this format,’’ Keselowski said after his fourth-place finish at Dover. “I think sometimes that gets lost. You might even say that consistency is more important.’’

Keselowski and Logano both said Sunday that their teams still have some work to do compared to the Toyota teams.

“Our execution is there,’’ Logano said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. We just want to continue to build a little bit faster race cars so we can race for the win.’’

It was this round a year ago when Logano swept all three races — Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Keselowski had an average finish of 5.3 at those tracks earlier this year, including a win at Talladega. He and Logano have combined to win three of the last four races at Talladega, which serves as the cutoff race in the second round and will trim the field of title contenders from 12 to eight.

While history doesn’t guarantee success, the Penske duo will be worth watching these next three races.

GROWING STRONGER

Martin Truex Jr.’s third win in the last five races comes as his team’s issues on pit road have disappeared.

Slow pit stops, wayward lug nuts, and other misfortune have made pit road a challenging place for Truex and his team throughout this season.

Twice this season a lug nut created issues — knocking off the inner valve stem when he led at Pocono in August, causing a flat tire and Truex to hit the wall, and getting stuck between the brake rotor and caliper at Richmond in April.

The pit crew has had few hiccups since Michigan, the race before Truex’s streak started. During that August event, Truex led when he came for a pit stop. The car fell off the jack and the left rear wheel wasn’t attached. When the car came down, it hit the wheel and damaged the quarter panel. Instead of challenging for the win, Truex finished 20th that race.

While he has had a speeding penalty (at Richmond) since the Michigan race, pit road has been error-free for his crew.

In that same Michigan race, Jimmie Johnson’s crew had a fueling issue that slowed a stop and hurt his chances of racing for the win. He finished sixth.

Johnson’s issues on pit road have continued since that race:

  • NASCAR penalized his team for an unapproved body modification during a pit stop in the Southern 500.
  • Johnson was caught speeding on pit road at Richmond, and his team was penalized for not having control of a tire in that race.
  • In the Chase opener at Chicago, Johnson was caught speeding on pit road.
  • NASCAR penalized Johnson’s team Sunday at Dover for going over the wall too soon. The stop’s timing was thrown off when Johnson slowed on his approach to his stall to let Aric Almirola exit his stall and drive by.

“I can tell you I’ve been on the other side of that throughout my career,’’ Truex told NBC Sports. “It hurts. I know how Jimmie is feeling. I’ve lost four or five races here on similar things. I know how he feels on that.

“Certainly the pit crew has worked really hard. Michigan was a huge, huge letdown for them. That’s really where it changed. They went to work, and they didn’t point fingers. They didn’t blame anybody. They said, ‘We need to get better and we know we can be better,’ and honesty since then, they’ve been flawless.’’

FOCUSED … AND CONFIDENT

Erik Jones was frustrated throughout Sunday’s Xfinity race with the handling of his car. Things got so bad he worried about abusing his right front tire and pitted on Lap 99, out of sequence  with the field. Turned out the tire was fine, the crew reported.

The way the rest of the 200-lap race went, Jones had to pit with less than 10 laps left for two seconds of fuel to make it to the finish. He placed 16th.

He heads into Friday night’s race at Charlotte — which will reduce the Xfinity Chase field from 12 to eight — 10th in the standings. He is four points behind Brennan Poole, who holds the final transfer spot.

Jones was not pleased after Sunday’s race, saying: “Just kind of an embarrassing day overall. We want to run a lot better than that. It’s pretty embarrassing to not even be in the Chase right now for the next round. Got a lot of work to do. Got to have a good run at Charlotte. It’s just something that I would have never saw coming. Pretty disappointed.

“Got a good team. Have to do it right. We just didn’t do it. We didn’t have the car and things didn’t work out. Hopefully, we’ll have a better car next week at Charlotte and go out and, hopefully, get in into the next round. It will be a lot of work and a lot of pressure, but I think we can do it.’’

Afterward, Jones tweeted his confidence that he’ll move on to the next round.

PIT STOPS

— Sunday’s Dover race marked the 11th time in 29 races that Toyotas combined to lead more than 70 percent of the laps. In the first round of the Chase, Toyotas combined to lead 624 of the 970 laps (64.3 percent)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s 11th-place finish was his best result since he placed second at Bristol in August.

Clint Bowyer’s 24th-place finish ended his streak of four consecutive finishes of 22nd place.

— There were seven cautions for accidents or spins in the first round of the Chase. All were listed as single-car incidents in the NASCAR race reports.

Austin Dillon was the last driver to advance to the second round of the Cup Chase by points. He had an average finish of 12.7 in the opening round. Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the lowest average finish among those who advanced to the second round via points at 13.3. In 2014, Kasey Kahne advanced with an average finish of 18.7. Kevin Harvick has lowest average finish to advance to the second round at 21.3 last year but he moved on with a win.

— If you missed it, Xfinity driver Ryan Ellis said he was taking a precaution by going to a local hospital to be further evaluated after his crash in Sunday’s race left him with a headache. He tweeted after being examined.

Kyle Busch fastest in opening Sprint Cup practice at Richmond

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Kyle Busch posted the fastest lap in Friday morning’s Sprint Cup practice at Richmond International Raceway with a lap of 120.979 mph.

Toyota took four of the top five spots, including the first three.

Southern 500 winner Martin Truex Jr. (120.649 mph) was second, followed by Denny Hamlin (120.552), Kasey Kahne (120.439) and Matt Kenseth (120.208). Kahne’s Chevrolet was the only non-Toyota in the top five.

Toyota also went 1-2-3 with the best 10 consecutive lap average. Busch led the way with an average of 119.781 mph. He was followed by Truex (119.458) and Carl Edwards (118.840).

 

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Keselowski, Truex go from banging fenders to ‘it’s all good’

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Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. got together on the final lap of Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International.

They were both fighting for second place and Keselowski wound up spinning Truex, relegating him to an eighth-place showing. Keselowski, meanwhile, motored on to a third-place finish behind Penske teammate Joey Logano and winner Denny Hamlin.

But things didn’t end there. After they both exchanged hand gestures on the cool down lap, Truex banged fenders with Keselowski a couple of times before both parked their cars on pit road.

For as much animosity was shown on the track, it was forgotten just as quickly. As soon as Keselowski climbed out of his race car, he made a beeline to Truex’s car.

Just like that, bygones became bygones.

Here’s the extent of their conversation.

Keselowski: “It’s my fault.”

Truex: “I know it was. It’s all good.”

And that was it, over as quickly as it began.

But later, Truex seemed to still have a little bit of animosity left in him despite Keselowski’s apology.

“Hell no, it don’t help, because you’re like, ‘well, that’s awesome. Thanks for saying you’re sorry, but what do I get out of it?’ You know what I mean?'” Truex said. “That’s just racing.

“It’s like yesterday in qualifying, you know. A guy pulls out in front of you, he says I’m sorry. Well, no s— you’re sorry, but you gotta damn stop doing stupid stuff, you know what I mean? I don’t run over people all the time. I don’t pull out in front of people in qualifying. So race me like I race you is all I ask.”

In addition to the above video, here’s a few tweets from both Keselowski and Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, who decided not to blast Keselowski for the incident.