HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Shortly before Joey Logano began his ride into NASCAR history, the driver who proclaimed a week ago that he was the favorite to win the championship, shared his exuberance Sunday afternoon with Daniel Lynch, his team’s interior mechanic.
“I’m getting in as a driver and getting out as a champion,” Logano told Lynch.
A late charge past Martin Truex Jr. — who was fueled to deny Logano the title after Logano bumped him out of the lead to win at Martinsville — guaranteed that Logano would win the race and capture his first Cup title.
The championship marked the end of a long, winding path for the 28-year-old Logano, who took over Tony Stewart’s ride in 2009 at age 18 after Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing for what became Stewart-Haas Racing.
Logano, a driver heralded for his talent as a youth — and one whose 18th birthday couldn’t come fast enough so he could race in NASCAR’s top two series — suffered the cold realities of high expectations, middling results and being a child in an adult sport. The results bruised his psyche and sapped his confidence.
He eventually lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing and wondered if he would be out of the sport before he turned 23. When he joined car owner Roger Penske’s team, Logano began to excel.
But for all his success, which includes a 2015 Daytona 500, disappointment was never far, leaving Logano with more scars.
This was his third time in the championship race. In 2014, he hit the wall and also had the car fall off the jack on a late pit stop, ending his title hopes.
In 2016, he was third on a late restart when he went to dive under Carl Edwards but Edwards blocked and they made contact. Edwards wrecked and Logano’s car was damaged enough that he didn’t challenge for the win after that.
“They hurt a lot,” Logano said of those defeats. “And right when you think it’s over, you’ve got to go to the banquet and watch somebody else give the championship speech, and then it hurts again.”
Truthfully, Sunday should have been Logano’s fourth time in the championship race. In 2015, he had the strongest car and swept the second round but that included a duel with Matt Kenseth at Kansas that ended with Kenseth spinning. Kenseth retaliated by intentionally wrecking Logano as he led at Martinsville. Logano could not recover and didn’t make it to the championship field.
Last year, Logano didn’t even make the 16-team playoffs after a penalty took away his playoff berth for winning at Richmond.
“It’s been so hard and such a long road to get here and been so close and had that feeling of defeat and man, it stings,” Logano said. “It hurts a lot. The last thing you want is to have that feeling again.”
Those gut punches could be devastating for most.
They proved motivating to Logano.
“I try to find the positives in everything in life,” Logano said. “There’s too much negative in our world sometimes. When you’re able to just look at situations, there’s always a silver lining in there, you’ve just got to look for it. Sometimes it’s hard to find it because it’s easy for us to dwell on the bad stuff. Once you get past that and you look at what can make you stronger, I guess that’s what it is, and it makes you not want to feel that again.”
Logano used that motivation when he was third on a restart with 15 laps left.
Logano swept past Kyle Busch to take second with 14 laps to go. Logano charged toward Truex and the lead.
Earlier in the race when they dueled, Logano and Truex made contact. That made what Truex told NBC Sports earlier this week that “I won’t just wreck a guy (for the win) … unless it’s the 22” seem more of a possibility.
Logano knew what he faced as he battled Truex.
“As a competitor, you have to keep that stuff in your mind,” Logano said of Truex’s comments and anger with him for the Martinsville finish. “Everyone says put it out of your mind, but you have to think about it. You have to make the right decisions and be smart about how we were going to race each other. He raced me hard. He raced me the same way that I would have raced him.”
There was no contact. Logano roared past Truex in Turn 2 with 12 laps to go and pulled away.
“Need more time,” Truex radioed his crew in the waning laps.
He didn’t have it. Logano’s car had been set for short runs. It would surge in the first 15 laps on new tires and then start to lose time to competitors.
“We could go 15 laps I think better than anybody,” crew chief Todd Gordon said. “We had talked about this, this race typically has a late caution. It’s just how it kind of unfolds, but there’s typically one somewhere late in the race. And when it came up, there it was, our opportunity, and Joey’s, and you give him that opportunity of here it is, it’s right in front of you, he steps up to another level.”
As he led in those final laps, the realization of a childhood dream emerged. Logano admitted he had been “pretty jacked up” since the morning for this chance. His foot began to shake. Just as it had done early in his Cup career when he won.
When it was over, a year that started with the birth of Logano’s first child, Hudson, in early January, saw Logano place his son inside the cup on the series trophy.
A child emerged the son of a champion.