AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ending an “ugly” playoff run in which his team battled through numerous problems, Joey Logano finally ran into a mysterious malady he couldn’t overcome Sunday at ISM Raceway.
After winning the second stage and putting himself in a strong position to advance to the championship round and defend his 2018 title, Logano faded to a ninth-place finish and was eliminated from the playoffs (finishing seven points behind runner-up Kyle Busch for the final transfer slot).
Logano led 93 of the first 176 laps – sometimes by several seconds – until it inexplicably all fell apart. After Chase Elliott crashed on Lap 166, Logano pitted for four tires and restarted in first on Lap 174. He knew something was wrong almost immediately.
“I couldn’t pass the lapped cars out there because I was one,” he said.
Denny Hamlin took the lead four laps later from Logano, who dropped like a rock over the course of the longest green-flag run in the race. At a 1-mile track where laps take a little less than 30 seconds, Logano fell to 11th and a lap down to Hamlin 60 laps later.
“I have no idea,” Logano said. “It went from a really good car to a car that couldn’t stay on the lead lap with changing tires and a half-pound of air. A lot of things don’t line up there. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Crew chief Todd Gordon told NBCSports.com that he merely removed a half-pound of air pressure from the right rear of the No. 22 Ford.
“I really struggle to say that a half-pound of air pressure that we changed in one tire makes that much of a difference,” he said.
A bad set of tires?
“I hesitate to speculate,” Gordon said. “There was nothing in the tires coming off the car pressure-wise or wear-wise or anything visual that stood out. I won’t rule anything out, but I won’t point my finger at anything, either, because I would say us as a program, I would really hesitate to say that anytime I’ve felt like I had a bad set of tires.
“Maybe this was, but I don’t know how you do that. It didn’t vibrate. It didn’t wear funny. Something happened, we got tight. I took air out of the right rear. That should make you a little tighter, but I wouldn’t have thought to the extent that we got.”
Gordon reversed the changes during a pit stop under green on Lap 246, and Logano immediately began running laps again on pace with Hamlin, who won to advance to the title round.
“I don’t know what to diagnose,” Gordon said when asked if the car would be scrutinized upon returning Tuesday to Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina. “We fired back off on another set with air back in it, and I thought ran better laps than the leader did, so maybe you speculate that just that was the wrong direction on air pressure.
“But really surprising to make that small of an adjustment and have a car go from being a stage-winning car to being a lap down. … I’m really proud of the effort everybody put in, because I think outside of that one run, we were the second-best car today.”
It was a perplexing turn in a race that had gone off flawlessly for Logano until that point. After starting second, he passed Hamlin off Turn 2 with an impressive move on the outside of a Lap 83 restart. He had gained 17 stage points, ensuring that he needed only to finish ahead of Kyle Busch to advance.
“It stinks,” Logano said. “We did the first half of the race really well, we had a fast car, and it went bad from there. I don’t get it, but it just wasn’t our year, I guess.”
These playoffs have been treacherous for Logano, who had one top five in nine races (a fourth at Texas Motor Speedway) and battled through the adversity of axle failures (Dover International Speedway), crashes (Talladega, Kansas, Martinsville) and ill-handling cars (Richmond).
“Yeah, we did not execute well,” Gordon said. “We had damage in multiple races that we had to work back from. Those are things that I’m proud of the effort everybody put in, and the fact that we didn’t have a pretty playoffs, and we still got ourselves to the point where we were one car out.”
Because he netted 30 playoff points during a solid regular season, Logano still nearly reached the championship round for the fourth time.
“We scratched and clawed and made a race out of it with a lot of adversity throughout these playoffs,” he said. “We’ve had a pretty ugly run. We’ve had some good cars, but something has happened every single race, so it is what it is.
“I don’t have the answer of what happened. I wish I did. I really want to know, but no one has it right now.”