A cursory glance at Joey Logano’s first 22 races this year doesn’t inspire confidence, but the manner in which this season culminates falls directly into his wheelhouse. For that reason alone, he’s a legitimate title challenger.
It’d suit Logano to win this year’s championship in a year where his only win to date came, surprisingly, in a dirt race. After all, he was crowned champion in 2018, a year in which he was easily the least consequential participant among a Championship 4 of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who combined for 20 wins on the season.
Logano has established a reputation as a driver difficult to put away, a pestering presence despite stats that sometimes suggest otherwise. He’s a problem for competitors, the linchpin of a team centrally focused on 750-horsepower tracks. That focus is exclusively represented in his year-to-date highlights:
- Logano led a race-high 143 laps last spring in Phoenix, the site of the championship race
- He won the Bristol dirt race, which utilized the 750-horsepower package
- He’s averaged 40.75 points per race on 750-horsepower tracks, trailing only Denny Hamlin’s 41.83
- He finished fifth at Dover, the top non-Hendrick Motorsports driver
- Only Chase Elliott (171) has tallied more points in road course races this season
Logano’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his contribution, ranks first among all drivers on 750-horsepower tracks while his car fares as the second fastest, based on its average median lap rank. While these designations don’t guarantee a title, they do give legitimacy to the driver’s stature as a championship contender.
A playoff slate that’s 60% comprised of tracks utilizing the rules package seems tailored to what Logano and his team do well, while also diminishing the need for what they lack:
Logano and his car rank 12th in average median lap time on 550-horsepower tracks. And whereas the driver, on 750-horsepower tracks, bests his closest competitors for PEER and crash avoidance while faring above average for surplus passing and position retention rate on non-preferred groove restarts, he’s largely invisible at 550-horsepower facilities against the drivers averaging running positions in the seventh-to-12th range, against whom he’ll likely race for playoff survival.
On the whole, Logano doesn’t pass for spots efficiently or in abundance. Aside from a 2020 season in which he passed well above his statistical expectation, he’s largely feasted on clean air and track position for his leads and wins, a style similar to that of Carl Edwards:
For the season, his expected adjusted pass differential, based on his typical running whereabouts, is +83. His actual differential is +5, leading to a surplus adjusted differential of -78. His -2.03% surplus passing value is the second-least efficient mark among all drivers; only Anthony Alfredo’s -2.34% effort is worse. This is a problem that good speed and clean air can collectively mask, with assistance from pit stops and strategy.
In a microcosm, this was on display last season in the Kansas playoff race when his pit crew fed him 16 positions under yellow, including the final stop on which he leapfrogged Kevin Harvick in the running order. Logano then aero-blocked for the entirety of the final 42 laps, a scenario divisive among fans but impressive nonetheless and wholly necessary to qualify for the Championship 4.
But strategy, certainly across green-flag pit cycles, has lacked for much of the 2021 season. Crew chief Paul Wolfe has won races on risks in the past, but at first blush, he’s missed on the basic tenets of pit strategy this season. His designs have led to a 52.27% position retention rate on green-flag pit cycles — the series average is 67% — amounting to a 44-position loss on non-drafting ovals, the second-biggest net loss among all crew chiefs.
The prevailing theory is that Wolfe’s weakness will matter less in a 10-race playoff with low-mileage short track events prominent on the schedule — a good thing given 27 of Wolfe’s 44 positions lost on non-drafting ovals occurred at 750-horsepower tracks. The speed of the car and skill of the driver is strong enough to wash over ill timed decisions across long runs; the pit crew is precise enough under yellow, ranked fourth, in median four-tire box time during this season’s first half, to tip the scales in advance of restarts.
There’s a lot of “if” associated with this path to a championship and it tosses aside a better season in statistical terms for one resulting in a trophy. Granted, Logano’s had standout individual seasons, leading the Cup Series in PEER in 2014 and 2015, traveling in a lane where few others choose to follow might be the most prudent trail back to the Championship 4:
- Three of the four fastest drivers on 550-horsepower tracks last year — Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick — failed to make the Championship 4
- Three of the four fastest drivers on 750-horsepower tracks — Logano, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski — did qualify for the Championship 4
- Overall strength is rarely rewarded under the current playoff format; in seven seasons, just two title winners also had the year’s best finishing average
Team Penske, to its credit, was an early adapter to a championship crowned at Phoenix in a split-horsepower series. Logano and his No. 22 team appear to be the organization’s biggest beneficiaries in 2021, even after stronger performances, indicative in their daylong points totals, from Keselowski and Blaney two weeks ago in New Hampshire.
Logano has imperfections, as all drivers do, but in sync with an industry-best speed on his preferred track type, he’s the perfect focal point for this particular plan. If he indeed wins his second championship this fall, it’ll be via this exact blueprint, one which boldly prioritized one trophy above all others.