Seeking a rallying cry for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Joey Logano contemplated a few ideas.
He pondered “Every Lap” and considered “Every Lug Nut” as slogans, noting how details matter in a 10-race journey scheduled to cover 3,693.4 miles.
Logano then decided on “Every Point” as the No. 22 team’s motto for the playoffs, which begin with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“We’ve seen this come down to one point way too many times,” Logano told NBC Sports. “No matter if you’re 25th and it’s going to be one of those days – well, 25th-place points might be what we need to get. We need to get every point we can, and we cannot roll over.”
Kevin Harvick, last year’s regular-season champion, found himself one point shy of advancing to the title race when the white flag waved at the cutoff race at Martinsville. His banzai attempt to pass Kyle Busch spun both and kept Harvick from having a chance to race for the championship.
In 2018 at the Charlotte Roval, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola tied for the final two transfer spots to the second round. Larson, who finished 25th that day, and Almirola advanced on tiebreakers. Johnson’s title hopes ended.
Logano said the “Every Point” slogan is “a good reminder. To be honest with you, it’s as much a reminder for me as it is for (the team). When you get it and get behind it and say it enough, you kind of get into that mindset.”
But there’s also the concern about focusing too much on points inside the car and not just performing. One mistake can have significant repercussions. The difference between second and 16th place in the playoff standings this year is 22 points. That gap last year was 47 points.
Focusing too much on points is something Denny Hamlin – seeking his first Cup title in his 15th playoff appearance – once struggled with.
“Early on in my career in the playoffs, I would panic in the middle of the races thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m losing points to this guy or that guy’ when there was so much race left to be had,” Hamlin told NBC Sports.
Hamlin, seeded seventh and 10 points above the cutline entering Darlington, says he’s become better at controlling his emotions in such situations.
Logano, seeded ninth and eight points above the cutline, concedes that it’s impossible not to think about points inside the car during the playoffs.
“You’re not going to block that out,” he said. “In the week leading up to (the race), you know who you’ve got to beat and how much you’ve got to beat them by. Good luck blocking that out. If you can block that out, God Bless you. I know I’m not going to, so I might as well embrace it and make it a thing.”
2. Hendrick’s “fourth guy”
One of the intriguing playoff storylines is what to make of Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman.
Only teammate Kyle Larson has more victories this season with five. Bowman’s three wins are tied with Ryan Blaney – the hottest driver in the series with back-to-back victories entering the playoffs – and Martin Truex Jr., whose three wins in the first half of the year made him the early title favorite.
Bowman’s season also includes seven finishes of 20th or worse. He’s not had more than four top 10s in a row this year.
In a playoff format that rewards winning, consistency doesn’t have to be the main path to the title race. One of Bowman’s wins this year came at Richmond, the second stop in this opening round.
“I think that’s just how it’s going to be,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “I think I can go win the championship and still, in the media’s eyes, be ‘the fourth guy’ there. That’s fine with me. I’m not here to win a popularity contest.
“I don’t really mind it. I read what people say, and I see it. It is what it is. Last year, we had a great playoff run. I think just about everybody that was covering the sport had us going out in the first round last year and we finished sixth in the points and scored the (second) most points of everybody in the playoffs. That stuff, it is what it is.
“I feel like the biggest thing that I can do to change that is just to improve our consistency. We’re just not consistent. We’re streaky. Can be really good for a couple of weeks and then struggle. If we could ever improve on that, I think that might change a little bit.
“At the same time, I have quite possibly the most talented race car driver of our generation as a teammate (Larson). I have the most popular race car driver of our generation as a teammate (Elliott). And I have ‘Boy Wonder’ in William Byron as a teammate.
“I’m just a guy that likes to wrench on race cars, spend time at home with my dogs. I’m a very regular person. I don’t mind if the media thinks I’m fourth in line to those three because they’re all pretty special and it’s just cool to be their teammate.”
3. Paying it forward
Reddick joins Ryan Blaney. Both raced for Keselowski’s former Camping World Truck Series team in 2014 and ’15.
“I’m finally catching up to Dale Jr.,” Keselowski told NBC Sports about having 1/8 of the playoff field come from his operation.
Both Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. got their breaks in NASCAR with Earnhardt’s operation. Truex won two titles in what is now the Xfinity Series with Earnhardt’s Chance 2 Motorsports. Keselowski drove for JR Motorsports.
“That was part of the deal to pay it back forward the way (Earnhardt) paid it to me,” Keselowski said. “Kind of realizing that dream in some ways. I suspect that when Austin (Cindric) gets to Cup, he’ll be able to do the same. I’ll get to 3/16 of the (playoff) field, which would be cool.”
The list could expand in future years if Chase Briscoe makes the playoffs. Briscoe and Cindric were the two BKR drivers in 2017, the final season for the organization.
Blaney went from Keselowski’s Truck team to running select Xfinity races for Team Penske and select Cup races for the Wood Brothers in 2015. Blaney ran a full Cup schedule for the Woods in 2016 and ’17, then joined Team Penske in 2018.
“I honestly wouldn’t be here without Brad giving me that opportunity, and it’s led to so many more doors opening,” Blaney told NBC Sports.
4. A year of tests
Aric Almirola was headed toward his worst season since 2017 before he won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July to earn a playoff bid.
He finished 30th or worse in four of the first seven races. That left him 28th in the points after the Bristol Dirt race in late March. Almirola had only one top-10 finish in the first 16 races of the year.
In the last 10 races, Almirola has a win, two top-five finishes and nine top-20 results. He remains the only SHR driver to win a Cup race this season.
While it’s gotten better, struggles remain.
“This year tested me in a lot of ways,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “It tested me personally just with perseverance and waking up every morning with kind of a renewed sense of hope even after a bad weekend.
“It tested me professionally, like, ‘Man what is going on? Why is this happening? Why are we running bad? Why are we not performing at the level that I’m used to or the organization is used to?’ Just a lot of questions.
“When you start questioning yourself, it certainly takes a toll on you and tests you. And it tested my faith. I felt like for so long, my faith – I’ve kind of walked lockstep with my faith and my performance. I became a very devout Christian in 2018 and went on to have my best year ever, finishing fifth in the point standings and just had an incredible year.
“Years after, I have still had a lot of success and run really well, and this year, all that stuff wasn’t happening. I would at times find myself questioning, not my faith, but just like questioning ‘What is going on? What’s the Lord trying to show me?’ So battling that and questioning is also a form of testing.
“In many ways this year, I’ve questioned a lot of things, but I’ve always held on to a sense of hope, a sense of faith and a sense that this is all temporary. At a certain point this year, I got to a really good spot to where I realized, ‘Hey, this is all temporary. I’m not going to run bad forever. It’s temporary. I’m not going to race forever. It’s temporary.’ I don’t know if it’s going to last one more year or 10 years or whatever it is, that’s still to be seen.
“It’s all in the grand scheme of things. It’s all temporary. I got to a really good place, actually before Nashville. I felt all that testing throughout the year set me up for that win at Loudon.”
5. History repeat?
A few days before the 2011 Cup playoffs (then it was called the Chase), Tony Stewart took a sheet of paper that listed all the playoff drivers.
He marked those he thought had a chance to win the championship.
He did not include himself.
Stewart entered the playoffs winless. Ten weeks – and five wins later – he was celebrating this third championship.
“What I was really frustrated about – and people didn’t really pick up on, I think, in 2011 – was I felt like there were drivers and teams that were ready for the playoffs that didn’t make the cut and had the potential to finish in the top five, and I took that spot away,” Stewart told NBC Sports. “I didn’t feel like our team was ready for it.”
Stewart won the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. He won the next week at New Hampshire.
“To win there at Loudon the next week, then that was like, ‘Wait, what’s going on here?’” Stewart said. “It wasn’t just a one-off win from the week before. To win back-to-back like that made us go, ‘Wait a minute, something is going on here.’”
He won at Martinsville in the seventh race of the Chase. That moved him to second in points. He won the next week at Texas, putting more pressure on Carl Edwards, the points leader at the time.
Stewart won the season finale at Homestead, as he and Edwards finished in a tie for points (the format was different from today’s version, where the best finish in the finale wins the title). Stewart won the championship because he had more wins.
In some ways, it’s easy to spot the parallels to this season. Kevin Harvick, who drives for Stewart, is winless this season. Could this be a case of history repeating?
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a rallying cry in the shop, ‘remembering 2011’ and go ‘Hey, we’ve done this in the past, we can do this,’” Stewart said. “We have something that we’re fighting in the shop that we can’t put our hands on (this season).
“It was like that in 2011. I’m not going to say that it’s not possible, because we’ve proven it is possible.”