Long: Spurred by past defeats, Joey Logano emerges a champion

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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.

Tony Stewart says JGR made ‘very smart decision’ on pit stall picks

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Tony Stewart, whose organization will compete against Joe Gibbs Racing for the Cup title Sunday, said he has no problems with JGR’s decision to have Denny Hamlin’s team not take the No. 1 pit stall so Kyle Busch, who is racing for the crown, can have it.

Hamlin’s team had the first pick of pit stalls after winning the pole but did not choose the No. 1 stall since that team is not running for a title. Busch, who starts second and whose team had the second pick, then took the No. 1 stall.

MORE: Denny Hamlin reacts to giving up the No. 1 pit stall to Kyle Busch

MORE: Cup pit stall assignments

“It’s a smart decision,” said Stewart, who will have Kevin Harvick racing for the Cup crown Sunday. “If we were in the same position, I would hope we would be smart enough to do the same thing. I’ve already seen all the drama and the people complaining either way.

“These four teams are here to win a championship and if your organization can help you do that and give you every tool available to get that done, you’re stupid to not do it.

“I’m behind what JGR did 100 percent. You have to do that. You have to put yourself in the best position to win the race and the championship. They made a very, very smart decision.”

Car owner Joe Gibbs defended his decision because Busch is running for a championship and Hamlin.

“We’re going to do everything we can to win the race there, but we also, for us, have a championship on the line and what we would love to do is win that championship,” Gibbs said. “That’s how the decision was made for us.

“I think if there is any criticism, it goes to me.”

Sage Advice: What Tony Stewart told Kurt Busch at Phoenix

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Tony Stewart has seen the picture taken of him and Kurt Busch near the end of Sunday’s Cup race at ISM Raceway and wants to assure you it’s not what it looks like.

The picture shows the Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner and Busch talking closely on the No. 41 team’s pit wall shortly after Busch wrecked in the final playoff elimination race.

“It looks like he’s sobbing on my shoulder and I’m consoling him and that’s not what it was,” Stewart said Monday on Kevin Harvick‘s “Happy Hours” show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was a boss and his driver, and more so two friends, that are having a conversation saying, ‘Don’t let that one mistake and that one crash overshadow what you did today as a race car driver and what you’ve done all year,” Stewart said.

Busch, the 2004 champion, entered the elimination race three points behind Harvick for the final transfer spot to the Championship 4.

Busch led 52 laps before he was held a lap by NASCAR for passing the pace car as he entered the pits on Lap 136.

After he returned to the lead lap, Busch stayed out of the pits during a late caution.

When the race restarted with 44 laps to go, Busch was racing Denny Hamlin for the lead in Turn 2 when Hamlin got loose and pinned him against the wall, which caused a chain reaction that involved Chase Elliott. Busch finished 32nd.

“Those restarts were insane yesterday,” Stewart said. “Kurt couldn’t do anything about that. It was more just having the conversation with Kurt, ‘Don’t beat yourself up, don’t go to the media and blast NASCAR because you did make a mistake, it was your fault, not NASCAR’s fault.’

“‘You did everything you could do’ … he absolutely drove his ass off. Ran a great race, battled adversity after his mistake coming on pit road. Absolutely did everything perfect from that moment on. That’s what I wanted him to understand.”

Busch, who enters the season finale at Miami without having announced where he’ll race in 2019, praised Stewart, who he has competed for since 2014.

“He was just helping me out as a driver, owner,” Busch said. “That’s what Tony Stewart does. He’s a good individual that knows how to pat somebody on the back and create clarity from the outside on what went on because I only see what happens from the inside of the car.”

Denny Hamlin remorseful about incident with Kurt Busch

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin expressed remorse about making contact with Kurt Busch and triggering an accident that ended the title hopes for Busch and Chase Elliott.

A frustrated Busch — who entered Sunday three points behind Kevin Harvick for the final transfer spot — was consoled by car owner Tony Stewart on pit road after dropping out of the race.

“He was just helping me out as a driver, owner,” Busch said of Stewart. “That’s what Tony Stewart does. He’s a good individual that knows how to pat somebody on the back and create clarity from the outside on what went on because I only see what happens from the inside of the car.”

Hamlin and Busch were racing for the lead after a restart 44 laps from the finish when Hamlin’s car got loose and came up the track in Turn 1. Hamlin’s car made contact with Busch’s car. That sent Busch’s car into the wall and triggered the multi-car crash.

“I just chased it up the track and he was up there,” Hamlin said after his 13th-place finish. “To me, it’s just a racing thing. It was obviously noting intentional on my part. I’m a huge Kurt Busch fan.”

Hamlin also noted that “I’ve never had one incident (with Busch). He’s as fair to me as anyone out there. I hate it for him. Trust me I was rooting for him.”

Busch, who finished 32nd described the incident from his viewpoint: “Erik Jones was on my inside when we restarted, and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t slip through the new (Turn) 1 and 2. If I could have been to somebody’s outside off (Turn) 2, then I thought we had a good shot of maintaining the lead, and I just got cleaned out. I flat out got cleaned out.”

Busch was at the front because he did not pit under that caution. He, Jones and Hamlin did not pit while the rest of the lead-lap cars were on fresher tires.

“I thought it was the right decision on staying out,” Busch said. “I’m not going to look back on it.”

Busch was on a different strategy after overcoming a penalty for passing the pace car while entering pit road on Lap 136. NASCAR specifically reminded competitors in the drivers meeting that they could not pass the car entering pit road.

“If the rule earlier in the race on the pit road of passing the pace car is black and white, I just need to get brushed up on my rulebook,” Busch said after the race. “I didn’t gain anything by doing what I did other than just digging from behind all day.”

Dale Jr. Download: Addressing repaves, rules packages and penalties

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Recorded on Monday after a Texas Cup race filled with controversy but not filled with a lot of on-track action, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast addressed the state of the sport, improvements already made and potential enhancements that are in the works.

Texas Repave and Reconfiguration (begins at about the 1:30 mark)

After the race, Chase Elliott complained about the repaving and reconfiguration of Texas Motor Speedway, saying: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2. Not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Earnhardt notes that the repaving was a necessity. Texas was forced to reschedule an IndyCar race in 2016 because the track surface was unable to control weepers. His opinion about the reconfiguration was mixed.

“The reconfiguration, though; not sure that I would have done that,” Earnhardt opined. “With that said, I think the less banking in (Turns) 1 and 2 is maybe the only thing that created passing in the race. Guys going down in there and getting moved up the racetrack.”

2019 Rules package and beyond (4:20)

A new rules package for 2019 has drivers and teams already debating its efficacy. In a tweet after Sunday’s race, Denny Hamlin addressed the pending rules, saying it is naïve to think the new package will solve one-groove racing.

“One of the most important things to the racetrack is what connects (the car) to the road,” Earnhardt said. “The tire is the most important component to all of this. … That’s why Goodyear’s job is the toughest job in the sport. Tougher than the governing body. Goodyear is the key to all of our answers.”

Moreover, a new engine package needs to be created specifically with the new aerodynamic rules and tires in mind.

“There is a new engine package coming in a couple of years that is going to be an open engine with 550 or whatever horsepower,” Earnhardt said. “Until then, we’ve got this stopgap restricted engine … and that’s okay too. It helps us understand where we’re headed and what we need to do to fix it.”

Stop Listening to All the Drivers and Fans (5:45)

Earnhardt believes it is time for NASCAR to become more selective about who they listen to. Conflicting agendas make it impossible to get a clear picture of the path that needs to be taken, so the sanctioning body should find a few drivers they respect without feeling the need for an all-inclusive Drivers’ Council.

“NASCAR doesn’t need to listen to the drivers. NASCAR needs to listen to some drivers,” he said. “NASCAR doesn’t need to listen to every single fan when they have opinions. They need to listen to some fans.”

Make Penalties Fearsome (9:50)

“I’m a believer in a stern, strict system … that has penalties and deterrents that are incredibly severe that would make you never want to fail tech,” Earnhardt said.

Addressing the controversial mistake by NASCAR to send Jimmie Johnson to the back of the field after failing pre-race inspection twice, Earnhardt was in agreement with Tony Stewart’s comments earlier this week about ways to simplify the tech process. He believes fewer rules and zero tolerance is desirable.

“We need less rules – like tech shouldn’t be such a giant process – but the rules that we do keep, those are rules, and if you break those rules that should be it.”

On Wednesday, after the Dale Jr. Download podcast aired, NASCAR levied an L1 penalty against Kevin Harvick for an illegal spoiler. Later in the day, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition Scott Miller suggested harsher penalties might be coming in 2019 for similar infractions.