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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.

Dominant season doesn’t end in title for Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In a season where Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick combined to win nearly half the races, they weren’t good enough to beat Joey Logano for the Cup championship Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It’s all for naught,” Busch said of a season where he tied his career-high with eight wins and had career highs in top fives (22) and top 10s (28). “We won eight races, that’s great, but forget about it now.”

Busch struggled with an ill-handling car and spotty pit work at times that forced crew chief Adam Stevens to make a gamble on staying out late, hoping for a caution.

When the team got it, Busch kept the lead off pit road but had nothing on the restart and fell back, finishing fourth.

“I don’t know what happened to it,” Busch said of his car’s handling. “I thought we were way better than that. We wouldn’t have unloaded today if we thought we were that far off.

“Adam gave a great call for strategy there. I didn’t think it was going to work. I thought we were going to finish about 12th of 13th and the pit stop fell in our lap. I didn’t get the best of restarts, but it didn’t matter, they were gone.”

Harvick won a career-high eight races, tied his career best with 23 top-five finishes and had a career-high 29 top 10s.

“It’s been a great year and we just got beat tonight,” said Harvick, who ran without suspended crew chief Rodney Childers on the pit box for the second consecutive week.

He struggled with his car at times during the 267-lap race before finishing third. 

“Good in the day and not good enough at night” is how Harvick described his race.

Harvick led 58 laps – most of those before the sun set.

“As soon as it got dark we never could get our car tightened up there at the end,” Harvick said. “Then they made a great call to put us in position to win the race, and then the caution came out when (Brad Keselowski) spun (Daniel Suarez) out and came off pit road fourth, and just our strong point was not the restarts tonight, and wound up on the wrong side of it.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps discusses multiple topics in media session

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — NASCAR President Steve Phelps met with the media for about 40 minutes Sunday, answering various questions about the sport.

Here’s a synopsis of some of the topics he discussed:

On the transition in NASCAR’s leadership that includes Jim France as interim Chairman and CEO: “You have seen Jim France at all the races since Michigan. He goes to driver councils, (manufacturer) councils, team councils, Jim is involved in the business in a significant way.”

On the 2019 rules package: “The rules package was put in place because we want to have the most competitive racing that we can. We believe the 2019 rules package does exactly that. … We do believe that this racing, which today arguably is the best we’ve ever had, is going to get better. We have a promise to our fans and that promise is about close, competitive side-by-side racing and we believe this 2019 rules package will give us exactly that.”

On the inspection process: “We’re going to look at the inspection process. Will there be changes to it? There might be.”

On if Brian France be back as Chairman: “I can’t speak to whether Brian is coming back or not. I do know that Jim France is our Chairman and CEO. I do know that Jim France is incredibly involved in this sport.”

On trying to find new ownership of teams: “I think it comes back to making sure that owning a race team is something that is not a hobby. It is a business. You need to have people that love it. Roger Penske loves racing. We need to make sure we find that next Roger Penske, we find that next Jack Roush, we find that next Rick Hendrick.”

On what is realistic to expect on changes to the schedule: “I think everything is in play. We’ve heard from our fan base that they would like to see more short track racing, they want to see more road courses, they want to see less cookie-cutter tracks, whatever that means. We are looking with our broadcast partners and with our tracks and teams and drivers to get input on what each of them believes would be an idea schedule and then we’re obviously doing fan research as a part of it. Do I believe that everything is on the table? I do. Will we see a lot of the things that have been talked about? So more short tracks, more road courses, doubleheaders, mid-week racing, pulling the season forward, all those things would be in play. Don’t know what’s going to happen, but we are working diligently on what a 2020 schedule would be.”

On if IndyCar and NASCAR could race at the same track on the same weekend: I know that there are people that would like to see that. I think it would be a good show. We would have to figure out how that works.

On how NASCAR can bridge the gap so a driver who performs on track (such as Truck champion Brett Moffitt, who does not have a ride for 2019) can help such drivers with rides: “Listen, Brett Moffitt is obviously a very talented race car driver who has won more this year obviously than he’s ever won.  He has a bright future. What that future looks like, I don’t know.  What I do know is that we work with race teams from a revenue standpoint as much as we can. We also work with drivers to try to bridge driver opportunities. Are we always successful in getting a driver who wants to be driving in whatever series they want to drive in? No. But there are a lot of historical things that we have done to try to make sure that if a driver is interested in continuing that that driver has that opportunity.”

Click here for full transcript of Steve Phelps media session

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.”

AJ Allmendinger uncertain when, where he’ll race next

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — AJ Allmendinger, making his final start for JTG Daugherty Racing Sunday, says he is not sure when and where he’ll race again after this weekend.

“As of right now, I have zero races planned,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “I’ve got nothing. Maybe there are races that crop up over the course of the season. I’ll say for sure, let’s go 95 percent sure, that I definitely won’t be racing a full season in anything.”

The 36-year-old Allmendinger is being replaced by rookie Ryan Preece next season in the No. 47 car Chevrolet.

Allmendinger said he’d like to run the Xfinity and Cup road course races next year. His lone Cup win came in 2014 at Watkins Glen. His two Xinity wins also came on road courses – Road America in 2013, Mid-Ohio in 2013.

“If I could put together a deal to run all the road courses or most of the road courses in Xfinity and Cup, that would be fun,” Allmendinger said. “It’s me, so if there’s a chance to race anything I’ll go do it. We know the way the situation is in the sport, need sponsorship and everything happened pretty late so a lot of stuff was being filled up. Even the stuff that’s not announced we know is full.”

Sunday will be Allmendinger’s 371st career Cup start.

“I think mentally right now with zero races on board I have to prepare that it could be my last race,” Allmendinger said. “Do I expect it to be my last race ever? No, but as I stand right now to prepare for it mentally, I have to get ready for that. There’s a chance it might be.”

He debuted with Red Bull Racing in 2007. He drove for Team Penske in 2012 before losing that ride after 17 races when NASCAR suspended him for violating its Substance Abuse Policy. Allmendinger later said he was given a pill from a friend that he thought was an energy supplement but was the prescription drug Adderall. He later returned to Team Penske to win those Xfinity races. 

He also won the 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona and finished third in the Champ Car Series in 2006, winning five races.

How does Allmendinger look back upon his career?

“There’s not a lot of people in this world who can say they’ve won a Cup race, Xfinity races, a Rolex race outright, they’ve won Champ car races and might have won an Indy 500 if my seat belt didn’t come off,” he said.