Joey Logano came into the 2019 version of the NASCAR Playoffs as the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. And after the first round of three races within the championship series of events he remains alive in hopes of capturing a second consecutive title. However, a look at the recent finishes compiled by the No. 22 Team Penske Ford might offer a bit of troubling evidence that the hope of claiming the top prize at the end of the day at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November could be in jeopardy.
Over the last ten races Logano has managed only one top-5 finish which was a second place effort in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Prior to that race, he has scored five consecutive results outside the top-10 including finishes of 16th, 17th and 23rd.
The 29-year-old Connecticut native posted solid runs in the first trio of playoff contests with finishes of 9th, 11th, and 10th at Las Vegas, Richmond and the ‘Roval’ at Charlotte Motor Speedway respectively. But making the next move to the ‘Round of 8’ will almost certainly require more than just solid finishes. Of course, a win would guarantee entry into the next round, but otherwise, at least one or two top-5 efforts will most likely be essential along with running up front at the end of stages to amass the maximum number of points possible, especially with the wildcard of a race at Talladega Super Speedway looming in the near future.
“If you win this week you’re going to breathe pretty good the next couple of weeks, right?” Logano stated to members of the media assembled in the Dover International Speedway prior to this weekend’s running of the Drydene 400. “The 19 team(Martin Truex, Jr.) got to breathe really well through the first round. If you can get that early, everything’s great. If you put yourself behind the 8-ball when you leave here at Dover and then you’re looking at Talladega saying I’ve got a 50% chance of finishing this race, you’re not sleeping too well. That’s why it’s so important when you come here to Dover to have a solid finish and try to score a lot of points in this race.”
And score a lot of points at Dover is exactly what Logano did in 2018 after a 3rd place finish on the concrete surface of the ‘Monster Mile’ in Delaware. The defending champ hopes to avoid the pressure of going into a cut-off race on the wrong side of the cut line.
“That part is key- stage points, finishing points, and if you can grab the win, that’s awesome,” Logano explained. “This is the round you want to do it. It’s one race at a time, but yes, I do notice that that pressure ratchets up then maybe when you hit that reset you’ve got a second to breathe again. The pressure that those guys had last week at the Roval that were anywhere near that cut, that’s a stressful weekend. The last round was all about scoring enough points that you didn’t have to worry about the Roval because you don’t know what’s going to happen there.”
The Team Penske operation’s run to the title in 2018 was an impressive one from this point forward. Logano earned six top-10 finishes over the final seven races including a win at Martinsville which assured entry into the final round as well as the win on the final night of the season in south Florida to secure the championship trophy.
Still, though, the driver admits that the pressure increases as the number of races remaining on the schedule decreases.
“There’s a reason why most of these drivers are bald,” he joked in the Dover media center. “There’s a lot that you have to deal with as a driver and as a leader. There’s a lot that you have to overcome and figure out. When the pressure is on this time of year it either makes you better or you fall apart. It depends on that person and a lot of times you have to figure out what works for you.”
The winner of 23 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races insists that veteran drivers have an advantage late in the season.
“You have to go through these high pressure moments a few times to understand what makes you tick and what makes you work,” he pointed out. “That’s why the experienced guys have such an advantage because they’ve been through this before and they know how to handle that pressure to where the pressure actually makes them better. I feel like we’re in a good spot for that reason because we’ve been here a few times before.”
For his part, Logano feels as if he has found the key to success.
“I think I just find ways to enjoy it and have fun. If you look at the past, the playoffs have been the times when we’ve scored the most wins and scored the most points throughout these ten races. That alone gives me the confidence to fire away at these playoffs.”
If Joey Logano and his Team Penske crew are to be hoisting a second championship trophy this November they have to start running a bit better than they are now. But the No. 22 Ford organization has shown that they are capable of doing exactly that.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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