Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 19, 2018

Joey Logano Wins a Thriller, Earns 2018’s NASCAR Championship

Screen Shot 2018-11-18 at 9.21.27 PM

Joey Logano (22) passes Martin Truex Jr. (78). (NASCAR)

(Note: A shorter, edited version of this story appeared in the November 18, 2018 print and online editions of The New York Times – Jerry Garrett)

HOMESTEAD, Florida

Joey Logano passed archrival Martin Truex Jr. with 12 laps to go for the lead, and then held on to win the 267-lap season finale and the drivers championship of the NASCAR Monster Energy series Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Logano, at 28, is one of the top series’ youngest champions, besides having already raced in it for a decade. The Connecticut native was racing against Truex, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick – all former champions – for his first title.

Logano, who had suffered a disappointing loss in the 2016 showdown, said that setback prepared him for this year’s clincher.

“I’ve worked my whole life to get here,” said Logano, who drove a Ford for the Roger Penske team. “I knew my car was good on short runs, and that last 20 laps under green was just how I wanted the race to play out.”

The four championship finalists battled each other the whole race, at the front of the field, in a classic battle. It appeared Busch, who had gambled on fuel and tires, might have an advantage at the end. But on a restart, after a caution period with 20 laps to go – caused when Logano’s teammate Keselowski ran into Daniel Suarez* – Busch was not able to hold off Logano and Truex. He faded to fourth, behind Harvick.

“We were just slow that last 16 laps. I got the lead, but I couldn’t hold them off,” Busch said. “My car had no speed. It just wouldn’t go. It was nearly undriveable the whole race.”

The race had a sense of déjà vu about it, as the four drivers still eligible for the Championship 4 were almost the same as the lineup a year ago.

Busch, Truex and Harvick were back for another year as finalists; Logano replaced his teammate Brad Keselowski from the 2017 lineup.

Asked if this quartet was the best group of qualifiers ever, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired this season, replied, “Ever? Hmmm. I would say these are the best four guys here today, to be battling it out for the championship.”

Despite the old Nascar adage that “you need friends out on the race track” to help you do well, this quartet continues to excel, year after year, even though they are among the prickliest competitors in the sport.

After a last-lap clash with Logano at Martinsville last month that cost him a victory, Truex promised, “I know he won’t win the championship.” Truex wouldn’t specify how he “knew” that about Logano’s chances. “”I won’t just wreck a guy,” Truex said, “Unless it’s the 22.” The pair touched fenders and smoked tires several times during the race, as they raced side by side, but without dire consequences.

Logano has had previous contretemps with drivers like Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, who have intentionally wrecked him.

Logano said he expected an even higher level of intensity for the final. “It doesn’t matter how you are,” he said. “You find another gear here. A higher gear.”

Busch was candid about his feelings toward certain drivers in the series. “Sometime you just don’t like a guy,” he said simply.

Earnhardt, who often crossed paths with Busch often during his career, observed, “Kyle drives hard, and he doesn’t care who gets in the way.”

Busch and Harvick have also been in dust-ups on and off the race track with other drivers, most notably Logano’s teammate Keselowski.

Harvick’s team owner Tony Stewart, a notoriously pugnacious driver before retiring last year, said, “Kevin’s the guy who, if there’s five seconds to go, is the guy who you want to get the ball to. You want it in his hands. He’s what I call a plug-and-play type of guy. Plug him into whatever kind of high-pressure role and he knows what to do.”

Despite leading the early stages, Harvick said his car didn’t perform well enough when he needed it most, at the end. “We didn’t really have the speed we needed, the whole weekend,” he added.

Busch and Harvick had each won a season-leading eight out of the 36 races on the campaign, to help them get into the Homestead finale. Truex, the 2017 champion, qualified with four victories and a big cache of points. Logano peaked with key victories in the nine playoff-bracket races preceding the final event.

The battle among the car manufacturers was another case of déjà vu: The second year in a row that Toyota, with Truex and Busch, and Ford, with Logano and Harvick, squared off for bragging rights. And for a second straight year, Chevrolet, which actually fields the most total entries, was shut out.

“That’s disappointing,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s motorsports director. But, he noted, Chevrolet introduced a new car, the Camaro, to the series, and the teams struggled as they tried to sort out the car. The results improved as the season went on, and fan favorite Chase Elliott won three of the last 15 races; he wasn’t eliminated from the Championship 4 until the penultimate race.

Harvick barely made the field, after his car was ruled illegal, three races from the season’s end. His crew chief Rodney Childers was suspended for the remainder of the season, and the team was docked a critical number of points, and an automatic berth in the final. So Harvick had to race his way back in, in the remaining races.

The season finale also marked several milestones. Truex’s team went out of business, with the drop of the checkered flag, having lost its major sponsor. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson finished without a victory for the first time in 16 seasons; and his crew chief Chad Knaus during that run left for another team.

The finale was conducted under perfect weather conditions at the 1.517-mile oval, southwest of Miami. Nascar announced a sell-out crowd for more than 46,000 was on hand.

*Another crash by Suarez late in the 2017 finale enabled Truex to win the title.

Jerry Garrett

November 18, 2018

 

 

 


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