There is an old adage in racing (and elsewhere), that in order to win a championship, you must first lose a championship.
If that’s the case, Joey Logano should be nearly unstoppable next year.
Since the inception of NASCAR’s elimination-style Chase format in 2014, Logano has made appearances in the Championship 4 in two of those seasons and came very close to making it in all three.
In 2016, Logano was once again one of those four drivers and arrived in Homestead with the confidence of someone who already had won a championship, not someone still looking for his first. It certainly seemed as though the “lose one to win one” mentality was working for Logano, as he alluded to his previous attempt at the title in 2014.
“It’s definitely different,” Logano said just a few days before the final race of the season. “You know, you think about everything that’s kind of come about the last couple years, and as you’ve learned how to handle these situations and how to fight through them, living it once before usually helps a lot, so I feel a lot more confident coming into this for sure.”
As you most undoubtedly know by now, Jimmie Johnson went on to win the championship, not Logano. A wreck with Carl Edwards during a late-race restart forced the driver of the No. 22 to make a late-race pitstop to address some front-end damage to the car. Though he was able to rally to fourth, Johnson went on to win the championship and clinch the title.
Logano was undoubtedly bummed after again falling short yet again for the championship, despite amassing 15 victories and leading hundreds of miles in the last few seasons. It’s not only a testament to the difficulty of winning a championship in the series; it’s also a testament to a maturation process even Logano admits he and his team have gone through.
“We have experience now,” said Logano after winning at Phoenix International Raceway. “We’ve been together for four years or so. We’ve gone through hard situations together as a team, and not much has changed. And our pit crew has been really on it the last few weeks, and that’s a lot of fun to be able to come down pit road and have that confidence that you’re going to gain spots. That’s pretty fun to be a part of it, as well.”
Speaking of Phoenix, despite the fact that Logano fell short, the defining moment of the year had to have been his win in the semi-final event of the season, a race where he found himself in a desperate situation with just a few laps left. He teetered as to whether he was either going to miss the Championship 4 by the skin of his teeth or just barely make it.
The fact that it was a restart that hurt Logano’s chances at the championship is interesting considering it was a restart that gave him the opportunity to make it in at Phoenix. A wreck involving Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, and Matt Kenseth (another interesting bit of irony there) gave Logano the opening he needed not only get ahead of his fellow Chase competitors, but win the race and clinch a spot in the Championship.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of Logano’s season was the lack of any major flare-ups, freak outs, or feuds with any of his fellow competitors. Oh, sure, there were a few incidents. Kurt Busch wasn’t all that happy with Logano after the No. 22 spun him on the last lap in Daytona.
And though Edwards didn’t blame Logano for the restart incident in Homestead, there were others who sure did.
However, these were more minor incidents compared to the infamous Matt Kenseth incident last season, or more heated exchanges Logano has had with the likes of Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, and Ryan Newman. Really, aside from a few minor run-ins (and what driver doesn’t have at least one minor run-in with another driver during the season), it was a relatively quiet season for the driver of the No. 22.
So if he didn’t have several drivers breathing down his neck for revenge, what was it that prevented Logano from being this year’s champion? He has been one of the strongest drivers of the past few seasons, yet he just hasn’t been able to seal the deal.
If Logano’s strength is restarts and short runs, long runs are this team’s Achilles’ heel, something that seemed to extend to teammate Brad Keselowski. It was one of the reasons he almost missed the Chase in Phoenix (and why that last restart was a season saver). He started to fade as one competitor after another went by.
It’s perhaps one of the reasons the No. 22 wasn’t in Victory Lane more than just three times, as there were certainly more opportunities than that. If they are going to hope to run for the title again in 2017, there will have to be speed not just on the restarts, but on the long green flag runs as well.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Logano has still managed to unwind and have some fun during the offseason.
For instance, he can’t seem to slow down…
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) December 6, 2016
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) December 18, 2016
Like, at all…
Got that itch to get back in a race car, I guess a big boy big wheel works for now. pic.twitter.com/MgZHwMwCDJ
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) December 11, 2016
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) December 17, 2016
And he seems to be making some new … er, “interesting” friends.
Flying monkey!!! pic.twitter.com/pC3y1paPA8
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) December 14, 2016
All kidding aside, anyone paying attention over the last few seasons has to acknowledge this No. 22 team as a favorite. Having come so close so many times and having been in contention so often for the last handful of seasons, you have to imagine that – at the very least – the first championship is right around the corner. While that’s much easier said than done (especially with the current Chase format), you can only come just shy of sealing the deal before you finally pull through.
2016 was almost it, but not quite. There won’t be very many surprised, though, if 2017 winds up being that year.