ONE: Is Joey Logano This Year’s Joey Logano?
In 2018, we spent a lot of time debating which of the “Big Three” who had dominated the regular season — Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch — would race off with the title once the playoffs got underway. As it turned out, all three made it to Homestead-Miami Speedway in contention, but it was Joey Logano who prevailed over the final 400 miles of the season to win an inaugural championship. Headed into the playoffs this time last year, very few prognosticators were tipping the Team Penske driver to seize the crown. So it’s informative then to compare Logano’s record heading into the playoffs in 2018 with his 2019 numbers. Last year, Logano started out the playoffs with one win, seven top fives and 18 top 10s. This time around, the driver of the No. 22 Ford Mustang has two wins, ten top fives and 15 top 10s — pretty similar numbers. More importantly for Logano, however, this time around he knows what it takes to get it done. So the question I have headed into race one of the 2019 playoffs is simple: Is Joey Logano this year’s Joey Logano? In other words, is the 12-year, 389-race veteran poised to do what he did last year and end the season with the big prize for a second straight year? Now as we’ve seen in the past few years, anything can happen in the playoffs as tempers flare and desperation peaks, but it really wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Logano go back to back
TWO: The Playoffs
For the 16th (yes, 16th) time of asking, we head into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. The format has been tinkered with in that time, including the addition of the winner-takes-all final race deal in 2014. But with a decade and a half of playoffs now in the books, there is a whole generation of fans who’ve grown up not knowing the traditional way of crowning a champion. This time around, and for the first time in his storied career, Jimmie Johnson won’t be a factor, and it will take a minute to get used to the seven-time champion not being a part of the playoff equation. For a second straight season, Kyle Busch won the regular season “title,” giving him the top seed and a 15-point cushion over his rivals heading into Las Vegas Motor Speedway, an honor he shared with Harvick in 2018. Daniel Suarez missed out on the final playoff spot by just four measly points, unable to fully battle back from a lap 11 brush with the wall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway which just goes to show how fine the margin was for the young Stewart-Haas racer. Meanwhile, one driver to keep an eye on might just be Harvick, who won on Sunday and comes into the playoffs with three wins in the last seven races after started the season out winless in the first 19 races. The canny vet is rounding into form at the perfect time — as he always is he’ll be one to watch, likely all the way to the final race.
THREE: Next Up — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
For the second straight year to open the playoffs, and for the 23rd time at the Cup level, we head to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The inaugural race in 1998 was won by none other than Hall of Famer and everyone’s favorite, Mark Martin. This time last year, Brad Keselowski started out the 2018 post season in perfect fashion, leading 75 laps and winning a third straight race in a row and third overall at LVMS. The win would represent the high point of the Team Penske wheelman’s attempt at a second title in 2018, as he failed to make it out of the second round. Playoff-missing Johnson has the most wins (four), while Logano, who won the spring race, has the best average finish (8.5) by quite some distance from Ryan Blaney in second place (10.7) with half the sample size — six races to Logano’s 12. Ford has won the last three straight, and five of the last seven races, at the mile-and-a-half circuit. And with seven drivers — almost half the playoff field — sporting the blue oval, there will be a sizable contingent aiming to make it four in a row for Ford.
FOUR: Back to Back for Leclerc
Eight painful years have passed since Fernando Alonso last won for Ferrari at Monza back in 2010. And on a picture perfect afternoon for the adoring Tifosi, Charles Leclerc obliterated the barren streak becoming the 11th Ferrari driver to win at their home track. Leclerc started on the pole and led 45 of the scheduled 53 laps, many under repeated pressure from both Mercedes drivers. The 21-year-old, in just his 35th F1 race, belied his callow years and drove with veteran poise, equal to whatever Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas tried to throw at him. “During the race, I thought how much the win would mean to all those fans in the grandstands, and it was adding a bit of pressure,” Leclerc said. Only five other drivers have gone back to back to win their first two F1 races: Bruce McLaren, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen and Hamilton, elite company for the young Monégasque. The noise of the crowd, which had swelled in the final couple laps, rose by many decibels as the post-race festivities began, and it really was quite something to witness (and hear!). “The podium here went beyond all the dreams I had as a child,” Leclerc said. “To see so many people cheering and singing for one team was amazing.” You suspect he has plenty more wins to come not just in 2019 but for the next decade.
FIVE: And Finally …
And finally this week, a quick shout out to Bubba Wallace, who recorded a third-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his best finish since the 2018 Daytona 500 and just the second top five of his nascent 66-race Cup career. “We needed this weekend,” Wallace said of his finish. “We unloaded with speed and I was bragging to everybody.” Turns out he was right to be so confident. There’s no question it’s been a trying sophomore year for Wallace, and while one result does not a season make, the upward momentum is huge for the driver and the team. Here’s to more good finishes for Wallace in the playoffs and maybe even a win at Talladega Superspeedway.