NASCAR & Auto Racing

Maturing process shapes Joey Logano’s Sprint Cup title bid

Up-close-and-personal exposure to Joey Logano fuels a perception that he wakes up smiling, goes to bed smiling and radiates joy at all times in between.

That, of course, is irrational. In no endeavor is unrestrained, uninterrupted happiness less conceivable than in the blast-furnace heat of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup as newly constituted.

An in-car camera view during last Sunday’s Quicken Loans 500k at Phoenix revealed an aggravated Logano pounding his steering wheel so furiously it’s surprising he didn’t break either the steering wheel or bones in his hand.

He feared that, in NASCAR’s high-intensity new elimination format, something as simple as dragging a gas can out of his pit stall might crush championship aspirations. The penalty momentarily dropped him off the lead lap.

But at race’s end, the 24-year-old driver of Penske Racing’s No.22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Fusion was beaming again. A salvaged sixth-place finish put stock car racing’s most cherished prize within his grasp.

Logano, who steered to five Cup victories this season, will attempt in qualifying at 6:15 p.m. Friday to secure an up-front starting spot in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

At the checkered flag Sunday, whoever finishes best among Logano, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman will ascend the Sprint Cup throne.

Logano, laughing, admitted to selfishness. Victory obviously would secure the championship, and he wants both. “I want to be the only one doing burnouts at the end of the race,” he said.

It’s stunning to recognize that Logano, at his age, has more than 200 Sprint Cup starts. When Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2008 season, Logano stepped into that seat. He had great promise. But there were dues to be paid.

At Loudon, New Hampshire, in June 2009, Logano became at 19 years, one month and four days the youngest driver to win at NASCAR’s highest level. But Cup victory No.2 didn’t come until three years later.

Gibbs, whose teams’ three Cup championships match the number of Super Bowls he won as coach of the Washington Redskins, conceded Wednesday that, in retrospect, Logano was “awful young” to be thrown into the deep end. “It’s such a big step.”

Logano, who moved to Roger Penske’s operation in 2013 after he was replaced by Matt Kenseth at JGR, assured that he wouldn’t trade the JGR experience “for millions of dollars. … That was obviously a blessing.

“I went through a lot over there and learned a lot about how to become a man, for one, and how to become a racer. You can see the results coming out now.”

Logano set a career path from the time he began racing quarter-midgets at age 7. All along the way his talents evoked rave reviews.

“My whole career was easy,” he said. “When you’re the best one out there, it’s easy. [But] when you get to a level you’re not the best one out there and you’re going against the best of the best, you have to take a step back and say, ‘Whoa.’”

Getting into a competitive groove “took a while, as it should. I was 18 years old. What do you expect?’’

Gibbs wanted to keep Logano and map out a 2013 season mixing part-time Cup and Nationwide races. “But Joey got a better opportunity with Penske,’’ he said. “We understood. I was just telling Joey that we’re very proud of him.”

Logano immediately found a comfort level as Brad Keselowski’s teammate. He won once, posted a career-best 11 top-fives and finished eighth in Cup points.

But even a better indication that Logano was on the brink of a breakthrough in Cup was a sensational part-time Nationwide schedule. He started 22 races; he won nine.

Had NASCAR not changed the Chase format this year, Logano would have arrived at Homestead with a near-insurmountable 26-point lead over Harvick. Two of his victories have come in the nine Chase races.

“That’s occurred to me,” he said, smiling. “But that’s not the case. It’s an equal playing field, and we’ll fire away.”

Matt Crafton will take the Ford EcoBoost 200 green flag at 8 p.m. Friday intent on becoming the Camping World Truck series’ first back-to-back champion.

Ryan Blaney, cognizant that overtaking Crafton in the points race is mathematically improbable, will target victory and hope for the best.

Neither will be more motivated than Joey Coulter. The 24-year-old Miami Springs native who finished third in this race for Richard Childress Racing two years ago will have that same truck at his disposal capping his first season with Maurice Gallagher’s GMS team

Coulter, third in CWT points in 2012 with a Pocono victory and sixth this year, covets victory here. “I grew up near [since closed] Hialeah Speedway. That was ourSaturday night thing once in awhile.”

Coulter steered his No. 21 Chevrolet Silverado to a practice lap of 163.810 and then hustled off to attend the Dolphins-Bills game with parents Joe and Susan.

Blaney posted the fastest lap, at 165.996.

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