|Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images|
Three weeks ago, Joey Logano was the odds-on favorite to win the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. The Team Penske driver had won three consecutive races at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega, and was on his way to a dominating fourth score at Martinsville; a win that would punch his ticket for a winner-take-all championship shot at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Today, Logano finds himself on the outside, looking in; after a demoralizing turn of events that can only leave him to wonder what might have been.
After winning six races this season -- three of them during the post-season Chase – Logano’s storybook season ran off the rails in Kansas, when repeated blocking attempts by leader Matt Kenseth prompted Logano to spin his rival with less than five laps remaining. He drove to Victory Lane that afternoon, but in hindsight, the Kansas triumph may have been the most costly of his career.
An angry Kenseth bided his time, eventually exacting his pound of flesh by wrecking Logano out of the lead at Martinsville two weeks later. That controversial crash left the Shell-Pennzoil Ford driver behind the eight-ball in his bid to advance to Homestead, and a dismal finish at Texas two weeks ago – triggered by a blown tire in the opening 10 laps -- brought Logano to Phoenix International Raceway needing nothing less than a victory to keep his title hopes alive. He was competitive throughout Sunday’s rain-delayed event, but in the end, even Mother Nature seemed to be against him.
Poised to restart third after Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Joey Gase crashed in Turn Three, the Connecticut native watched helplessly as a light rain increased to monsoon force, forcing a premature end to the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 and leaving him two positions short of Victory Lane and 52 points shy of a Homestead title bid.
“It’s hard to play the race with rain in the area,” said Logano afterward, with a stiff upper lip. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you hope there’s another shot. You hope there’s a restart and two of them slip up and you’re able to put it three-wide on the bottom, or do something like that. We just didn’t ever have the opportunity there at the end.
“It's not NASCAR's fault that it's pouring. It's just unfortunate. You can `coulda, shoulda, woulda’ the heck out of that last pit stop… if we had done something different. But you don't know it's going to rain hard enough to call the race.
“We weren’t as fast as (Kevin Harvick),” he admitted. “We were a solid second place car, but Junior timed it out really well when they pitted on that caution. It worked out really well for them. I guess it wasn’t in the cards tonight, but I’m still super proud of what this Pennzoil team has done all year.”
Many will question the decision to muscle his way past Kenseth at Kansas in Mid-October, pointing to that day as the beginning of his championship demise. Having won the previous Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Logano had already guaranteed himself a spot in the Eliminator Round. Wrecking Kenseth gained him nothing, and arguably cost him a prime shot at the championship.
“It wasn’t in the cards tonight, but I’m still super-proud of what this Pennzoil team has done all year,” said Logano in a damp and dreary PIR garage that perfectly mirrored his mood. “We’ve had super-fast race cars and we really produced on the race track. We executed our plan. This was a high-pressure race for these guys, and (it was good) to see us drive to the front and have good pit stops all night.”
Logano also served notice that he and his team have one more goal to accomplish before the 2015 campaign comes to an end.
“We’ve still got one more race to win,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind we’re still the strongest team on the race track. This team is tight as ever, as fast as ever, and we’ve still got one more race to go out and win. I’m confident this team will keep doing that.
“Considering the last couple of weeks, this was a good race for us to get back out there and start racing for the win again. It’s a good way to redeem ourselves, it just didn’t quite work out.
“I consider this a great season,” said Logano, looking back on a campaign that began with a season-opening win in the Daytona 500, and included a historic sweep of the three-race Chase Contender Round. “We’ve got six wins and a whole bunch of Top-5s. It’s a great season if you look at it from that angle. We just had a couple bad races at the wrong time.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done this year. It just didn’t work out. It's the way this game is played, right? That's the way this Chase is.
“Our heads are still high, and it’s been a great season.”