For Joey Logano, the opportunity for redemption is less than seven days away.
Sunday’s win at Phoenix International Raceway qualified Logano to return to the second Championship Four race of his career at Homestead Miami Speedway. Two years ago, in the inaugural season of the Chase’s elimination format, the Team Penske driver appeared to be en route to a title-clinching victory, until a jack failure on his final pit stop dropped him back in the pack and out of title contention.
Last season, the Middletown, Conn., native won a season-high six races, but failed to qualify for the Homestead finale after on-track feud with rival .
This time around, however, there have been no such missteps. No mistakes, no letdowns, no loss of championship focus. This time around, Logano has his eye on the prize.
“I don’t think I can put it into words,” said Logano after Sunday’s dramatic Phoenix victory. “This isn’t just a race. This is a championship. We raced today like it was Homestead, because we had to. I was still yelling and screaming down in Victory Lane.
“What an amazing feeling to be able to succeed under that amount of pressure… to have a race team that is truly better under pressure. I couldn’t be more proud of that.
For those who appreciate such things, Sunday’s race featured a certain degree of karmic resolution.
After being crashed out of title contention by Kenseth just 12 months ago – payback for a previous tangle between the two at Kansas Speedway a few weeks earlier -- Logano watched as Kenseth wrecked out of the lead within sight of the checkered flag Sunday. He threaded his way through the wreckage, then waltzed away from Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch to claim his spot in the 2016 Homestead finale.
“We’ve got momentum,” said Logano in Victory Lane. “I remember when we (qualified for Homestead) a couple of years ago. I remember standing here -- we finished third or fourth that day -- and I wasn’t as excited. This is not that feeling. This is a feeling of, `Hey, we’ve got confidence. I know we can do it.’ I don’t feel like it’s a long shot like it was last time.
“I feel like we’ve been here before. We’ve been in these situations.”
Logano’s path to the 2016 championship will be anything but easy. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is poised to take his shot at a record-tying seventh title. Defending champ Kyle Busch has designs on a back-to-back reign, while Carl Edwards hopes to atone for a 2011 Homestead finale that saw him lose the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker; the closest result in the sport’s 60-plus year history.
“Sometimes, you’ve just got to live through things once” said Logano. “After the 2014 race, everyone told me, `You’ve got to lose one to win one,’ and I thought that was the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard in my life.
“But you know what? Maybe it really did help me, to live through it once. Since then, we’ve been in those situations. We raced today for a championship. We raced in Talladega for a championship. We’ve done this before.”
“The last few years, we’ve been in a position where we’ve had our backs against the wall and had to win. We’ve been able to do that, so it’s really cool. We have experience now. We've been together four years, and we've gone through some hard situations together.”
"We're peaking at the right time, which is a good sign,” he added. “We've had some speed in the last three races. Texas was one of our best races of the year and to go to a race track (Homestead) that's very similar makes me excited. We know what it takes to win a championship, because we've been through that situation once before.”
In seven career Homestead starts, Logano has one Top-5 (a fourth last season) and two Top-10 finishes. But the Connecticut native isn’t interested in statistics right now. He’s focused fully forward, on a winner-take-all championship finale and an opportunity to fulfill the “Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” predictions that have dogged him since the age of 14.
In the 50th anniversary season of Team Penske, Logano can also deliver a NASCAR title to bookend the IndyCar Series championship earned by Simon Pagenaud a few weeks ago, while delivering the first Sprint Cup Series title to Ford Motor Company since Kurt Busch turned the trick with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004.
"We're racing for a championship now," said Logano Sunday. "We did exactly what we had to do today. Now, we're going to go to Homestead and do the same thing."