For much of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, Penske's Joey Logano has been somewhat overshadowed by his team mate Brad Keselowski. The 2012 champion has won more races than Logano this year, and had been in the headlines far more often thanks to a combination of last-minute racing dramas and off-track altercations in recent weeks.
However as we head into the final race of the year - the winner-take-all title decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend - there is now one major difference between Logano and Keselowski: Logano is still in the running to clinch this year's title, and Keselowski is not.
There's no question that Logano thoroughly deserves his berth in the season finale: he has five wins, 16 top fives, 22 top tens to his name so far this season, for an average finish of 11.2, the best of any of the final four still in contention for the championship - Ryan Newman's is 13.0, Kevin Harvick's is 13.3 and Denny Hamlin only 14.5.
Like Harvick, Logano has taken two wins during this year's Chase which have seen him nicely through two of the three elimination rounds. Last week he survived something of a roller coaster ride at Phoenix International Raceway which saw him go a lap down at one point before he rebounded to sixth place at the finish to secure his place in the title decider based on championship points.
All of which sets up the 24-year-old originally from Connecticut as the strongest contender for the title to Harvick, on paper at least. Harvick has the greater experience of course, and particularly when it comes down to how to handle the intense pressure of a championship campaign: Logano has only made it into the play-offs once in his career to date, finishing in eighth place in the overall standings at the end of 2013, his breakout first year with Penske after four unspectacular seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"It's a new situation for everybody," pointed out Logano's crew chief Todd Gordon. "The great part is you're not behind and you're not ahead, you're on an even playing field and going forward," he said, adding that he felt Logano's relative lack of experience at the Chase won't be any sort of handicap this weekend at Homestead.
"I think the opposite - it's a new format for everybody," he insisted. "Yes, he's young and he's never been through this race, but I don't think anybody has been through this race. There's always a difference: Kevin was in a championship run last year, but he was 30-40 points behind. He was in a 'All I've got to do is win.' It's a different thing because there are four cars that are tied, all equal in points, so it's a different format and it's one race to get it done.
"I think Joey has the mental maturity and has the ability to focus in when he needs to to be very successful in this format," Gordon added. "If you look at the performance that Joey is able to give on every restart that we see, if you look at what he's able to do on the last run of every race and the ability to maximize points and positions. If you look at our average finish through the Chase it's been exceptionally good and a lot of that is given to Joey and what he does on late restarts. He's recovered great finishes out of average race cars a couple times throughout the Chase.
Harvick also has the stronger record at Homestead - although he hadn't won there, he's picked up two second places and two third places in 13 appearances. Logano by contrast has made only five starts at the 1.5-mile track, and finished in the top ten only once (he was eighth here 12 months ago) giving him an average finish at this track of just 20.8, the worst of any of the Chase contenders. But focussing in on just 2014 and it's Penske as a team that has dominated at intermediate tracks all year, with Logano proving to be particularly good - so maybe old data is just out of date.
"We had a really good test down there a couple of weeks back just before Texas and feel good about that and building off of it with coming back to Homestead," said Gordon. "We're gonna continue to try to do the things that we've done, not break the format of how our practice flow has worked, how our week of preparation has worked."
Of course, winning the race isn't everything this weekend - it's a question of which of the final four finishes ahead of the others that matters. Harvick has finished in front on 11 occasions this season while Logano has been the top-placed on ten, making them fairly even on that basis; Denny Hamlin has been best in eight races while Ryan Newman has led the quartet on just six outings.
"Most likely, you're going to have to win here to win the championship this year, or come close to it," insisted Logano. "Making sure you have a fast car here is important. That's going to be the difference in winning the championship or not."
One possible distraction for Logano has been taken off his shoulders: he was due to drive for Penske's Nationwide team this weekend at Homestead, but with Keselowski dropping out of title contention last week at Phoenix that decision has now been revisited. Keselowski will now pull the double duty instead, while Logano gets to focus on adding the Sprint Cup trophy to Team Penske's haul which already includes the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
One thing that Logano will be hoping for is that part run-ins with all three of his remaining Chase rivals don't come back to haunt him. While he's appeared calmer this season, Logano was as hot-headed as his team mate in previous seasons: there was a run-in with Harvick at Pocono at 2010 which prompted Logano to declare that Harvick's wife DeLana wore the firesuit in the family; a nose-to-nose confrontation at Michigan after Logano spun Newman out the same year; and a two-race feud in 2013 with Hamlin which culminated in Logano spinning the the #11 into the wall at Fontana which sidelines Hamlin for several weeks with a back injury.
But Logano's kept his head down this year and quietly persuaded everyone that he truly does have the talent to live up to the nickname of 'sliced bread' (as in, 'the best thing since') that he was saddled with when he first made his Cup début in 2008 as a teenager. All he needs now is to clinch this year's title and there will be no doubting his racing credentials ever again. If he does, he will be the third-youngest Cup champion in NASCAR history and the youngest since Jeff Gordon won for the first time back in 1995.
"I think he's matured as well," said Todd Gordon. "He's 24 years old now and he's been in the Cup Series for six years. He's got a lot of bangs and bruises, but he understands the business and what it takes for us to be successful together.
"He's well ahead of the curve for his age, but if you look at his history racing is all he's done. He's been doing this since he was nine years old and he's been in a competitive environment the whole time, Gordon pointed out. "It's not just having fun with it, he's been competitive, so I think he understands. He's driven to be successful. I think he has that ability to find the next level when he needs to, which is a talent that only few possess, and as he believes in that ability he's very succinct and very clear on what he needs out of a race car and that communication piece helps us to be more successful.
"I can't wait to see where the next few years take him," Gordon added.
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