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Right from the start of Sunday afternoon's Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami, Penske's Joey Logano had been looking firmly in the mix to challenge for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, rarely out of the top five all day.

That is, until the last 85 laps, when Logano's strong bid to become the sport's youngest Cup champion since Jeff Gordon in 1995 fell apart before his eyes, starting when the #22 kissed the wall on lap 182 while running second. Although not bad enough to put him out of the race or even force him onto pit road straight away, it nonetheless damaged the handling of the car and precipitated a slow decline down the running order.

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A caution on Lap 195 gave his team a chance to make repairs but also cost him extra time on pit road that put him down to 10th; while he managed to work his way back up to fifth place again by lap 216, he lost more time on pit road under the next caution when a lug nut was dropped which meant he was bounced down to 11th place.

He tried fighting his way forward again and was up to eighth by the time he pitted on lap 249 for left-side tyres only. But disaster struck, and the car fell off the jack as the crew were still working on the cay, and by the time they had recovered and got the car underway Logano found himself down in 21st place, and he was soon running out of time to make a recovery.

"The jack slipped off the post," explained crew chief Todd Gordon. "Unfortunately it happened late enough that the tyres were off and the car was sitting on the jack stop. It is just one of those deals. I think that is the only time this year that we have had that happen"

In the end Logano finished the race in 17th position, making him the lowest-placed of the four drivers still in contention for the championship coming into this weekend's final race of 2014.

"I did not have good emotions in the car," Logano admitted of how he'd been feeling at that point. "I was pretty pissed off if that is an emotion. You knew your chances went down a lot. I didn't say it was over. We didn't give up.

"Without re-watching the tape I am not going to say it was pressure or what it was. We were all trying hard to go as fast as we can. It is like everyone running as fast as you can out there and eventually you make a mistake," he said. "We knew coming into this race you can't afford to make one mistake to put yourself behind. We made a couple tonight which put us back. Obviously our pit crew has done a good job this year, I am not putting them down over one thing. It was just bad timing on one of them."

And Logano admitted that he had been just as to blame for the earlier mistake that had put him into the wall.

"I screwed up and hit the wall early," he said. "I got the wall early in the race and lost the shape in the car and lost a little track position for that ... We were able to recover then had the mistake on pit road which didn't give us enough time to recover from that. It is unfortunate.

"Execution was our strong point all year and we just didn't do it tonight," he added. "For that reason we finished fourth [in the championship] after I think we scored the most points this whole Chase. We finished fourth in a season I feel we had a great championship run going. At the same time, we can't hold our heads down. It is frustrating after all that to say you finished fourth when I feel like this team deserved a lot better."

It had certainly proved a break-through season for the 24-year-old, in his second season at Penske after four years at Joe Gibbs Racing. Over the course of the season he claimed a career-high five wins and a career-best fourth-place finish in the points, which explains why Logano was as downbeat as he was after the race.

"It is hard to be proud right now after coming home wherever we finished in this race," he said. "I don't even know what that is. I don't even care. You don't get shots at championships often. Hopefully we get another next year. This car had a lot of wins and a lot of top fives and it doesn't mean a thing."

"If you look at the whole deal, all the work, there is a lot to be proud of this season," insisted Gordon. "Five wins and getting ourselves into the championship round are good things. I felt like execution would be the dictator tonight and we didn't do that. That is the long and the short.

"We had issues and had them late enough that you can't recover from them," he explained. "We just didn't execute. We have to find a little more speed coming back and it is disappointing right now. It isn't anything you want to smile or anything about, but as you get back and get days in I think we will reflect back on the five wins and making it to the championship round and recognize it as a step forward in the second year with Joey and something we can build off of going forward."

"This team did a great job of consistently being fast," agreed Logano. "In previous years that would have been perfect. Coming into this race and the way the points go, it doesn't pay anymore. We just didn't execute perfectly tonight and for that reason we will finish fourth. We still feel like we did a lot better than fourth this season."

But looking past the obvious disappointment of the moment, 2014 still represents a huge step forward for Logano in terms of his Cup competitiveness. Although he had made the Chase for the first time last year, this was the first time that he had been really in the running to clinch the title. With five consecutive top-five finishes to open the play-offs, Logano would have won the title under the old Chase system by eight points over Kevin Harvick.

"As the car that scored more points than anyone in the Chase it is hard to say you are in love with [the new format] - but I think it was a good thing for the sport and the race was exciting today," he said. "I have a biased opinion right now and I am probably too close to the fire to comment much on how it went.

"This was an awesome experience. This is the first time I have had a shot at winning a championship," he agreed. "It has been a spectacular year ... It was a great experience and we had fun with it and learned a lot for next time in my career that we get to compete for a championship and how to maybe do a few things differently and learn from my mistakes."

The year is about to get even more spectacular for Logano, as he gets married next month and will spend the off-season on honeymoon before the day job starts again in January in preparation for the Daytona 500 and a whole new season of Sprint Cup action.

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