From the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and really all season long, young Joey Logano has been a picture of poise and confidence.
That poise and confidence were tested to the max in Sunday’s final race of the Chase Eliminator Round at Phoenix International Raceway.
Thankfully for Logano and his No. 22 Team Penske bunch, he passed with flying colors. And the end result is a berth in next weekend’s Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway where the 24-year-old will join Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman as finalists in the running for NASCAR’s most coveted prize — the Sprint Cup championship.
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Appearing to have one of the best cars from the outset of Sunday’s race at PIR, Logano led 17 laps and ran in the top three for much of the opening half of the event while seeming well on his way to solidifying a berth in the Championship 4.
Then, near disaster.
After leaving pit road in second place following a round of pit stops under a caution for debris on Lap 123, Logano was ordered to the tail end of the longest line for starting to drive away with the fuel can still attached to his Ford. He would have been fine if the can did not leave his pit stall, but it did by only a few feet.
The penalty sent Logano to 29th for the restart, and the Connecticut native struggled to make up major ground while mired in deep traffic on the narrow, 1-mile track.
Matters took another turn for the worse on Lap 182 when Logano was lapped by eventual winner Harvick. The left him needing to become the Lucky Dog recipient on the next caution — NASCAR’s term for giving a lap back to the first driver one lap down to the leader when a yellow flag comes out.
"When the 4 car (Harvick) laps you, you don’t know how the race is gonna play out," a reflective Logano said. "You don’t know if there are gonna be enough cautions to get the Lucky Dog or will you get the Lucky Dog. When you go down a lap, it’s not a day-ender, but it makes your day a lot harder. We missed the Lucky Dog by one that time, and we had a decent car but when you’re trying to work your way through the field and race really hard, you burn your stuff up too much and you get in trouble. We were able to adjust our car to that, and then worked our way back up there slowly but surely."
After passing Hamlin with 117 laps remaining to become the first driver one lap down, Logano caught the break he needed when the caution flag waved six laps later, giving him the Lucky Dog and the opportunity to get back on the lead lap.
Following a pit stop for four tires under the caution, Logano restarted in 21st on Lap 206, and with fresher tires than most of the cars in front of him began moving toward the front.
Logano’s eventful afternoon wasn’t over, however. His yellow machine incurred damage to the left rear when he and Danica Patrick collided while trying to avoid the wrecking cars of Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer just after a restart with 101 laps to go. Logano came to pit road for repairs under the caution, and restarted 20th.
And that’s where his real charge finally began in earnest.
"We were able to keep our cool throughout the day," Logano said. "I think that was important. We were able to get the Lucky Dog. We got some damage avoiding the 18’s (Kyle Busch) crash and was able to fix that and recover again to get ourselves back in. It was definitely a drama-filled day, for sure. It’s not what we wanted. We were hoping for just a normal, uneventful day to just get a nice top 10 was all we needed, which is what we ended up doing, but it was definitely eventful along the way."
By Lap 227 of the 312-lap event, Logano was up to 13th, and following the race’s final round of pit stops with less than 25 laps to go, he lined up seventh and trailing six cars that all had elected to stay out. He ultimately gained one position to finish sixth — plenty enough to secure one of the four spots in the decisive Championship Round.
"My hat’s off to all the Shell/Pennzoil guys on this team," said Logano, who has notched a career-high five wins this season. "They deserve to be in the final four. We proved it throughout this whole Chase and really this whole year, and I’m glad to be sitting here and going for it and have some fun next week."
VIDEO: Joey Logano moves on to the Championship 4 despite multiple setbacks at Phoenix