NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Joey Logano was enjoying some rare downtime Monday at home, watching Race Hub on Fox Sports 1, when a thought crossed his mind and a smile ensued.
By virtue of his victory last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the first race of the Challenger Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Logano is the only driver entering Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 guaranteed to make it to the Eliminator Round.
“I was like, ‘Man, this feels great. Everyone else is stressed out in this garage, except us right now,’” Logano said, recalling Monday’s thought process. “That’s something to be proud of and something that we need to take advantage of.”
It’s a familiar feeling for Logano, who started the season with his first Daytona 500 career victory. That win virtually locked him into the Chase more than six months before the championship bracket would be set.
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Logano was able to relax for much of the remainder of the season and he has turned in arguably the best season of his career. He also boasts career-bests with five poles, 18 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s.
“We’re back to that mode,” said Logano, whose four wins this season are one shy of his career-high five from last season. “It’s like, ‘Ahhh,’ that relief. You go out there, you race, you race relaxed, you race, you have a lot of fun, which a lot of times is an advantage.”
The field vying for the Sprint Cup championship will be reduced from 12 to eight drivers at the conclusion of the next two races, including Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
The Kansas Speedway winner on Sunday will join Logano with a guaranteed berth in the Eliminator Round, saving a lot of stress as the scene shifts to Talladega Superspeedway — a track known for spectacular and season-ruining wrecks.
“That stress will wear a lot of teams out as we’ve seen, so right now it’s an important time for us to take these next two weeks, enjoy them, but still go out there and try to win the race,” said Logano, who won the pole position for the spring race in May at Kansas Speedway.
During his first eight Sprint Cup starts at Kansas Speedway, Logano had a checkered history. He qualified in the top 10 four times, but never finished better than 15th, with an average finish of 26.1.
Logano went from checkered history to checkered flag last fall, winning the 2014 Chase race on Kansas Speedway’s 1.5-mile tri-oval. He’s qualified and finished in the top five in each of his last four races at Kansas.
“At some race tracks, you’ve got to go outside your box to find speed, as a driver, go outside of what you would feel natural doing to find speed in your car,” Logano said. “For here, it’s just kind of self-explanatory to me. It just happens, as far as knowing inside the car what I have to do and then, obviously, trying to look for that feel that we know we need to have.”
Logano’s surge in success roughly coincides with his move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Team Penske after the 2012 season.
He crashed on lap 102 in his first race at Kansas Speedway in 2013, but the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford team has been dominant on the repaved track ever since.
That’s why Logano might try to play spoiler and go for another victory, which would force the rest of the Chase drivers to jockey hard at Talladega to advance.
“This is one of our best race tracks, maybe our best race track in the last couple of years, so we want to keep that roll going here and try to get another win,” he said. “As far as where this puts us, we’re proud of that and we’re proud we don’t have to worry about Talladega.”
Many drivers say the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway races are the most important in the Chase, other than the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, because it relieves so much pressure heading to Talladega.
Right now, only Logano feels comfortable.
“That’s the way you need to race all the time, even in those stressful situations, whether you’re trying to set yourself up good for Talladega or in the next round trying to set yourself up to race for that championship,” he said.