In a season of parity defined by unpredictability, it makes sense that the NASCAR Cup Series champion would be a seasoned veteran.
It’s just a little bizarre, however, that the champion is Joey Logano.
When no one was expecting it, Logano became the old guy in the room — among the crop of Championship 4 drivers and at Team Penske. At 32, Logano bested Ross Chastain (29), Christopher Bell (27) and Chase Elliott (26) in dominant, almost boring fashion. He led 187 of 312 laps on the way to winning the season finale and the championship Nov. 6 at Phoenix Raceway.
Fifteen years after entering the Cup Series at age 18 and 10 years after joining Team Penske, Logano capped the first season of the Next Gen era by becoming the second (Kyle Busch) active Cup Series driver with multiple titles.
“My experience is valuable because I’ve been here a long time and I know how things work and I know how the sport works and all those type of things,” Logano said. “That’s all well and good. But I had to unlearn a lot of things when it came to the race car itself.”
He had to do it in Team Penske’s first full season since 2010 without Brad Keselowski under the organization’s roof. After Keselowski departed to join RFK Racing, Logano inherited his leadership role.
Even team owner Roger Penske said it was “hard to believe” that a decade had passed since Logano joined his organization.
“There was a lot of discussion (at the time about) was that the right move?” Penske said. “I have to thank Brad who talked to me about Joey and really made the opportunity for me to meet with him. He’s come on, you’ve seen his success. The number of races he’s won for us has been amazing.
“I said to him at the beginning of the year, with Brad leaving and he being the senior guy, to really put his arms around the whole team.”
What kind of leader did Logano want to be in his first year at the head of the class?
Not one that hogged the spotlight.
“I’m not the type of leader that wants to be on a pedestal above everybody and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been here the longest, listen to me,’” Logano said. “It’s not how I do it, it’s not how (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) does it, it’s not what I think is best. I feel like the best way a lot of times is to really get everyone’s opinion and gather it and form your own opinion; and if it’s something you feel truly strong about, you fight for it.
“And then as a team, that’s what I want: I want my teammates as drivers to voice their opinions and put something together. When we feel like something is right, we form one voice together.”
That’s the approach the team committed to in the weeks leading up to the Championship 4 race.
Thanks to Logano’s victory in the opening Round of 8 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 22 team had a longer runway for its prep.
“When we won in Vegas, we sat down Monday and started coming up with a meeting agenda, a bunch of meeting agendas that we can go over and reviewing film together as a team, going through pit stops, reviewing, rolling times on pit road, all these little subcategories that happened and making sure the details are all in the right place,” Logano said.
“We knew details were going to be the difference of winning and losing. We had the advantage this two-and-a-half weeks to really work together and do that,” he added. “It’s a grind. I’m telling you right now it’s a grind the last two-and-a- half weeks. This is all we thought about.”
That grind went up until 7 a.m. the morning of the race when he and his team met with Wolfe in the crew chief’s RV as they went over their battle plan.
“We made sure that there was no stone unturned when it came to preparing for this race,” Logano said. “You can’t fake confidence. You can maybe show it a little bit, but truly deep down inside, you have to believe that you’re going to be ready for this battle ahead of you. I never felt more ready and a lot of credit goes to Paul, for taking the time and the effort and forcing us to do it together as a team.”
Following the victory at Las Vegas, Wolfe didn’t want “to throw away” the following races at Homestead-Miami and Martinsville Speedways, but he “started focusing on Phoenix right after that win that next Monday and making sure we didn’t miss anything.”
The devotion to the mission led to Wolfe earning his second Cup Series championship as a crew chief. The first came in 2012 when he and Keselowski earned Team Penske its first Cup Series crown. With a different driver and a “totally different car” to try to figure out, “racing is totally different in my eyes,” said the 45-year-old Wolfe.
“It’s almost like that happened in my second year in Cup racing,” Wolfe said. “It’s almost like I didn’t know better, didn’t understand how difficult it really was to compete for a championship in this series with the best teams and drivers. I’ve said this before, I’m not going to say I’m the smartest guy in the garage, but I like to put a lot of good people around me and make me look good, and we’ve definitely got that on this team and within our company.”
Within 48 hours of winning the championship, Logano’s victory tour was in full swing.
In a bit of a bookend, Logano visited the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, where he unofficially kicked off the season with a victory in the inaugural Busch Light Clash held there. When driver intros take place during the second edition of the race there on Feb. 6, he’ll be greeted by either cheers, boos or a mixture of both as the defending Cup Series champion.
With a second championship comes a boost in clout. What does the Connecticut native want to do with it?
He has “a few thoughts in mind.”
“It is something I think about, to that point,” Logano said. “You think of being a champion of the sport, you’re representing the sport. That’s a huge task at hand. I don’t take it lightly and I want to make the most of it because I care about us, all of us. This is all of our livelihoods, and it’s our job to make it better than it was the last generation.
“To me, I think of the guys that raced before us and think about what they grew our sport into. It wasn’t from just driving in circles all day long and ending in the same place. That’s pretty pointless when you think of it that way.”
With that in play, Logano is looking forward to his role as a defending champion when it comes to the next round of voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Logano intends to throw his weight around more than he did following his first title in 2018.
“I look forward to that more this time now that I know what’s going on there and how it works,” Logano said. “There’s a few people on my mind that I think deserve to be in there and I plan to voice my opinion on that when I get there. Again, you think of things like that, I have the opportunity to take advantage of, and I should. I’ve been here long enough. I’ve seen a lot of great things and we’ve grown a lot together as a group.
“We should celebrate that, for one, but we should always keep looking to get better.”