HOMESTEAD, Fla. — As Joey Logano was getting strapped into his car before the final race of the NASCAR season on Sunday he had a message for his interior mechanic Daniel Lynch.
“I’m getting in as a driver and I’m getting out as a champion,” Logano said he told Lynch.
Damn if he wasn’t right. Logano dominated the last 10 laps of Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get his third win of the season and get his first Cup Series title.
The 28-year-old beat out champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday with a car that was exceptionally fast on the short runs. That worked out well over the race’s final stint, which was a 15-lap sprint set up by a late-race accident.
“I knew we had a short run car,” Logano said. “I said it before the race started. Our car is a short run car. If it’s anything longer than 25 laps, we’re going to be in trouble, and that really showed today.”
Logano restarted in third behind Busch and Harvick but quickly picked Busch off after the start. He set his sights on Truex and rushed past him on the high side of the track with less than 12 laps to go. Truex, unhappy with Logano’s move at Martinsville three weeks earlier, had vowed that he wouldn’t make things easy for Logano if the two were racing for the win late in the race.
Truex was helpless to put up a fight against that pass.
“Hell, he passed me so fast I didn’t even have a chance to do anything,” Truex said.
Logano’s Cup Series title comes in his 10th full-time season at NASCAR’s top level. But, at 28, he’s the youngest driver to win a Cup title in nearly 15 years. For as long as Logano has been around NASCAR’s top level, it’s easy to forget that he’s still a birthday away from 30 and nearly 10 years away from what’s considered to be the prime years in a NASCAR driver’s career.
NASCAR drivers tend to peak in their late 30s because of the experience they need to accumulate to succeed in stock car racing’s highest level. Logano didn’t have that experience when he was thrust into the NASCAR spotlight. His ascension to anointed NASCAR superstar was as fast as his pass of Truex.
The kid who always said he wanted to be a NASCAR driver became a household name in the mid-2000s as a teenage prodigy touted by Mark Martin. He made his first Xfinity start at the age of 18 and won in his third. A few months later he was making three Cup Series starts at the same age and finishing outside the top 30 in each one of them.
The high expectations continued when Logano was elevated to the No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009 to replace the then-two-time champion Tony Stewart. He got a win via fuel-mileage but otherwise struggled with just seven top-10 finishes.
While Logano was racking up the wins in JGR’s Xfinity Series equipment, things were rough in the Cup Series as he went winless in 2010 and 2011. He got his second Cup Series win in 2012 but by then he was on his way out the door at JGR.
“It’s really hard because you come in with so much hype, and you’re expected to win right off the bat,” Logano said. “You know, and if it wasn’t for that hype, I wouldn’t have had the job anyways, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing in any way.
But I expected to go out there and win, as well, and just got my butt handed to me on a platter. It was hard. You just — there’s a lot of times that I felt really weak, and I’d break down, and it was just — it was hard. You know, when you’re confused, you don’t know how to be better. You’re 18 years old or 19 or 20, and this is some pretty big stuff for a teenager to be able to go through, sitting up here, talking to you guys, trying to handle all those situations. I didn’t know what I was doing.
“I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but just have a better idea of it, I guess.”
Was Logano a bust? In some people’s eyes, maybe. It was painfully clear at that point that he had been rushed to the Cup Series too soon. But he was still just going to be 22 at the beginning of the 2013 season. That’s an age where most drivers are still in NASCAR’s lower series.
“Brad and I sat down when we had an opening, and Joe Gibbs didn’t have a full ride for him in the Cup side, and then when I talked to Joe, in fact, he said, will you give me a couple weeks, and I did, and he didn’t really have anything for him,” Logano’s team owner Roger Penske said. “And Brad and I thought that he’d be the guy to come to the team, and I think it’s been from that point straight up to the championship here.”
The legendary team owner has always had an eye for talent. Logano was rejuvenated when he joined Penske, even if that sentence sounds crazy to describe someone in his early 20s. He won a race and finished eighth in the standings.
“So he came in and believed in himself, and we believed in him, and at that point he was not weak,” crew chief Todd Gordon said. “He was going to race his way forward, and I think the ’13 season we won a race, we were very competitive in several, and that just continued to build a confidence.”
A year later, he made the final four in the first year of the championship format’s existence. He finished fourth out of the four drivers.
Two years later he was back again with a shot to win the title. But a late-race restart crash with Carl Edwards damaged his car and doomed his title hopes as Jimmie Johnson got his record-tying seventh title.
Last season, Logano missed the playoffs completely. His team had a playoff-qualifying win stripped away because of an inspection failure in the spring. But they simply weren’t fast enough in the summer anyway. Logano and team should have been good enough to get into the playoffs via points. They weren’t.
A win at Talladega locked the team into the playoffs in 2018 and Gordon said it allowed the crew to spend the summer focusing on how to be good in the final 10 races. The work paid off, as Logano posted the best average finish of anyone in the playoffs.
The previous appearances racing for the title paid off too. Logano was emphatic after the race about just how important missing out on the championship was in 2014 and 2016. Plus everything that came before it as well.
“Honestly, one of my favorite quotes is having the opportunity to make mistakes can be the best opportunity you ever have,” Logano said. “You know, not everyone gets to drive a race car, and not everyone gets to make a mistake in a race car and learn from it and become better and have another opportunity to make a new mistake. No one has that. Not everyone has that … That’s probably one of my biggest pieces of advice and to enjoy every minute of it, because not everyone gets to push a race car to its limits, whether it’s at the local level or here in the top level.
“Not everyone gets to drive as fast as they can without going to jail; know what I mean? I’ve got a badass job, and I remind myself of that. Even if we didn’t win today, I know how blessed I am. It’s crazy to think that I’m living out my dream.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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