Joey Logano: “It’s the Big 3, and me”

Joey Logano may not have been a certifiable member of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ “Big 3” this season as were the most prolific winners Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. But Logano arrived in South Florida Thursday looking every bit the “Feared Fourth.”

A two-time race winner and the first driver to officially claim his ticket to Sunday’s championship race, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Logano may well be just the wild card to keep these three former champions honest.

And it didn’t take long for that to be tested.

Only one question into Thursday’s championship contenders press conference and Logano was playfully targeted by his more veteran counterparts.  Reigning Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. – who lost a trophy to Logano at Martinsville, Va. three weeks ago in an aggressive last lap battle – took the first shot.

The drivers were asked to comment about how the same four organizations are being represented in the championship last year – except that it was Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski representing Team Penske, not Logano, who failed to qualify for the Playoffs for the first time in three years.

“Yeah, it just depends on whether Brad or Joey are better drivers.  I’m not sure,’’ Truex said.

To which Busch replied, “They both run into you a lot.” As the laughter subsided, Logano smiled and the 28-year old simply uttered, “Probably best I keep my mouth shut on this one.’’

That’s the way the media availability started off – good-natured ribbing that turned into the occasional soul-searching and race day prognosticating. All season, Busch, Harvick and Truex have dominated the headlines. Busch and Harvick have eight wins each and Truex has four – the three highest totals in the series.

However, Logano has been an overachiever since he arrived in NASCAR’s big leagues at the tender age of just 20. And especially since securing a job with legendary team owner Roger Penske, Logano has proven himself up to the many challenges he’s faced on track.

He’ll have one this weekend.

But Logano is certainly no weak link. He’s proven himself ready to rub fenders and bend feelings with the best of them – so much so that it’s easy to forget he’s not even 30-years old yet and this is his third opportunity to win NASCAR’s biggest championship.

He won at Talladega, Ala. this spring and then went door-to-door with Truex for the all-important Playoff win that sealed his position as a championship eligible driver. While so much of the championship buzz is about those Big 3, Logano is calm and confident about his chances as well.

“All season long, the big three have been talked about so much this year earlier in the season, they’ve won so many races and so many stages and led so many laps,’’ Logano said.

“Honestly, I guess maybe it was 15, 20 weeks ago, we weren’t in the championship caliber that we needed to be to be able to compete with them. Now, I will say since that time we are.  I feel like we do have what it takes to compete with them and give them a run for their money. Like I said, it’s the big three and me. I might be the underdog on the stats standpoint, but we sure don’t feel like we are.”

Yes, Logano concedes, his win column doesn’t match up exactly with his three competitors this weekend, but he does like the timing of his team’s coming of age.

He is averaging a 9.4 finish in the Playoffs – best among the contenders. He has seven top-10 finishes in the nine Playoff races and five top-five finishes; also top shelf among the Playoff foursome. His best finish at Homestead is fourth (2015, 2016).

As the only driver without a previous championship, there’s a case to be made that he’s absolutely as motivated as the other three drivers, who are looking to repeat. Missing out on the Playoffs last year only intensified that drive for Logano.

“That’s what the Playoffs are about, right?” Logano said. “It happens in all sports.  You got to be able to race for wins when it’s most important. Like I said, we raced without many Playoff points, so we had to.  We don’t have anything to fall back on.  We had to go, and we did.  It took, like I said, a long time to get to this point.

“Now I feel like we’re back to where we were a couple years ago, we can compete, lead laps, which turns into race wins quite often.  I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do.  Where we were last year was hard.  It’s really hard.  It stinks, it’s tough.  But the fact that we’ve been able to stay together, keep working through it, finding something here, finding something there, go back on something, changing it, maybe going down a different road from things we’ve done in the past, being able to see us get better, awesome.  It’s great.  It’s hard.  Doesn’t happen like a light switch.

“You go down really quick.  It’s really hard to climb your way back up, and it’s harder.”

Logano is hopeful that in winning the opening round of the three-race championship set-up his team – led by crew chief Todd Gordon – has already been able to shift their thinking and hone their preparation for Sunday’s race. That would be an advantage only he had as the remaining three positions weren’t settled until the Phoenix checkered flag last Sunday.

As a young racer thrust into the big time years ago, Logano exudes the calmness and confidence he’ll need to best NASCAR’s best Sunday afternoon.

“It’s the big three and me,’’ he said Thursday. “I think, honestly, you have to have that confidence. I’m sure everyone here has the same amount of confidence and feeling that they are the favorites for whatever reason it may be.  I’m sure it’s all probably different.

“For us, I feel like, you know, we’ve been able to overcome a lot this season and build a lot of momentum, have an amazing playoff up to this point, scoring a lot of points, leading a lot of laps, especially the last few weeks, not only on short tracks, but Kansas we had a great running with the pole.  Miami is a little bit different, but it is another fast racetrack similar to that.

“So I feel like our team’s in a great spot. Our pit stops have been amazing lately. The confidence is in not only myself as a driver, but in our whole race team all the way through all of Team Penske. So we’re ready to get to Sunday and see what happens.”

Greg Engle