Brad Keselowski knew what he was talking about.
The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has a keen eye for talent, whether it comes to analyzing the competition in NASCAR’s top series or weighing the abilities of potential drivers for the Camping World Truck team he owns.
And when the seat of the No. 22 Team Penske Shell/Pennzoil Ford came open at the end of his 2012 Sprint Cup championship season, Keselowski lobbied long and hard for the driver he had earmarked as his first choice to fill the seat — Joey Logano.
Team owner Roger Penske agreed, and Logano began a career renaissance that has carried him to the top of the sport, finally escaping the shadow of three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who had preceded Logano in the No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Together since day one at Team Penske, Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon are building a legacy of mutual respect and success. Gordon sees Logano as a big-game player who thrives in the most tension-filled moments of the sport.
“I’ll put the analogy to basketball,” Gordon said. “There are only a handful of guys that want to have the ball in their hands with three seconds left on the shot clock, and Joey is that guy. When it comes down to the time to make it happen, he elevates and doesn’t make mistakes.”
Logano was the first driver to punch his ticket to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year, winning the season-opening Daytona 500. He added two victories in August, taking the checkered flag at Watkins Glen and successfully defending his 2014 win in the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol.
All told, 10 of Logano’s 16 top fives this year have come in the last 13 races.
“We’re hitting it at the right time, that’s for sure,” Logano said after the Bristol victory. “There was a point in the season that we were racing top 10 a lot, but not necessarily for a win. I feel like we’re right where we need to be, just like we were last year at this point. I can’t wait for the Chase to start.”
Last year, in the first season of the current elimination format for NASCAR’s playoffs, Logano made a convincing march to the Championship 4 Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, winning at New Hampshire to survive the Challenger Round and again at Kansas to advance from the Contender Round.
Solid finishes of fifth, 12th and sixth at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, respectively, got him to the finale with a chance to win the title. Only a late-race snafu on pit road cost Logano a chance to race Kevin Harvick for the championship.
Logano’s approach to this year’s Chase – beginning with Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will be fundamentally the same.
“I don’t think it will change that much,” he said. “I think the goal, I would assume, is to go out there and get the best finish you possibly can until you get backed into a corner and you have to win and it’s a do-or-die moment. We saw last year a team go all the way to Homestead without winning a race (Ryan Newman), but it sure makes life easier to get that win and relax a little bit.
“I think the teams that have a chance to relax and be able to focus in on the race that counts at the end and not have the pressure throughout the whole Chase is at a pretty big advantage. To be able to focus in on Homestead as early as you can is big. I think, as you go through the Chase, you have to take it one race at a time and adjust your strategy depending on how you finish the previous race.”
As well as he has run lately, however, Logano knows he and his team will have to find another level in the Chase.
“It’s hard to count anybody out when it comes to Chase time,” said the 25-year-old, who already is in his seventh full season of Sprint Cup racing. “Everyone finds a little more. Some teams find more than others and are able to pick it up a lot. I think you look at what Tony Stewart did a few years ago (2011), barely making the Chase and then winning the championship — he picked it up a lot when it came Chase time.
“You have to focus on your own thing, what has gotten you to this point, and get a little bit better in every area. It doesn’t take much, just a little everywhere. When it comes to Chase time or playoff time, it’s like every other team in sports — you have to find that little bit more and dig down deep. You may think you’re giving 100 percent, but there’s always more in the tank. You just have to search for it.”
As well as Logano has run lately, it might seem easy to forget about Keselowski, but that would be a mistake. The formidable combination of Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe enters NASCAR’s 10-race playoff on the strength of nine straight top-10 finishes, including second-place runs at New Hampshire, Pocono and Darlington.
“We’re ready to go,” Keselowski said after last Saturday’s eighth-place result at Richmond. “We have some momentum with the top 10s lately, but we need to turn some of those into wins — and we know that. We have 10 weeks, though, to make that happen.
“We want to be in the Chase, and we want to not take that for granted, but on the other side, we aren’t happy with just being in it. We want to do more than just that. That’s what we’re here to do, to make some noise and hopefully bring home a second championship.”
Keselowski and Logano are the only Ford entries in a Chase field that includes nine Chevrolets and five Toyotas. Being in the minority, however, hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm of Dave Pericak, director of Global Ford Performance.
“We feel really good going into the Chase,” Pericak said. “The two guys that we have are running strong, the Penske organization is running strong, and they’ve been building momentum throughout the year.
“The real racing is going to start now, and I think we’re all ready to go.”