It is an oversimplification to think that with today's winner-take-all format in the season finale, drivers have to run well in only one race to win the Championship. To get the opportunity to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a driver has to run consistently well during the regular season and has to outrun 12 of NASCAR's greatest in three rounds on competition.
Last year, Joey Logano guessed correctly in the Ford 400. He set his Ford up to run best on short runs and in a race punctuated by cautions, he got what he needed – including a dash to the checkers at the end. If the last green flag segment had run 20 laps longer, Martin Truex Jr. would most likely have caught and passed him.
His 2018 Championship is not why he is seeded third this year, however; that prediction is based on how he got there.
Logano ran consistently well at the start of the season. He scored top-10s in nine of his first 10 races and ended nearly every weekend with the leaders in sight. With the domination of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Truex, however, he was often overlooked – and that is not necessarily bad for players looking for an advantage.
Logano scored only one win during the regular season. That came on the restrictor-plate superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. that is often akin to winning a lottery. Still, it was enough to give him some breathing room for most of the year and a ticket to the playoffs.
Other than his plate win, Logano scored only one more runner-up finish in the first 26 races. This came with time running off the regular season clock at Darlington Raceway – one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. As it turned out, that was representative of his season.
In Round 3 of the playoffs, the Big 3 were still heavily favored. If it came down to points, only one other driver would join them in the finale. To insure one's place in the Championship Four, one needed to win. Logano saw his opportunity in the closing laps at Martinsville Speedway. He moved Truex out of the bottom groove and beat him to the finish line. Truex was livid; Logano was smug.
Fans learned what drivers already knew: Logano was an aggressive racer who will do whatever it takes to win.
Instead of being apologetic for the contact, Logano reveled in the notoriety. The incident with Truex was one more step in the maturation of the driver once known as 'Sliced Bread.' No longer an ingenue, Logano stands alongside Harvick and Busch in terms of aggression. He is nearly as hard to pass on the track as Ryan Newman and he has the finesse of a Jimmie Johnson.
Team Penske has been among the most improved organizations in the garage and Logano will continue to carry their banner.