Joey Logano’s fourth appearance in the NASCAR Cup Series championship race comes during one of the most challenging seasons the sport has had to navigate. Logano’s No. 22 Penske team is just one of many teams fightng a year-long uphill battle, but, as a reminder, they are also working together for the first time and doing so through the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As such, it comes as no surprise that Logano admits it has been “an amazing challenge” getting to know crew chief Paul Wolfe. After the two came out of the gate strong with two wins in the first four races, the pandemic shut the sport down for two months and then changed how teams work at the shop and interact at the racetrack.
“The beginning of the year with (pre-race) practice, we were able to really get to know each other and know what I needed with the car and work on it during practice,” said Logano after winning at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. “(Then) COVID started and, coming back with no practice, we started getting our butts handed to us pretty hard. We were struggling for the first, I don’t know, 15 races back. Just really struggling – trying to get a handle on the car, what direction we needed to go.
“It’s really hard to fix things when you don’t have practice, and we’re going to the racetrack for the first time together, and we’re honestly kind of shooting from the hip from a setup standpoint – just trying to find something that we can hit on that’s decent.”
It took 29 races for the team to return to victory lane, but, excluding the point standings after the Daytona 500 opener, Logano was never lower than sixth in the points during the regular season.
He entered the postseason with 22 playoff points and 14 top-10 finishes. But in the stretch of racing from May through the end of July, Logano and his team only once put together back-to-back top-10 finishes (Atlanta and Martinsville). A switch flipped in August and into the playoffs, though, as Logano has 10 top-10 finishes in the last 14 races.
Wolfe didn’t think the team would have the struggles it did through the summer. But he reiterated his driver in saying the lack of practice hurt their effort, his adjustment in preparation from what former driver Brad Keselowski looked for and trying to understand Logano’s style.
When the series began making return visits to tracks, Wolfe and Logano had both a direction and a target. Yet Wolfe said there is still room for the group to grow.
“We’ve made a lot of strides through this year with no practice, just the racing experience, trying to learn on the fly,” said Wolfe. “Still a long way to go, but we’ve done a good job as a team.”
What Wolfe has noticed about his driver in this short amount of time is how big a team player Logano is, shown in the effort and things Logano does to make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction. After a rocky summer and, with the playoffs on the horizon, Wolfe revealed how they got together and talked “a lot.” It was important to Logano that everyone was focused.
“He’s a great leader from that standpoint,” said Wolfe about keeping the team motivated.
In his three previous chances at the championship, Logano finished fourth in points (2014), second (2016), and first (2018). And he is extremely optimistic heading to Phoenix where he led 60 laps en route to victory earlier this year, his second at the facility.
“Over (the season), I feel like we’ve made some small gains here, a little gain here, a little one there, started stacking them up,” said Logano. “It seemed to make a decent swing at especially the 550 package here to where we can be competitive enough to put ourselves in position to try to win like we did (Sunday). I felt better about our 750 package ever since we started the season and still feel great about it at this point. Glad we’re going to Phoenix.”