Losing the popularity contest – Lee Spencer on how Penske became NASCAR’s pantomime villains.
Joey Logano never had a chance. At 18, the buy-ride racer christened ‘Sliced Bread’ was over-hyped by NASCAR as the key to the 18-34 demographic the sanctioning body so keenly coveted.
Logano posted respectable numbers in the feeder series. He was crowned the K&N Pro Series East Champ in 2007 and, with Joe Gibbs Racing, he won his first Xfinity Series race from the pole in just his third start in the series (2008).
But the task of replacing beloved Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota was more than he bargained for. And run-ins with established stock car stars such as Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle, while Logano’s father Tom came to his rescue, did little to smooth his dewy image.
Still, Logano refused to succumb to critics. During his four seasons at JGR, Logano won two Cup races and continued to refine his skills on NASCAR’s top two tours, even though his tenure with the No. 20 team was coming to an end.
Across town, Brad Keselowski was enjoying a banner season with Team Penske in 2012. At 28, and in just his third full season on the Sprint Cup tour, the third-generation racer was on his way to winning the Chase – and his second NASCAR title (Keselowski won the Xfinity championship in 2010).
While Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe returned the No. 2 team to winning form, Penske’s No. 22 squad became a distraction. Keselowski and Kurt Busch never jelled. And when AJ Allmendinger arrived in 2012, he didn’t share Keselowski’s work ethic.
Though the No. 2 crew performed well on its own, in order to be a perennial title contender, Keselowski needed a true teammate. He needed a rival under his roof who could push him. And he found that in Logano.
Keselowski understood the pressure of inheriting an iconic livery and car number when Team Penske put him in the No. 2 Miller car. He also learned how fleeting popularity could be in sports after he left Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports to drive for Roger Penske. Although ‘The Captain’ is well respected in business and motorsport circles, to diehard NASCAR fans, he’s just another open-wheel guy.
The latter didn’t matter to Logano. He saw an opportunity for a fresh start. Instead of being at the bottom of the pecking order at Gibbs – behind Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch – at Penske, he would be Keselowski’s equal.
Once Logano moved into the No. 22 Ford, his demeanour changed. No longer would he be pushed around even by his former teammate Hamlin. After the two tangled at Bristol, Logano dumped the No. 11 Toyota at Fontana, sending Hamlin to hospital with a broken back. Despite the growing pains, Logano knew he had Penske’s support. He went on to win at Michigan from the pole, as well as qualify for his first Chase and finish a career-high eighth in the 2013 standings.
Keselowski, however, had a bit of a comeuppance after winning the 2012 title. Penske’s transition from Dodge to Ford was far from seamless, and penalties from the spring Texas race were too much to overcome. The No. 2 team failed to make the 2013 Chase, and did not find Victory Lane until the 31st race of the season – a far cry from the championship-winning form of 2012, during which time he won five times.
For Penske, 2014 was a banner year. Keselowski and Logano combined to win 11 races – nearly one third of the Sprint Cup schedule. In the first year of the new Chase format, both drivers qualified for the playoffs. Multiple Martinsville wrecks knocked Keselowski out of the Chase following the Eliminator Round, and Logano transferred with the final four drivers of the Champion Round before pit stop problems took him out of contention.
Fast forward to 2015. After winning five races and advancing to the Champion’s Round the previous year, Logano was a favourite for the title again. He swept all three races in the Contender Round of the Chase. By far, his most unpopular victory was at Talladega, where he out-duelled fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr., and won by inches under caution.
Earnhardt fans pelted Logano’s car with beer cans in disgust. Once the driver had time to reflect, he declared the reaction to be “really cool”.
“It’s the ultimate compliment in motorsports,” Logano said. “I looked at it while we were driving and I was watching beer cans explode off my windshield and I thought, ‘This is so cool,’ because I remember when…I saw Jeff Gordon win at Talladega and the same exact thing happened…I didn’t quite grasp it then and I didn’t understand why they were doing it.
“I was a Jeff Gordon fan. I’m like, ‘Why does everyone hate Jeff Gordon? What did he ever do to anyone?’ I thought he was a good role model, a good guy, he just wins a lot. I thought the same thing. I was like, ‘This is kind of cool.’ His career turned out pretty good, it seems like. He won quite a few races and a few championships, so I thought it was the ultimate compliment to see that happen.”
But Logano paid a heavier price for wrecking Matt Kenseth at Kansas Speedway for the win.
Two races later, the veteran champion retaliated. With less than 50 laps remaining in the race, Kenseth pile-drove Logano into the wall. Although Logano wasn’t injured, his car was destroyed – much to the enjoyment of the crowd and many of his peers. And after leading 207 of 453 laps, a 37th-place finish was all he had to show for his effort.
“I’m one of the only guys that I think hasn’t been into yet with Joey, and I’ve always raced him with a ton of respect,” Kenseth said. “I’ve actually been one of his biggest fans – I’m certainly not anymore, but I always was. It’s a shame.”
Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt both came to Kenseth’s defense. Gordon described Logano as “gloating” after the accident. Earnhardt called Logano’s actions “arrogant” and thought he could have defused the situation by simply acknowledging the Kansas wreck was his fault.
If the growing animosity towards Penske’s power couple wasn’t clear after Martinsville, the fan response to Logano’s flat tire at Texas, or Jimmie Johnson’s move later in that race as he passed Keselowski for the lead (and eventually, the win), certainly drove the point home.
Still, that negative reaction could provide the catalyst needed to push Keselowski or Logano further – and that would prove dangerous for the competition. Logano’s six wins and average qualifying effort of 6.9 tops the Sprint Cup tour. His average finish of 9.5 is second only to Kevin Harvick, the defending champion.
After six full Cup seasons, Keselowski, 31, has 17 victories and a title – a resume most racer’s would envy.
No, neither Keselowski or Logano are reluctant to speak their minds. Many times that confidence has been mistaken for cockiness. But with championships on the line at Phoenix this weekend, it might be beneficial to let the driving do the talking.