Logano finds play­off hopes ‘en­cum­bered’

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - GE­ORGE DIAZ ON MO­TOR SPORTS

Once upon a time, Joey Logano seemed easy money to make the NASCAR Cup play­offs.

Look at the steady and smooth pro­gres­sion. He fin­ished eighth in 2013 and has since wound up fourth, sixth and sec­ond. But the 27-year-old is 13th in points this sea­son and on a slip­pery slope.

He is “kind of ” win­less with five races to go — Watkins Glen, Michi­gan, Bris­tol, Dar­ling­ton and Rich­mond — be­fore the 16-driver cut to de­ter­mine the play­off par­tic­i­pants. Logano did win at Rich­mond In­ter­na­tional Race­way in April, which looked like a nice setup in a bid for his first cham­pi­onship.

But not quite. NASCAR de­ter­mined that Logano’s vic­tory was “en­cum­bered” and will not count to­ward qual­i­fy­ing him for a play­off spot. Logano’s No. 22 team was popped for a rear-sus­pen­sion vi­o­la­tion dis­cov­ered dur­ing tear­down at the R&D Cen­ter in Con­cord, N.C.

With five other driv­ers in the mix who are be­hind on points but have a win that would squeeze Logano out of a play­off spot based on the qual­i­fi­ca­tion for­mat, you can see why Logano is in such a prover­bial pickle.

And then there are non­race win­ners who are ahead of Logano based on points. Those would be veter­ans Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer.

Sim­ply put, Logano is a daunt­ing 69 points out­side of the play­offs, so he needs a vic­tory to merit a post­sea­son po­si­tion and also to hope there are no more than two other new win­ners.

“They are work­ing them­selves into a must-win sit­u­a­tion,” NBC rac­ing an­a­lyst Jeff Bur­ton said af­ter Logano’s team strug­gled again in Po­cono. “With the num­ber of races left, they are re­ally putting them­selves in a bad sit­u­a­tion. They are go­ing to have to win a race to make the play­offs.”

There were more self­in­flicted bumps and bruises at Po­cono last week­end when he fin­ished 27th but could have fin­ished much higher. He was in the mix for a top-10 fin­ish with 35 laps left when he com­mit­ted a pit-road speed­ing penalty.

It got worse. The team vi­o­lated a rule that bars pit work while serv­ing penal­ties when crew chief Todd Gor­don made the call to change tires on Logano’s car.

That’s not all on Logano. For a de­tail-ori­ented owner such as Roger Penske, Gor­don’s tech­ni­cal hic­cups should be un­ac­cept­able.

“We’ve got five race tracks we’ve been very suc­cess­ful at,” Gor­don said. “We just have to con­tinue to do what we’ve done.”

Logano ob­vi­ously hasn’t been bad. He has eight top-five fin­ishes. But that sim­ply isn’t good enough. And he knows it.

“This isn’t what you ex­pect when you start the sea­son,” Logano said last month. “You go out there ex­pect­ing to win the cham­pi­onship, and the play­offs you just as­sume you would be there. I still as­sume we are go­ing to be there. We just have to work hard to get there.”

And not make mis­takes that are in­ex­cus­able for a vet­eran driver and team.

No look­ing ahead

So what now, Matt Kenseth?

Kenseth, as you prob­a­bly know, is out of a ride in 2018 af­ter he com­pletes the sea­son at Joe Gibbs Rac­ing. Rea­son to worry? Nah.

“I am not con­cerned at all about 2018 at the mo­ment,” Kenseth said dur­ing NBCSN’s pre-race cov­er­age at Po­cono. “I’m re­ally con­cerned about 2017 — win­ning races, be­ing suc­cess­ful and try­ing to race for a cham­pi­onship.

“I am in a great place men­tally. Things will line up and things will go how they are meant to go. What­ever that is, I re­ally do not know 100%. But I know it is all go­ing to work out.”

With Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports fill­ing the No. 88 ride with Alex Bow­man, Kenseth is run­ning out of op­tions to hitch a ride with a vet­eran team. So maybe there is a rea­son to worry.

sports@la­times.com

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