Roger Penske and his Team Penske have been waiting a long time to scale this mountain, but they did it in style on Sunday, thanks to the talent of Joey Logano, who nicely bookended his season and took over the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Four on the Phoenix Raceway one-mile oval.
Logano won pole position with his No. 22 Pennzoil Team Penske Ford Mustang, earned victory in the first stage of the race and then went on to win the Championship Race, his second NASCAR Cup Series title in four years (he also won in 2018) and the 31st Cup Series race victory of his career. It was Logano’s fourth win of the season, a dream season he started in early February by taking the inaugural Busch Clash at the LA Coliseum, NASCAR’s first competitive outing with its newest Next Gen race car.
Let the record show that Logano’s margin of victory was 0,301 seconds over fellow Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 Ford Mustang, who was likely serving as a blocker for anyone else that might challenge the lead driver. In the final laps, NASCAR’s newest sensation, Ross Chastain was ready to pull out another miracle as he closed in on Logano and Blaney. This time the wall stripe and its attendant victory were not to be for the driver of Trackhouse Racing’s No. 1 Chevrolet.
Logano knew he had a good car when it came off the hauler. “We weren’t satisfied with being in the Championship 4. There was nothing to celebrate for us; we’ve been here before and we know what it feels like to lose. It’s the worst feeling in the world, if I’m being honest, and winning in the best feeling in the world,” Logano declared shortly after taking the checkered flags and performing his front-stretch Goodyear tire-eroding burnout.
It was the little things that made Logano only the second active NASCAR Cup Series driver – Kyle Busch is the other – to have achieved more than one Cup Series championship. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe sat down after their early-season Las Vegas victory and decided to concentrate on items that could make them better: “We needed to review film together as a team, go through pit stops, rolling times on pit road, all these little subcategories that happened, and making sure the details are all in the right place,” the champ said.
From arriving at the Phoenix track more than five hours before the green flags,“Going over stuff to make sure we were prepared for today, we made sure that there was no stone unturned when it came to preparing for this race,” Logano explained. “When you saw how confident I was and my team was, it’s because we were truly ready. You can’t fake confidence; you can maybe show it a little bit, but truly deep down inside, you have to believe that, if you’re going to be ready for this battle.
“I never felt more ready, and a lot of the credit goes to Paul, for taking the time and effort and forcing us to do it together as a team.”
It’s been a long time since Ford has had a two-time Cup champion driving their brand. The last time it was David Pearson, who won the championship two years in a row: 1968 and 1969. Doug Yates, president and CEO of Roush Yates Engines noted the result was due to the synergy between Ford Performance, Roger Penske, Joey Logano, Paul Wolfe and the entire Team Penske crew. Not only did they earn the driver’s title, but picked up the team title as well. “That was an intense race,” Yates notes, “in which Joey and Paul executed flawlessly. We are blessed to be a part of the Ford family, providing the horsepower to win with these fast Ford Mustangs.”
This was the third title for Roger Penske in NASCAR Cup Series competition. His first came with Brad Keselowski in 2012, but it’s taken Logano to hand Penske a pair of championships. In September of this year, Will Power earned the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship for Team Penske, and the 85-year-old Penske noted, “I think we’ve tried it for 31 years, so it’s about time,” that he was able to claim both titles in a single year. “Joey did a great job. You’ve seen what he’s been able to do as he’s come on the team, and for us to have two championships in the same year, that’s what we’re here for. That’s the goal we have every year.”
After 56 years as a team owner, this is new territory for Penske. It was Keselowski who, in his 2012 championship year, helped bring Logano to Team Penske, so the team’s patriarch is indebted to his former driver. “There was a lot of discussion, was that the right move? I have to thank Brad, who talked to me about Joey and really made the opportunity for me to meet with him. I said to him at the beginning of the year, with Brad leaving and he being the senior guy, to really put his arms around the whole team,” Penske said of the now 32-year-old Logano.
“I think we’re a lot more transparent as a group,” Penske continued. “They certainly worked together coming here this weekend. You could see all the cars were very competitive and that’s because they all went on the same step, and they had a practice to see what was best, and we loaded that on the cars,” he explained. “I think to win the first race (with the Next Gen car) at the Coliseum, and then cap it off here was pretty amazing, because when you think about it, during the season we weren’t quite as competitive as we wanted to be, as we got to know the car. This teamwork we talk about made a big difference.”
After the checkered flags flew, Wolfe remained on the No. 22 pit box and contemplated what had just occurred. “[it was] Probably a bit of relief, to be honest. Gosh it’s so hard to win these things. We knew we were prepared the best we could be. We had the speed when we unloaded and it was just – you get into this race and you just don’t want to screw it up. So much goes into it, and you just don’t want to have a mistake during that race,” he said.
The championship fight was between Logano, Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott, along with Championship 4 first-timers Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing and Christopher Bell from Joe Gibbs Racing. That lineup gave Ford a single opportunity, while Bell represents Toyota and both Chastain and Elliott drive Chevrolet-powered cars. While Elliott had the most wins of any of the Championship 4 eligible for the Cup Series title with five, he didn’t win when it mattered and, in fact, finished in 28th position on Sunday, while Chastain was third and Bell took the tenth finishing spot.
It was contact with Chastain that ruined Elliott’s bid for a second title, after he spun off the nose of the No. 1 Chevy, slamming sideways into the SAFER barrier of the mile oval’s dogleg. The second-generation driver lost a lap in the pits and another on the track, finishing two laps down. Bell, who drove a steady race under difficult conditions after learning of the death of JGR co-owner Coy Gibbs said, “Whenever you get news like that, it puts it in perspective that there is more to this than racing. The whole Gibbs family is in all of our prayers. I’m thinking of them.”
By Anne Proffit