Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – It was a tough race day start-to-finish at Dover International Speedway on Sunday for several Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders. In the case of reigning series champ Joey Logano – it was a tough day even before the start.
Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford suffered a mechanical issue during the pace laps and as the field took the green flag to start the race, his team instead hurriedly worked to repair the car in the garage. He did return to the race and ultimately finished a season worst, 34th – after scoring top-10 finishes in the previous three Playoff races.
“We definitely used our mulligan,” Logano said. “We used the Playoff points we accumulated, we just have to be perfect now. We have two really good race tracks coming up though. Talladega is arguably one of our best race tracks and I would say Kansas as well. We just have to be perfect from here.”
Certainly the bizarre and uncharacteristic start to his day was unsettling and puts Logano behind heading into the second race of the second round of Playoffs – this Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
But Logano will have some company – good company – in the must-fare well department.
As Logano’s team was preparing his car to re-join the race, defending Dover winner Chase Elliott had an engine issue after only eight laps, sending him to the garage, not to return. He was scored 38th, tying a season-worst finish. A third Playoff driver, Ryan Blaney went to the garage with a 103 of the 400 laps still remaining and ended up 35th.
All three drivers started the race as legitimate picks to advance to the Round of 8 and now Logano is ranked ninth, tied with eighth place William Byron, 17 points behind seventh place Alex Bowman. Elliott is ranked 11th of 12 Playoff drivers, seven points behind the cutoff. And Blaney is ranked 12th, 22 points behind Byron and Logano.
Martin Truex Jr., who finished runner-up to Kyle Larson in the race, holds a 15-point edge over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin atop the standings.
The tough situations Logano, Elliott and Blaney endured place so much importance on the predictably unpredictable Talladega high banks this week. And that may be considered good news for Logano and Elliott, especially. Both have past wins at the superspeedway.
Logano has three Talladega victories – second among active drivers this weekend to his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski with five victories. He has six top-five finishes in the last eight races – including his three wins (2015, 2016, 2018). Logano was fifth in the Playoff race at Talladega last year and fourth at the series stop there in May earlier this season.
Elliott’s Talladega win in May was his first at the track. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has three top-five finishes in seven starts; including two top three efforts in the last three races. He’s started races well there too. Five times earning a top five position on the grid. Ironically, his victory came after his “worst” qualifying effort of 11th.
Blaney, Logano’s Team Penske teammate and the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, hasn’t fared quite as well as Logano and Elliott at the big track. He has only one top five and two top 10s in 10 starts and was 15th there in the Spring. In fact, Blaney has more DNFs (three) than he has top 10s at Talladega.
Kansas Speedway has historically been more to Blaney’s liking. He has five top-10 finishes in nine starts there, including a seventh place in the 2018 Playoff race. He won the pole position in Spring, 2017 and led a substantial 83 of the 267 laps, finishing fourth. Finished a career-best third at Kansas in the 2017 Playoff race.
Similarly, Elliott has a strong record at Kansas and he is the defending winner of the October Playoff race there. He has three top-five finishes in seven starts at Kansas; all coming in his last four Kansas races.
Logano has a pair of Kansas wins (2014 and 2015 Fall races) and eight top 10s in 20 starts. He won the pole position for last year’s Playoff race, led a race best 100 laps and finished eighth.
“I assume we’ll have to win one of these next few weeks,” Elliott said Sunday in the garage shortly after retiring his car. “If you ever make it to [Championship Weekend] at Homestead (Fla.), you’re going to have to win down there. I guess it’s a good opportunity to practice here these next few weeks.”