Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – TALLADEGA, AL – If there appeared an unmistakable air of confidence about Joey Logano as he met with the media Friday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, he has certainly earned it.
The defending winner of Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski have eight wins combined at Talladega. In all, Fords have captured the last seven Talladega checkered flags.
Still, however, the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion has arrived in the Alabama foothills unsure of what exactly to expect this weekend in this unique brand of superspeedway racing on the 2.66-mile track.
“I don’t know how the draft is going to work this weekend,’’ Logano allowed with a smile. “I do feel like as far as the bump-draft, that is something that I have worked on a lot in the Xfinity car or even when we did tandem (in Cup), I feel I was able to do a good job a being able to latch on and stay attached for a long time when we were able to do that.
“I kind of hope it gets to that point because I feel like it falls into a strength of mine. We will have to wait and see. I think this practice will be interesting to see if anyone can lock on to bumpers and fog aster. With that big spoiler, there are so many what-ifs that we don’t really know.’’
Last spring, Logano led a race best 70 of the 188 laps en route to his third Talladega victory. He won in the Fall of 2016 and also in the Fall of 2015 – contributing three trophies to Penske Racing’s five-win mastery in the last seven races at the track. His 210 laps led in that time is second only to his teammate Keselowski’s 216 laps out front. Together those two alone have paced the field 54 percent of the time during this Ford victory stretch.
But with new engine and body rules in place for this weekend’s Talladega 500-miler, there are more unknowns than usual even at one of the series’ already most unpredictable venues. Like so many of his competitors, Logano insisted practice will be more important than past years. As is so often the case, however, he isn’t sure who will be willing to show their hand before the race.
“I think we will get a general idea in practice,’’ Logano said. “Who knows how many cars are going to want to go out there and draft and what they are going to need.
“Whether teams or OEMs (manufacturers) go out together or everyone goes, sometimes you just don’t’ know until practice starts how it will play out. I would assume there will be a decent size group of cars learning what they need.’’
Logano didn’t seem overly concerned about a shift in strategy among drivers or teams or manufacturers as the entire field experiences a new technical dynamic this week – especially with the amazing pace his Penske team has shown up front. And that extends through the Ford camp. Last October, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola led a Ford 1-2-3 sweep in the Talladega Playoff race. Five of the top 10 cars were Fords.
Logano conceded he was unsure whether this weekend’s event would be a matter of teams and makes. But that is so often the case in restrictor plate racing.
“I kind of think the political game – if you want to call it that – is part of the competition,’’ Logano said. “It is part of the fun of it. You are going to need help to be able to overcome other cars. To be able to beat other cars and other teams you have to work together now.
“The draft has changed so much over the last few years. Because of Toyota, they started it when we went to Daytona in the 500 and they kicked everyone’s butt because they were selfless and stayed together. We have taken that model and tried to make it better with working together and we have found success because of that. It is part of the games now.’’
With a victory this year at Las Vegas and a pair of runner-up finishes – including at the series last race at Richmond Raceway – Logano has positioned himself well for another title run. He is ranked second in the standings, 20 points behind three-time race winner Kyle Busch and 14 points ahead of Busch’s teammate, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin. He is one of only five winners through the season’s opening nine races and would love to join the multi-win elite such as Busch, two-time winner Hamlin and his two-time winning teammate Keselowski.
So his realistic expectation for Sunday? After all the discussion, debate and anticipation, it’s not much different than any other year.
“It is just trying to expect the unexpected,’’ Logano said. “You try to prepare yourself and look back at notes and look at stuff from recent events and honestly, I think a lot of the prep work that you typically do maybe just gets shifted to Friday night and Saturday night. You don’t know.
“You don’t want to overload yourself with races and not know what is going on. For me, at least, it is probably better for me to figure out what we have here first and then kind of study and add to the strategy of what we need from there.”