Two laps stood between Joey Logano and his first victory in NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
Then, a wreck involving Justin Allgaier and Ty Dillon brought out a caution setting up a two-lap overtime to decide the winner of the Daytona 500.
Logano’s first reaction: “Oh, crap!”
That’s OK, there was plenty of time to figure out how to still win the race. Well, after he got past the feeling that he was about to throw up, that is.
As he had shown earlier in the race, Logano jumped to a big lead on the final restart, and although it looked like Kevin Harvick might reach him to attempt a pass for the lead on the final lap, NASCAR threw a caution for another multicar wreck.
This one froze the field and locked in Logano’s 500 victory for all time.
“Man, you have a split second after the caution came out, you think about it, ‘Did we win?’ Then straight chaos after that,” Logano said, recalling his feeling while taking the checkered flag.
“An amazing feeling.”
It’s been an amazing ride for Logano since he joined Team Penske for the 2013 season.
He burst full time into NASCAR’s premier series at age 19 with the nickname “Sliced Bread” (as in, the best thing since) and while he enjoyed much success in what is now the Xfinity Series at Joe Gibbs Racing, he failed to live up to expectations on the Cup side.
At the end of 2012, Logano was looking for a new home, and team owner Roger Penske and now teammate Brad Keselowski welcomed him with open arms.
His progression since has been nothing short of meteoric.
He won a race and made the Chase in 2013, and followed that with a five-win season last year and ended up as one of the four drivers competing in the season finale for the championship.
A bad pit stop late in the race curtailed in his championship run, but the ever-cheerful Logano was quickly able to forgive and forget.
“I’m confident as a driver I know I have the best team out there. Whether it’s the road crew or the pit crew, I know they’re the best team out there,” Logano said.
“As long as we stay together as a team, win or lose as a team, that’s what makes a strong team, you know, is people that live and die together. You do it.”
Now, one race into the 2015 season, Logano and his No. 22 Ford team have already virtually assured themselves an opportunity to compete again for the series championship.
Logano, 24, might also have gained something more.
“Today what I saw was a driver manage the race – he was never further back, I think, than 10th. He managed the race,” Penske said.
“When you have (Dale) Earnhardt, (Jimmie) Johnson, (Jeff) Gordon, all the guys behind him, he was able to play fair, but yet knew what he had to do. It was amazing.”
There’s that word again.
Even Logano’s competitor and former teammate Denny Hamlin said he sees something different with Logano’s performance on the track, including Sunday’s race.
“I just think the situation didn’t work for him (at JGR). I think he matured and did his homework. He’s really become one of the elite drivers in our sport,” said Hamlin, who is not one to toss around compliments lightly.
“Every single weekend you know you’re going to have to beat (Logano). That’s something we didn’t say about Joey just three years ago.”
Five years after debuting in the Cup series, we are seeing the Logano we heard so much about.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.