Twenty races into 2017, it appears that Joey Logano’s NASCAR Cup Series season has been halved into two distinct pieces, one successful, one not.
In the first 10 races, he ran like a championship contender as he led nine races for a total of 250 laps, including a season-high 82 at Phoenix. In the second 10 races of the season, he raced like an also-ran as he led only one race for a total of seven.
In the first 10 races, his average finish was 9.6. His average finish in the second 10 races: 20.5.
As his season crumbled, Logano and his Penske Racing team went through an extensive process of elimination to try to find out why their cars were slow. They identified as many as 15 areas that might need fixing, and if Indy was an indication, they have at least made some progress. Logano finished fourth at the Brickyard on Sunday, his first top-five finish since June 18.
“We’ve got a faster car, which is good,” Logano said. “If we keep making our cars faster, we’re going to get back to where we win races again.”
Conventional wisdom says a fast car at the Brickyard will be a fast car at Pocono, site of Sunday’s Overton’s 400, because both tracks have long straightaways and flat turns.
But fast won’t be good enough. Logano needs to win.
With six races left in the regular season, the “non-winning” portion of the points race is all but over, and Logano is out of it.
When wins are factored in, Matt Kenseth holds the 16th and final playoff spot, with a 51-point gap over 18th-place Logano. That gap is too large, and there are too few races before the cutoff, for Logano to have a realistic chance of passing Kenseth. Plus, Clint Bowyer is between them, with an 18-point gap on Logano.
Even Logano has conceded he can’t pass both of them.
“We have to win,” Logano says.
Can he do it at Pocono? History says maybe. In 17 starts at the tricky triangle, Logano has one win, four top fives and six top 10s.
If he misses the playoffs, 2017 would be an unqualified disaster, no matter how good the first 10 races were.
And so begins a mad dash for a win in an utterly perplexing season for Logano. It seemed impossible after nine races that he could fall this far. He won that ninth race and was in the top five in points. But NASCAR stripped him of the postseason privileges that otherwise would come with it because of a rules violation.
Logano has eight top-five finishes; only Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson have more. In fact, Logano has more top-five finishes than Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon, combined. He has 52 more points than Busch, 132 more than Kahne and 136 more than Dillon.
But all three of those guys are locked into the playoffs because they have wins.