NASCAR Cup series title No. 2? Defending champ Joey Logano might have found secret

Joey Logano wins NASCAR Monster Energy cup series championship

Joey Logan hoists the Monster Energy Cup Series trophy after winning the 20th Annual Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday, November 18, 2018.
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Joey Logan hoists the Monster Energy Cup Series trophy after winning the 20th Annual Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday, November 18, 2018.

It’s not quite Cinderella, but roll with it.

The ball in New York City slowly swung back to Earth on New Year’s Eve, signaling the end of 2018 and the beginning of a new year. The chorus of ‘New York, New York’ rang out in the background, happy couples and families milling about to ring in the occasion. And there in the center of it all, Joey Logano turned to his wife, Brittany, and thought back.

“I looked at her,” Logano recalled in January, “and I said, ‘Well, that was a great year.

“’It’s over.’”

“Great” is putting things lightly. Between the birth of their first child, Hudson, and Logano winning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, 2018 was a hallmark year for the family.

“It’s going to be tough,” Logano admitted, “to top it.”

And yet, that’s exactly what the 28-year-old NASCAR driver now must attempt to do. He’ll start third on Thursday in the second of two qualifying races that will set the lineup for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.

But even after a full offseason of interviews, making the rounds on morning talk shows and other promotional appearances, Logano doesn’t quite look at things as a continuation of last year.

Rather, he said, he’s already moved on.

That very well may be the key to winning a second consecutive Cup championship, something that hasn’t been done since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2009-2010.

“I kind of think of it as, that’s over now,” Logano said. “A lot of people say you’re the reigning champion, that goes through the whole year until there’s another champion. Maybe, but I kind of look at it as it’s over Jan. 1.

“It’s game on again.”

‘I don’t think anything’s changed’

As storybook and satisfying as 2018 was for Logano, it certainly didn’t seem like that would be the case early in the year.

That’s not to say that Logano didn’t have a promising start to the 2018 season, because he did. He recorded top-10 finishes in the nine of the first 10 races of the year, culminating in his first win at Talladega at the end of April.

And then came the slump.

Well, really it was more like inconsistency, but that’s only with the blessing of hindsight. Mid-summer, you would’ve been in the minority if you’d picked Logano to finish as champion. Even his longtime crew chief Todd Gordon can admit that.

“If you asked me in July of last year, I’d have told you that ‘19 would be a better season for the 22 team,” Gordon told the Observer. “We weren’t at our best,” with the rules package last season.

Obviously that turned around and the team finished the year with two wins in its final four races, but the uncertainty was still there.

How the team handled that, as it turns out, might be valuable to Logano as he now attempts to go back-to-back: learning that no matter what happens — good, bad, or ugly — you keep things the same.

“I don’t think anything’s changed,” Gordon said. “Even with the commitments we had (in the offseason), we were flying back and forth talking about what we need to do to be better in ‘19. His focus has been that way.”

Hurdles to winning repeat championships

For all of Logano’s focus and determination not to let anything change, there are some unavoidables.

The most obvious of those is NASCAR’s new rules package, which attempts to create tighter pack racing and more passes for the lead by constraining horsepower and aerodynamics. Teams recently completed a testing session with the package in Las Vegas, but the consensus among drivers has been that the package won’t be truly understood until several races into the year.

Not that that prevents anyone from speculating, though.

“I think the package suits Joey’s style,” Gordon said. “He’s a very calculated, aggressive driver, and I think you’re going to have chances to make moves with this package coming out.

“If you look back to when we had downforce levels similar to what we’re racing now, in ‘14 and ‘15, we won a lot of races.”

And as if an entirely new rules package weren’t enough, Logano will also be driving a new car. After Toyota and Chevrolet unveiled new car models the past two season, Ford this year is introducing its new Mustang to replace the Fusion Logano won in last year.

Again, another wrinkle to the repeating equation, but not one that necessarily breeds pessimism, even with the struggles Toyota and Chevy had the past two years with their new cars.

“Everything on paper shows that it should be better. We’ll see,” Logano said. “I think there will be a learning curve with it, because you’ve kind of got to start all over. With the Fusion, we really — I don’t want to say perfected it — but we really refined it to where the gains we were making were very small.

“With the Mustang, we kind of have a clean slate. That being said, it’s kind of a clean slate for everybody.”

There’s also something not race-related Logano and his entire No. 22 team will have to deal with: expectations, internal and external.

Logano’s teammate at Penske, Brad Keselowski, faced the same scenario back in 2013, after he won his first Cup title in 2012. Keselowski mentioned that during the next go-around it was tough keeping his team hungry for a second championship.

“In some ways it gives you a lot of confidence, and in a lot of ways it’s really hard on a team,” Keselowski told the Observer. “It can deflate a team because a lot of the people worked so hard to achieve that goal, that once they achieve that goal, they’re ready to move on. It can be tough.

“It’s kind of like the dog that caught the rabbit at the dog track. (What next?)”

‘There’s plenty of targets’

There’s a reason only 10 drivers in NASCAR history have won back-to-back — or in Jimmie Johnson’s case, back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back — championships.

It’s hard enough just winning one.

But for as competitive as these drivers are, accepting that reality really isn’t an option.

Instead, it’s about following the boring standard Logano has clearly become so adept at.

Same, plain. Nothing to change.

“One of the things that (Roger Penske) says to me a lot and I remember is not to trip on your press clippings, meaning don’t be looking in the rearview mirror too much about something good that you did,” Logano said, “because your competition’s catching you.

“We had time to enjoy it, a lot of time to celebrate with our team, with Ford ... but the facts are that’s over, and we’ve got to try to win the championship again, and we’ve got to start from zero like everybody else.”

Only this year, no matter what Logano or Gordon or anyone else says, the No. 22 team isn’t starting at zero.

They’re starting as reigning champs, with all the challenges and targets that come with it.

Good thing Logano’s never been one to care about targets — that, unsurprisngly, hasn’t changed either.

“I don’t really care,” Logano said, “There’s plenty of targets.

“Pretty sure it’s the same challenge.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.