With playoff spot locked up, Joey Logano looks for more improvement at Dover


DOVER, Del. — Joey Logano arrived at the NASCAR research center in North Carolina for a drivers’ council meeting Tuesday and looked at the food tray.

Logano, in telling the story, said he quipped: “You aren’t serving cucumbers over here are you?”

Logano was referring to an “encumbered” finish, the term NASCAR used until this year to describe a finish that would not count toward the playoffs because of a rules violation.

The previous win for Logano at Richmond — 36 races prior to his victory at Talladega Superspeedway — was encumbered and Logano didn’t make the playoffs.

As he entered the council meeting, he was told his car from Sunday had passed the Tuesday inspection at the research center and it was official: As long as Logano starts every race and finishes in the top-30 in points (he’s second at the moment), he’ll make the playoffs.

“They said we were good [on Tuesday],” Logano said. “Thank God. I didn’t want to go through that again. That feels really good.”

So for the first time in 47 weeks, Logano enters a NASCAR race weekend not wondering if he will win to make the playoffs. He admits he has a little bit of a different feel going into Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover (2 p.m., FS1).

It’s not a different approach for crew chief Todd Gordon and Team Penske. But the crew does have a little bit of a different air around it.

“There is a little feeling of relief knowing that we are in the playoffs,” Logano said. “The goal has changed. When you start the season, it is always to win the championship, which you have to take one step at a time. You have to get in the playoffs before you can win the championship. I learned that last year.

“Now that we are in the playoffs we can focus on winning the championship. Earn stage points. Earn playoff points. Win races to help us get to Miami. That is the goal now.”

Logano has 19 NASCAR Cup victories, but he admits the one at Talladega last week felt like he had won the Daytona 500. A driver who expects to win and has had recent success obviously has difficulty not winning races for an entire year.

“It was definitely a challenging season and you just try to get better,” Logano said about the past 12 months. “Is it frustrating? Is it really hard? Do you have to have those tough conversations? Yeah. You have to get better.”

The only way to get better is to sit and look in the mirror.

“You have to have those conversations with yourself and with your team,” Logano said. “They are not comfortable. They are not fun.

“But it isn’t supposed to be. It is a job. … The fun comes along with the winning part. You have to work for that and that is what makes it rewarding. That is what made it feel so good last week. I said it felt like we won the Daytona 500 because it had been so long and we went through such a slump.”

While he has a win, Logano said he doesn’t have the speed needed to keep up with the top cars on a weekly basis. The organization is getting closer, and it is possible that the win will remove some of the stress level.

“It gnaws on you when you’re not in the winner’s circle,” team owner Roger Penske said. “I don’t think we had good enough cars for him last year at some point to help him execute, which didn’t help the situation.

“Todd and the team, we put our heads down. The new rules [for 2018] have seemed to help the Ford teams, especially the execution by Stewart Haas, the rest of the Ford guys, has been excellent. [Logano] stayed on course. He’s a committed guy to the team [and is a] long term player with us. To me, you go through that in business. You have some bad years.”

Logano said he had confidence to get through those months.

“We knew we were going to fight through it and had the capability to go out there and win races because it is the same group that [won races], the same group that almost won two championships,” Logano said.

“I was always confident in what I had around me. Honestly, once you get through something like that, you become stronger as a team and the team that is able to get through that learns a lot.”

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