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The One NASCAR “Bump” Pocono Couldn’t Smooth Over

The One NASCAR “Bump” Pocono Couldn’t Smooth Over

For Joey Logano, Pocono has now produced three chapters in his list of Sprint Cup memorable moments. But up until Sunday, the problem was the first two could best be described as “reality show-esque.” There was the Spring, 2010 spin-turned-scuffle with the Harvicks, getting Logano’s father banned from the garage with his best “Hatfield-McCoy” impression while the words “who wears the firesuit in the family?” became the trendy catchphrase of the summer. Then, you had last July, “Sliced Bread” speeding to the pole position on the same weekend Carl Edwards officially spurned millions from Joe Gibbs Racing and Home Depot to re-sign with Ford. That free agency fiasco, effectively giving Logano his job back should have inspired confidence in the 21-year-old; instead, after leading 44 laps early it left him a shaky 26th. With just one top-5 finish since, at Watkins Glen last August, and only four _total laps_ led on the Cup circuit, it was only natural where this kid wound up Sunday.

Victory Lane?

Joey Logano led the most laps and wound up in Victory Lane on Sunday.

“It was just an amazing weekend,” said the 22-year-old moments after climbing out of the car. “This is just a surreal moment, at a perfect time.”

I’ll say. After a 104-race winless streak on the Cup level, the man once dubbed the “savior” for Sprint Cup’s next generation may have well just saved himself from the unemployment line. It was not just what Logano did, but how it happened Sunday that made the victory most impressive. Starting from the pole, he led the most laps, 49 on a day where pit strategy made first place a game of track position hot potato. Then, when making his final stop, with 34 laps to go crew chief Jason Ratcliff delivered sobering news: the car was two laps short on fuel. That meant his driver needed to feather the throttle, even after two long cautions down the stretch while holding off a trio of worthy opponents. You had Denny Hamlin, JGR teammate and best active driver at Pocono as of late; Tony Stewart, the man Logano replaced in the No. 20; and Martin, the mentor who moved mountains in giving this kid a fast track to the top.

Could there be any more irony… or pressure?

“Having those guys around you, it’s a pretty cool lineup when you think about who you’re racing against there at the end,” Logano said. “I was telling myself under caution, I can do this, I can do this. And I knew I could.”

Martin might cry foul on that, his rear bumper getting the worst of it after powering by the No. 20 car after a late restart. The final 20 miles that that followed, a cat-and-mouse game between the two, were easily some of the most intense racing NASCAR has seen since February’s Daytona 500. Inches apart, you could see each driver laying it all on the table, slinging sideways while Logano stalked his idol’s every move. And then… it went the route of the slide job, the No. 20 laying into the No. 55 just a little bit too hard entering Turn 1.

“I’d call that a bump and run,” said Martin, who would have been the oldest Sprint Cup winner in NASCAR history only to lose to the youngest. “It has been acceptable in this racing for a long time. Not how I would have done it; certainly, if I had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return.”

“I was trying to stick my nose in there, and we got really close,” was Logano’s version. “I’m not even sure if we touched each other or not, but I know I got him air loose at least and able to slide up underneath and clear him by the time he got off of 1.”

At least some things haven’t changed: this youngster remembered Martin’s lessons when it comes to political correctness. But this race was a moment where the pupil differed sharply from the teacher, a rarity for Logano in a NASCAR career where he’s often been the one pushed around by others. To play bumper cars on one of the highest-speed corners on the circuit, at more than 200 miles per hour entering the braking zone, sent a message to all 42 rivals: don’t mess with me. Along with that came a certain sense of cockiness we haven’t seen out of Martin since becoming a rookie sensation in ’09. For the critics? Logano sent a simple message on-camera in Victory Lane: “I hope this shuts them all up.” For crew chief Jason Ratcliff? There’s vindication, along with permanency atop the pit box after replacing JGR leader and legend Greg Zipadelli in the offseason. For Joe Gibbs Racing? A team that was rumored to be shopping his seat, teammate Kyle Busch actively pushing for brother Kurt until a few weeks ago may just have to rethink their plans.

“I haven’t been informed on where I stand for next year yet, so it’s all up in the air,” Logano said, later failing, in a roundabout way to make mention of any one individual on the team that stuck with him through his slump. While offering “three pages of names to thank,” painting a broad stroke was in stark contrast to Kasey Kahne’s lovefest from Hendrick a few weeks ago. “Obviously, winning a race means a lot and it helps that out a ton. For sure, right now my future is not set with anybody.”

Nor will it be for awhile. Logano, if the season ended now would lose a tiebreaker to Ryan Newman for the final Chase spot; it’s the postseason, a privilege Logano has never earned which would keep his long-term future intact. But now, at least the opportunity to make a move exists. Up ahead lies Kentucky, a track where he’s made the Nationwide Series a personal playground. Loudon, in July was the site of his first Cup Series victory. And remember that top-5 finish at the Glen? Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance… which was more than Logano had just six short days ago, before the 120 days of Pocono ended with the season’s biggest surprise yet.

“It wasn’t a surprise today to me today that we were out front winning this race,” he said. “I expected that, and I think you’ve got to have that confidence, you’ve got to have that little arrogance or cockiness as an athlete to have that. That’s really important.”

For Joey Logano, the swagger is back. Now, let’s see how long it lasts.

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