Joey Logano spoils Big Three party to win NASCAR title

By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
Getty Images

Joey Logano celebrates with the trophy after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Joey Logano raced into NASCAR anointed as its next star. He was 18, dubbed "Sliced Bread" because of all the hype, and in way over his head.

It made Logano an easy target on and off the track and threatened his career. Logano was out of a job five years after he arrived but given a second chance by Roger Penske, the titans of motorsports.

Now he's part of Penske's storied history as NASCAR's newest champion.

The underdog on paper but the favorite in his mind, Logano busted up The Big Three and won an improbable first NASCAR title by soundly beating a trio of former champions. Logano won the season finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway to grab the Cup title in a season in which he barely contended until the playoffs began.

The year was dominated by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., with Logano calling the championship field "The Big Three and Me."

But Logano kicked it into another gear during the playoffs with two victories and eight top-10 finishes in the postseason. He led a race-high 80 laps but the title was slipping away in the waning laps until Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski spun Busch teammate Daniel Suarez for a race-changing caution.

He was fourth on the restart with 15 laps remaining but powered his way alongside leader Truex, used a strong move in the outside lane three laps later to take over the top spot, and Logano pulled away to win for Penske.

"We were the favorite. We executed down the stretch like nobody's business," Logano said. "I knew we had a short-run car. I said it before the race started that if it was anything longer than 25 laps we were going to be in trouble. That showed all day. But it came down to the short run and we are champions. NASCAR champions."

Logano won the title in his 10th season at NASCAR's top level, six years after Penske rescued him from the unemployment line.

He started with Joe Gibbs Racing as a teenager, made his debut days after his 18th birthday and was pushed into the Cup Series prematurely when Gibbs needed a replacement driver for Tony Stewart.

When Logano didn't deliver for Gibbs he was grabbed by Penske, who won got his first Cup title in 2012 with Keselowski, the driver who pushed for Logano to be hired as his new teammate.

"I think when it's time to go, he's the guy," Penske said. "I couldn't ask for a better result and a guy that delivers it for the whole team."

Gibbs, who saw his former driver beat current driver Busch for the title, was pleased for Logano.

"I think it's great for them and Joey," Gibbs said. "Great kid, great family. I'm sure he's going to make a great champion."

Logano's title closes a banner year for Penske.

Penske also this season was elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, won the Indianapolis 500 for a record 17th time and celebrated Team Penske's 500th victory as an organization.

"Every time I think about how we succeed and how we can be better, one thing is 'What's your brand?'" Penske said. "This kind of winning, not only on the racetrack but in business, drives a great Penske brand."

Team Penske also has been the cornerstone for Ford the last six seasons, and Logano gave the manufacturer its first Cup title since 2004.

NASCAR's final weekend concluded with three new champions from three different teams representing all three manufacturers. Brett Moffitt won the Truck Series title in a Toyota for Hattori Racing, Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity Series title in a Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, and Ford finally got a title on what is officially called "Ford Championship Weekend."

Logano screamed so hard when he crossed the finish line that he later joked he thought he pulled a muscle. Then he explained how far he's come from a kid in Connecticut who showed so much talent so young that Hall of Famer Mark Martin stamped him NASCAR's next superstar when Logano was around 15 years old.

Now he's 28, a 10-year veteran at NASCAR's top level, and a champion in the second act of his career.

"I'm the kid who every single time I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I said 'A NASCAR champion.' I said it every single time," Logano said. "Not a lot of kids in Connecticut say that."

Truex finished second in his final race with Furniture Row Racing. The team is closing because it lost its primary sponsor midway through Truex's championship reign.

"It's a tough way to lose," Truex said. "I had nothing for him at the end. That's just the way it goes. I don't know what else to say. It hurts a little, and I'm going to miss all of the guys."

Harvick was third and Busch fourth as the title contenders followed each other across the finish line.

"We weren't even close," said Busch, who used strategy to keep up with the other title contenders.

"We were so bad tonight on the racetrack and on pit road that nothing was kind of going our way. So it was just not all there the way that we needed it to, and sometimes it all falls into place and falls your way, and other times you've got to be able to go out there and go earn it, and we didn't have either."

In fact, Busch's crew had one of its worst races of the year on pit road as the front-tire changer had hiccups on two stops. It negated any advantage Busch gained when team owner Gibbs forced Denny Hamlin not to take the first pit stall and leave it open so Busch would have an easier exit back on the track. But he lost six positions during one stop, four in another, and his team had to gamble on strategy to stay in contention.

It was Busch who said losing the title would be most disappointing if it went to Logano because Logano wasn't in the same league as the Big Three all season. But Logano was adamant he was the favorite, in part because he wasn't even supposed to make the final four after just one regular season victory. Busch and Harvick ended the season with eight wins each, while Truex had four.

"Lots of wins," Busch said. "Forget about it now, move on."

The title is redemption for Logano, who could have washed out of the sport when Gibbs cut him from the team. But he reinvented himself under Penske and became comfortable as an aggressive driver, even when it cost him.

Logano was the favorite to win the 2015 title but missed the finale because a feud with Matt Kenseth cost him on the track. He was the championship runner-up in 2016, and a penalty kept his No. 22 out of last season's playoffs.

Logano this season had to move Truex out of his way in the final turn at Martinsville Speedway last month to earn his berth in the championship race. Logano was criticized for his aggressiveness, and Truex promised he'd prevent Logano from winning the Cup, but Logano insisted he made the necessary move to win a championship.

And in the final 15-lap shootout to the finish, Logano simply drove around the outside of Truex and pulled away. If Truex had any intention of stopping Logano he had to catch him first, he couldn't and finished 1.725 seconds behind.

Logano's third win came at Homestead, where the champion has won the race to win the title since this format was introduced in 2014. He's NASCAR's 33rd champion and first from Connecticut.

Team Penske also won the owners' championship

___

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.