Joey Logano appears to be set up as well as any recent NASCAR Cup Series champion to successfully defend his 2022 title, but he will have to overcome a unique hurdle in his career even to have a chance to compete for a second straight championship next year at Phoenix Raceway.
Logano broke into the sport’s top series at age 18 in 2008 as a Joe Gibbs Racing development driver with a considerable amount of hype and the nickname “Sliced Bread,” a nod to the phrase that something or someone is the best thing since — well, you get it.
Joey Logano was competitive immediately in the Xfinity Series, while Cup Series success took longer to arrive
He started in the Xfinity Series the same year, competing in 19 races and winning his third career start with a triumph at Kentucky Speedway. Logano ran at least 22 races in NASCAR’s second-tier series from 2009-12 and compiled 17 victories in that span.
Success in the Cup Series did not come quite so easily. He won the July 2009 race as a rookie in his first full-time season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a rain-shortened event in which he started 24th and spent only 38 of the 273 laps in the top 15.
He won the Rookie of the Year award for 2009, although his competition of Scott Speed, Max Papis, and Dexter Bean did not put up much of a fight. It would take nearly another three full years before Logano once again brought the No. 20 car to Victory Lane.
Logano started on the pole for the June 2012 race at Pocono Raceway and prevailed in a duel with Mark Martin in the final laps. That was one of only two top-five finishes that season and Logano lost his ride at the end of the season as rumblings about him being overrated started to grow louder.
He was still only 23 when he moved to the No. 22 car for Team Penske for the 2013 campaign, but he had already been in the series for four seasons and had failed to qualify for the NASCAR postseason or finish better than 16th in the points standings.
Logano’s career began to take off at Penske, however. He won from the pole in the August 2013 event at Michigan International Speedway and reached the postseason for the first time in his career, ultimately finishing eighth.
Logano has been great in the elimination playoff era, although only in even-numbered years
NASCAR instituted an elimination playoff format for 2014, and Logano stormed through the season with five wins and was one of four drivers to qualify for the inaugural Championship 4.
Logano has had substantial success ever since, with 23 race wins and two championships, but he has never reached the Championship 4 in consecutive seasons.
He won a career-high six races and six poles in 2015 while finishing inside the top 10 in all but eight of the 36 races, but was eliminated in the Round of 8 and finished sixth in the final standings.
Logano was the runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2016 when Johnson won his record-tying seventh championship, but Logano missed the playoffs entirely the following year despite winning a regular-season race (kind of).
Then came his first career championship in 2018, but Denny Hamlin won the 2019 semifinal race at Phoenix to knock Logano from the Championship 4.
He was back in the final four to compete for a title again in 2020 when he finished third behind Chase Elliott and then-teammate Brad Keselowski. Yet, in what has become a somewhat absurd pattern, Logano was eliminated in the Round of 8 again in 2021.
Logano has now made the Championship 4 five times since its inception in 2014. Still, all five of those appearances have been split by a season in which he was eliminated from title contention before the final race of the year.
It’s a phenomenon somewhat similar to the San Francisco Giants in Major League Baseball when they won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 but missed the postseason every year in between.
Logano is now a member of a group of 17 drivers to have won multiple Cup Series championships, but he is one of only seven to have multiple titles without any having come in consecutive seasons. Kyle Busch was the most recent to accomplish that feat. He won his second title in 2019 after getting his first four years earlier in 2015.
Logano should be in position to break his unique streak in 2023. He is only 32 years old and will retain his top-flight crew chief Paul Wolfe, who also won a championship with Keselowski in 2012.
Still, the current playoff format makes any consistency from year to year a challenge. The three-race elimination rounds provide ample opportunities for teams to have a problem in a single race from which they cannot recover before the end of a round. Or three different playoff drivers could win a race each and narrow the available spots for advancement.
A significant dropoff from Logano and the No. 22 team next season would be a rather drastic surprise. But some sort of change in luck will also be needed to avoid yet another odd-numbered-year tumble in the standings.
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