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Joey Logano’s confidence grows with title chances

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Sep. 06, 2013

Is it possible this season’s Sprint Cup Series awards banquet could feature “Sliced Bread?”

Sound strange? No worries.

So does the prospect that longtime team owner Roger Penske might have a chance at a second consecutive series championship, but not with reigning champion Brad Keselowski.

Nothing speaks louder of the unpredictability of this season than the rise of Joey Logano, 23, into a likely title contender one year removed from many pundits and fans writing off his NASCAR career as a failure.

“It’s a big deal. I mean, it is a goal of mine; it’s a very big goal of mine,” Logano said of the prospects of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. “You strive for it every year when the season starts.

“I’ve come up short every time. This is my big shot so far in my career.”

Logano burst fulltime into NASCAR’s premier series at age 19 with the nickname “Sliced Bread” (as in the best thing since … ) and then failed to live up to others’ expectations.

What matters, however, is the here and now – and Logano and his No.22 Penske Racing team enter Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway as one of the series’ hottest teams.

Over the past nine races, Logano has the third-most points (290). Only Kyle Busch (324) and Kurt Busch (294) have earned more. Logano also has finished among the top 10 in six consecutive races – the second-longest streak this season (Kevin Harvick had nine at one point).

Logano’s recent surge is one reason Keselowski said at a fan event Thursday night that his teammate was his pick to win this season’s championship.

“He’s definitely got the momentum,” Keselowski said. “His team has got things going for them in so many different directions. There’s a lot of confidence that comes with that.

“He’s been catching the breaks, too.”

Keselowski still can make the Chase, but his path is a difficult one. He is 28 points outside the top 10, which guarantees a spot. To have a chance at one of the twowild-card spots, he would need to win Saturday night.

Logano, on the other hand, can lock in a spot in the Chase if he finishes 11th or better.

Logano’s rise comes as a surprise not just because of his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing after last season but because of other obstacles as well.

Both Penske teams received stiff penalties for infractions at the Texas race this season and Logano has had to rebound to get back into the top 10 in the standings after falling to 20th after the April 21 race at Kansas.

“I think it speaks to the never-give-up attitude that everybody here has got,” said Todd Gordon, Logano’s crew chief. “There are so many instances during this year where we could have thrown our day away and said ‘I’m done,’ but nobody did.

“Nobody gave up. I think that’s the piece that is probably the most promising about this race team – everybody remains focused on the checkered flag and what can we do to maximize getting it.”

Make no mistake, though, Logano and his team will not be satisfied simply by getting into the Chase. Logano would like to make his Chase debut one to remember.

“I look at the way we’ve been doing lately, like Bristol (Tenn.). We raced through a lot of stuff – garbage on the grille, speeding penalty, right-front fender tore up and we finished fifth,” Logano said.

“You look at a guy that I feel is best in the garage doing that (Jimmie Johnson). Every time something goes wrong, he finishes 10th or better. You got to be able to do that to have a shot at this championship.

“I feel like this team has that figured out right now.”

Gordon agrees.

“I have no doubts that we can compete for this championship. Momentum is a huge thing and we got a little bit of it right now,” he said.

“We’ve battled back from adversity twice this season and I think that speaks very highly of the character of this race team.”

On a Roll

Most points scored over the past nine Cup races:

Driver points

Kyle Busch 325

Kurt Busch 294

Joey Logano 290

Matt Kenseth 287

Jamie McMurray, 285

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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