As Kyle Busch finally seals a win at Pocono, Joey Logano in precarious spot


LONG POND, Pa. — Kyle Busch was basking in the beverage shower he’d missed the past 36 races. A few pit stalls away, Joey Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon stood rigid, studying their race car as if the reason for their unrest was hidden among the decals.

Busch’s victory at Pocono Raceway on Sunday didn’t mint him as any more of a threat to win a second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. He’d raced well enough this season to have a half dozen trophies by now.

He already was safely tucked inside the 16-driver playoff envelope by virtue of his standing in points with six races left in the regular season. And, even though his paucity of playoff points could have been a “colossal” disadvantage, crew chief Adam Stevens said, Busch is a spree winner who now has won a Cup race at every active NASCAR track except Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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He could auto-advance his way through elimination rounds to the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway even as Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson have separated themselves atop the standings with three and two wins, respectively, for much of the regular season.

“I think our stats and our runs and our speed shows for itself,” Busch said. “Those guys have just been able to capitalize on race victories, and that’s what we’ve not been able to capitalize on.

“We’re not all that flashy, but when our backs are against the wall — we haven’t necessarily had that situation thankfully, had to go out there and win in those playoff instances like some of these other teams have. (Kevin Harvick) has been able to do it, (Truex) has been able to do it, a couple other guys.

“But we just methodically go about our races, and that’s our mentality. And when it works for us, we go to victory lane, and that’s how we get to Homestead.”

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Logano’s route there feels almost untenable after he finished 27th. He’s 69 points behind Matt Kenseth, who holds the last points transfer slot. This admittedly stuns the 2016 series runner-up after he began the season with a win, six top-fives and eight top-10s in the first nine races.

His playoff ticket was confiscated by NASCAR after officials discovered a post-race penalty following his win at Richmond Raceway this spring, making his finish “encumbered” or not valid for playoff qualification. A slog of uncharacteristically poor results followed — none of which, Gordon asserts, had anything to do with the penalty — and Logano slumped outside of the points transfer zone so far that another victory is his only chance to undertake the 10-race title hunt for a fifth consecutive season.

Logano, too, could win almost anywhere, if his Fords become fast enough again after a rules change Gordon said hampered them. This could all be turned around immediately at Watkins Glen International — as it might have been after he finished fourth in Indianapolis last week — but the gloom Logano displayed Sunday underscored the team’s plight.

Sunday, it was a spate of mistakes that will be certain to rankle detail-oriented team owner Roger Penske. With Logano racing in or on the edge of the top-10 with 35 laps left, he committed a pit road speeding penalty, smoked his tires attempting not to incur another on the pass-through and was sanctioned again when Gordon violated a rule barring service while serving penalties by having Logano’s tires changed. Another pass-through followed. Gordon keyed “My bad” on the team radio.

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“We’ve just got to build some momentum back up,” Logano said as he left pit road after the race. “It looked like things were going to go a little better after last week, and we just didn’t have speed today. I sped down pit road, then locked the tires up coming back to pit road and we kill ourselves, so … ”

So now what?

“We’ve got five race tracks we’ve been very successful at,” Gordon said. “We just continue to do what we’ve done.

“You look at them, we won at Watkins Glen two years ago, finished second last year, so that’s a good race track for us. Bristol, we’ve won the fall race twice. Michigan, we’ve won it twice. Richmond, we won the spring race there — although everybody wants to call it encumbered, whatever — but we won the spring race there. And Darlington’s been a good race track. We just have to go and execute.”

And there again, the contrast with Busch is graphic. After leading scores of laps and seeing wins elude him in numerous odd ways, Busch still felt like a driver just trying to find a handle on a trophy. Logano, meanwhile, continues groping.

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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