Joey Logano made no apologies for earning a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
The 23-year-old driver of the No. 22 Pennzoil Ford fielded by Penske Racing was defiant that he had done all he needed to do to land one of the 12 — now 13 — spots in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff format.
“We got one win and eight top-fives and 14 top-10 finishes,’’ said Logano, who went on the defensive after he found himself at the center of a controversy that raised questions about his 22d-place finish in the Chase cut-off event at Richmond International Raceway Sept. 7.
“If you look at those numbers, that is every bit of the top three or four that’s happened this season,’’ Logano said before last weekend’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. “I don’t feel bad about being in the Chase at all. We deserve to be in it, if you look at the numbers.’’
NASCAR officials, however, seemed more interested in the radio communications that took place between Logano’s Penske team and David Gilliland’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team in the final stages of the Richmond race.
A NASCAR review of the banter between Gilliland’s crew chief and spotter suggested that Logano’s Penske team was interested in striking a deal that would give its driver track position ahead of Gilliland.
Logano wound up finishing 22d and Gilliland 23d, but that was after Clint Bowyer spun out and Brian Vickers pitted late under green-flag conditions in a series of highly questionable moves by Michael Waltrip Racing aimed at manipulating the outcome in favor of Martin Truex Jr., who earned the last of two wild-card berths over Ryan Newman.
NASCAR lowered the boom on MWR by hitting the team with a $300,000 fine and assessing its crew chiefs and drivers with point penalties that knocked Truex out of the Chase field and installed Newman as the 12th driver.
Logano, meanwhile, remained 10th in the final Chase standings and started the playoffs as the No. 6 seed even after NASCAR put Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports on probation. It is not the first time this season that Logano has been subjected to scrutiny and scorn; he was involved in a late-March accident with Denny Hamlin at Fontana, Calif., that caused the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to miss four races with a fractured vertebra.
“I guess I’ve learned a lot this year and experienced a lot,’’ said Logano, who rebounded from back-to-back 40th-place finishes at Daytona and Loudon to win Michigan from the pole after posting another record qualifying run. “It just makes you stronger. They say it’s character-building. I’m a hell of a character now.’’
With defending champion Brad Keselowski out of the chase, Logano represented Penske Racing’s standard bearer, the team’s lone shot at winning another championship.
“It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to get both cars in the Chase,’’ Logano said. “It takes a lot to make something happen and, honestly, Atlanta was a tough deal for Brad to try and get into the Chase.’’
Keselowski went to Atlanta on the bubble, in 10th place, and wound up leaving there needing to win at Richmond to qualify for the playoffs after an engine failure left him in 35th place and 29th in the points. Keselowski wound up finishing a distant 17th to race winner Carl Edwards, bursting his Chase bubble.
“It’s tough, but we got one in and we’ll give it our best shot to win the championship with that,’’ Logano said.
During pole qualifications for the last weekend’s Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, Logano and Keselowski teamed up and seemed to make a defiant statement on behalf of their team when they swept the front row.
Logano knocked Keselowski off the top of the speed charts with his pole-winning run of 189.414 miles per hour, which broke Jimmie Johnson’s eight-year-old qualifying record (188.147) at the 1.5-mile oval. Penske’s front-row sweep in the Chase opener came some three hours after NASCAR put the team on probation for its alleged collusion with Front Row Motorsports to get Logano in the Chase.
“Any time you run well, it’s a statement,’’ Keselowski said. “It doesn’t have to be just when you’re facing adversity that you can see. There’s a lot of adversity as drivers we face all the time. Some of it is in the media, and some of it isn’t.
“Running well against the best competition in the world that competes in Sprint Cup is always an accomplishment whether there’s off-the-track drama or not.’’
Logano was dealt a setback, though, at Chicago, where he dropped to 12th in the standings after an engine failure caused him to retire in 37th place after he completed 175 of the 267 laps.
Despite stumbling out of the gates, Logano will attempt to regain his footing when he returns to the familiar environs of New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Sylvania 300. The native of Middletown, Conn., hoped to get his Chase jump started at the track where he recorded his first Sprint Cup victory in 2009 at 20 years of age and made his first career Sprint Cup start in 2008.
Logano made his 10th career start at NHMS in July but finished 40th in the Camping World RV Sales 301 after he was derailed by a cut tire in the early going.
“I’m excited about getting back to Loudon,’’ Logano said. “It’s my home racetrack. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to race much there in the spring when we had a flat tire three laps in, but I’m looking forward to getting to race a little bit longer than I did the last time.’’
While some suggest his spot in the Chase may have been ill-gotten, Logano remains unapologetic about being a Chase participant for the first time.
“It’s obviously a heck of an accomplishment to be in it,’’ Logano said. “We need to make sure that we enjoy it but at the same time we’re going to work hard to win this thing, because I feel like I’ve got a shot at it.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.