With NASCAR teams set to face one of the more diverse schedules in recent memory next season, Joey Logano already grasps the importance of each race.
“You can’t afford to not look at everything as the Daytona 500,” says Logano.
The 2018 Cup Series champion out of Team Penske has already been discussing the emphasis needed for certain races with crew chief Paul Wolfe. For the first time in over 50 years, the series will run on dirt when it covers the Bristol Motor Speedway. Even more noteworthy, there are now seven road course races on the 2021 schedule, and six are positioned during the regular season.
“It’s a big deal,” Logano says of the increase in road course races. “You have to be such a versatile team now to win a championship, where it never used to be like that. There were two of them, and it was, eh, you get through it, you get through it during the regular season. And especially the way the playoff system used to be, if you won a race before that, well, whatever.
“That was kind of the attitude for a lot of drivers, and now with the way the playoff system works, the regular season, and all those bonus points, you can’t discount any race. You can’t discount road courses, the Bristol dirt race. You have to look at all this stuff that’s outside the box because it adds up. We see it every year – someone doesn’t make it into the next round by a point, or it’s a tie. It’s that close.”
Until 2018, there were two road course races on the schedule with Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Then the Charlotte road course was added, giving the series a third road course and one in the postseason. Next year, Cup Series teams will also visit the Daytona road course, Circuit of the Americas, Road America, and the Indianapolis road course.
Long gone are the days of road course ringers coming in and taking a ride. No more can teams look past the left and right-handers on the schedule. What comes to mind now concerning road courses?
“Better figure out a way to catch the 9,” chuckles Logano about Chase Elliott. Elliott has won the last four straight road course races.
“Their road course package is ahead of us,” says Logano. “Whatever that is, we try to hone in on it, and we have a lot of different ideas. The good news is that a lot of those tracks (next season) are practice races, so there are areas to try to get better and work on it, so we’ll continue to keep doing those things. We have the Clash and the Daytona road course, and the more laps that we make, the more things we’re able to try and work on and develop.
“I don’t feel like we’re that bad – we pulled out a few top fives in (those races in ’20). We finished second at the Roval; I think we finished seventh or eighth at Daytona. I think our road course stuff is close, but he is definitely light years ahead of everyone on long runs, so we’ve identified it. We just have to work on it.”
Logano and Wolfe finished third in the championship last season, their first paired together. Now, with a year under their belts as a partnership, Logano says they are ahead of where they were going into the ’20 season. And right now, the off-season consists mostly of constant communication as it is the tough part of the year where not much hands-on work can be done. Aside from Logano itching to drive something, he is on calls and in meetings, sometimes with NASCAR on the Next Gen car, and the No. 22 team is working to keep morale up even when they can’t all be together because of the pandemic.
“But I think we’re in a good spot,” says Logano. “We ended the year on a strong note for the most part in the Championship 4, so we just have to grow off where we are.”
It will come with time, just as it did last season. Logano came out of the gate strong by winning two of the first four races, but that was when everything was right in the racing world, and practice was a regular part of the weekend. When the pandemic hit, Logano and Wolfe realized they were not unloading their Ford Mustang with the balance it needed as Wolfe continued to adjust to his new driver.
“We won a few races right off the bat, and then COVID hit and was like, uh-oh,” says Logano. “We didn’t think it’d be that bad, and it was worse than we thought, and so we went through weeks of trying to figure it out, a little bit shooting in the dark, try this road, try that road. Did we make any gains?”
Logano and Wolfe eventually hit on something that worked for Logano but was different to their teammates. The most significant change in result came on the 550 horsepower races, which had been the team’s weakness.
“I think we made some gains on that stuff toward the end of the year and then were able to win Kansas and put us in the Championship 4,” Logano says. “We had a strong playoff; our pit crew is incredible. So, we plan on just building off what we got there right now.”
Build, grow, and don’t look past any race weekend.