Bristol win showcases Joey Logano’s evolution into one of NASCAR’s best

Joey Logano used maturity and poise to hold off Kevin Harvick at Bristol.

There was a time when Joey Logano would’ve likely flinched. With the defending Sprint Cup champion doggedly pursuing him, Logano didn’t possess the moxie needed to secure victory.

But that was eons ago before Logano had joined Team Penske, matured into one of NASCAR’S best and most consistent racers and evolved into a championship contender. And it’s why despite Kevin Harvick filling his rearview mirror Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, the 25-year-old wasn’t fazed.

While leading the final 64 laps, Logano was near flawless. He skillfully navigated slower traffic and did so with Harvick lingering just waiting to pounce. Several times Harvick would get a run and charge to the rear of Logano’s bumper seemingly poised to execute a patent Bristol bump-and-run.

“It was kind of interesting to watch it in the mirror,” Logano said. “I was watching (Harvick) drive in and I was like, ‘He’s going to get me eventually,’ so I just wanted to make sure I stayed at least three or four car lengths up on him so he didn’t get to me.”

Harvick just didn’t have the speed Logano carried nor the precision. Lap after lap Logano would diamond through the corners — entering a turn low then moving up high in the middle then darting back to the bottom upon exit. That Harvick couldn’t get his car to do the same proved the difference.

“He was able to go in really high and before the center of the corner drive down the corner and I was just having to wait just a split second to be able to put the throttle back down, and I couldn’t do that,” Harvick said. “He was able to get those huge runs up off the exit of the corner and just stayed one step ahead of me through traffic I felt like, and in clean air we probably were a little faster, but it didn’t really matter. I had to be in front of him to show that.

“All in all, he was just one step ahead of me in traffic.”

Maturing into an unflappable driver took time for Logano, who was anointed by Joe Gibbs Racing as Tony Stewart’s successor as an 18-year-old. But after four up-and-down seasons that produced a total of two wins and zero Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances, Logano found himself without a ride.

By happenstance Penske needed a driver for its second car after AJ Allmendinger was released following a failed drug test. At the urging of Brad Keselowski, team owner Roger Penske signed Logano, who amidst stability and without the pressure to replicate Stewart’s success, has blossomed.

“I’ve been fortunate to drive for two great race teams,” Logano said. “The difference now is that I’m ready to go racing and race for championships. Back then I wasn’t. But I definitely learned a lot. I wouldn’t trade those years for a million bucks. It was such a fun learning experience over there, and really shaped me into the person and the driver that I am, and I owe (JGR) a lot for that.”

Logano won once and made the Chase in 2013. Last year he made five trips to Victory Lane and advanced­­ to the championship round. And this season it’s been more of the same — a Daytona 500 triumph, a win on the demanding Watkins Glen road course and now Bristol.

“My dad always told me you are who you hang out with, and if you’re hanging out with people like Roger Penske and Team Penske, that’s a lot of poise, to say the least,” Logano said. “I learned a lot from them.”

Saturday night’s duel, which cast Logano as the prey and Harvick the predator, was enthralling. Adding to the drama was the history of animosity between the two.

A 2010 encounter at Pocono Raceway saw Logano’s father implore his son to standup for himself and confront Harvick on pit road. That incident prompted Logano to quip afterward that Harvick’s wife, DeLana, “wore the fire suit in the family.”

Last year Harvick needled Logano in the days leading up to the championship finale. And they had a fiery pit road exchange in February following the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway where Harvick accused Logano of blocking and triggering a crash.

On this night, Logano proved his mettle, getting the better of his frequent nemesis. Giving further credence that he’s is every bit the title contender as Harvick, who owns two wins on the season and a series-best 17 top-five finishes.

“It was a typical Joey Logano performance,” said Todd Gordon, Logano’s crew chief. “I’ll put the analogy to basketball, there’s only a handful of guys that want to have the ball in their hands with three seconds left on the shot clock. Joey is that guy.

“When it comes down to the time to make it happen, he elevates, doesn’t make mistakes. I think Kevin challenged us pretty formidably, and Joey never folded. Never made a mistake and did what he had to do and executed, and that’s a Joey Logano performance.”

This article was written by Jordan Bianchi from SB Nation Pie Eaters Footy and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.