The race for the postseason in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is going through some shakeups, and we’re headed to a track known for its share of shakeups. The circuit is back in Daytona, for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 (7:30 PM ET, TNT) and one of several notable developments in the push for the playoffs is that 23-year-old Joey Logano has moved into 10th place, the baseline for automatic qualification.
Logano got started young, breaking into the Sprint Cup Series full-time back in 2009, when he was a precocious 19-year-old. His season finishes have been pretty respectable. Logano came in 20th as a rookie, finished in the Top 20 two more times and never was lower than 24th. Now he’s gunning for his postseason berth, and he’s overcome a lot to simply get to this point.
Some of Logano’s troubles were self-inflicted, as his season got off to a slow start, and when he finished in 35th place at Talladega on May 5, he was in a deep hole. This poor showing was just weeks after he was docked 25 points for failing a pre-race car inspection. It’s a penalty also handed out to Brad Keselowski, and I’ve made no bones about my opposition to these penalties, which still loom exceptionally large in the playoff race.
Logano made modest improvement at Darlington, one week after the Talladega disaster, but still only finished 22nd. It was the All-Star race in Charlotte in May 18, where he finished second that we can look at as a turning point. The All-Star event is non-binding on points, but if you believe in momentum, confidence, any sort of intangible, the race clearly got Logano moving again.
The ensuing six races have seen Logano rip off five Top 10 finishes, and the one case where he missed, was an 11th-place showing. That’s a good way to move up the standings in a hurry, and now he’s put himself in great shape for a postseason push.
The one thing Logano may still need is an outright win—he doesn’t have one thus far, and while it’s certainly possible to finish in the Top 10 without one—Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are much higher in the standings without winning—Logano’s more precarious position has left him with little room for error.
BIG NAMES BATTLING FOR SURVIVAL
We mentioned the points penalty that was also incurred by Keselowski. Well, “Bad Brad” is sitting in 13th place, outside the automatic qualification area, and he has also not won a race. The rules of NASCAR postseason qualification make it next to impossible to pick up one of the two wild-card berths without a win and Keselowski is one of several big-name drivers feeling the pressure.
I asked TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, his feels on Keselowski—or more accurately a prediction on his fate. Both Bill and I like Keselowski and are pulling for him to make it. And Bill is confident the defending champ will make it, and the grounds are simple—“He’s just too good a driver not to,” Bill opined. “He’s had bad luck.” Luck does tend to even out, and that naturally favors Keselowski in the final push of the regular season, but we should note that it never quite evened out for Carl Edwards in 2012, who wound up in the outside looking in.
Jeff Gordon has also not won a race, and while Tony Stewart has—and would get a postseason spot if the season ended today—Stewart trails both Gordon and Keselowski in points. If either of the latter two wins a race, Stewart finds himself on the outside looking in. The same goes for lesser-known Paul Menard, who is in narrowly ahead of Stewart on points, but yet to grab the checkered flag. The other wild-card is right now firmly in the grasp of Kasey Kahne, who has a win and is the top points-getter of the non-Top 10 drivers.
SATURDAY NIGHT IN DAYTONA
Daytona International Speedway, as we discussed in our preview of the circuit’s more famous race there to open the season in February, is notorious for its unpredictability. It’s a superspeedway, meaning everything is wide open, and there tend to be accidents.
One driver we know has enjoyed success there is Matt Kenseth, with his Daytona 500 wins in 2009 and 2012, making him one of just two drivers—Stewart being the other—to win here twice in the last five years, a period that covers ten races.
The betting lines have given Kenseth his respect and made him the 8-1 favorite, though Stewart does not get the same treatment, sitting at 15-1. Perhaps the fact that Kenseth already has four wins in 2013, most on the circuit, explain the difference. Dale Earnhardt Junior is 10-1, and customary favorite Jimmie Johnson is only 12-1 this week, sharing that number with Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.