The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series took last weekend off to celebrate Easter, but honoring the Resurrection and having two weeks to chill out, hasn’t cooled the heels of some of the tempers that are flaring. Joey Logano is rising in the points standing and making his share of enemies along the way. First it was Tony Stewart. Then it was Denny Hamlin, who suffered a serious back injury after a collision with Logano, will miss at least three weeks and from Hamlin’s public statements, there’s no peace accord anywhere in the immediate future.
I spoke to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, regarding the upheaval regarding Logano and Bill inclined to the side of the embattled driver. In the incident with Stewart—where the more renowned driver was upset about a blocking tactic employed by Logano, Bill opined that Stewart would have done the exact same thing and it was all part of the game. And the Logano-Hamlin collision—“They were both just racing for the win and neither one wanted to give ground,” Bill said.
How the rest of the NASCAR field feels about Logano makes for an interesting subplot at Martinsville for Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 (1 PM ET, Fox). Martinsville Speedway is the shortest track in the series, shaped like a paper clip and features close-quarter racing that give it the label “revenge track.” As in, a driver who’s out to get someone can do it in this environ and make it look natural.
“I think everyone will behave themselves,” Bill told TheSportsNotebook. “They’ve had two weeks away, and NASCAR will get involved if it goes any further.” Certainly no driver wants to risk suspension by going after a target. I’m going to suspect that Bill is right, and the real fireworks are likely to come in the summer after Hamlin returns to the circuit.
Amidst all this, we can’t overlook that Logano, who turns 23 in June, is on his way to might be a breakout year. He started driving the circuit full-time in 2009 and in the ensuing four years, his season-ending finishes have been about 20th, ranging from four spots above to four spots below. Now he’s sitting at #9, in position to make the playoffs—his path ironically made easier by the fact that it’s Hamlin who’s only a point behind him, but will miss several chances to accumulate more.
Nor should we overlook the high level of excellence being exhibited by Dale Earnhardt Junior and Brad Keselowski. Neither driver has won a race, but their amazing consistency—three top 5 finishes for Junior and four for Keselowski—have them at 1-2 in the point standings.
No one will ever overlook Jimmie Johnson, least of all at Martinsville. Johnson won four races in six tries here from 2007-09, and won again last year in the second of the two races held at the Virginia track. Johnson’s odds to win on Sunday are 4-1, a tight betting number even for him. But the only driver who’s been able to get in his way at Martinsville is Hamlin, and he’s not in the field. Johnson also holds the pole on a track where passing can be difficult.
It all adds up to an interesting run on Sunday, and for Joey Logano, the message both here and for the rest of the season is simple—Watch your back.