This most unusual of seasons has brought back memories of certain stitches in time for Joey Logano — one remembrance of a pivotal moment from his racing past currently being re-enacted by Erik Jones, and one recollection to the days before COVID-19 when his Team Penske No. 22 Ford struck a dominant stance.
As playoff season rolls into focus starting this weekend, the 30-year-old driver aims to recreate another touchpoint moment from his career — the hoisting of the NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy from two years ago. Logano and the rest of the 16-driver field set sail on that quest starting with Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Darlington Raceway, the first event in the 10-race postseason march.
RELATED: Meet the 2020 playoff field
Logano enters the playoffs as the fourth seed, thanks to two victories and six stage wins during the regular season. But that pair of wins came in the opening four races of the season, just before the coronavirus outbreak put the racing schedule on a nine-week hold. That break, combined with the winning tear that rivals Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin went on afterward, made Logano’s early show of strength seem even more distant.
“Way too long,” Logano said. “We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we‘re getting close back to that same point as we were. To me, there‘s no doubt when we went back racing we weren‘t where we wanted to be. I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it‘s hard to find that direction without practice. Going to a different race track every week it‘s hard to grow. It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we‘re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year.
“We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we‘re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we‘re at again.”
Regaining that footing is one thing, but this season Logano also found himself drawing parallels to and lending an empathetic ear to a fellow competitor on shakier ground.
Just last month at Michigan International Speedway, Logano sat in his motor coach watching Erik Jones’ pre-race interview with NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. Jones had been notified days before that he would not return to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota next season, and told Snider he was somewhat “blindsided” by the decision.
Seeing Jones’ on-air resignation ignited a tinderbox of memories for Logano, who found himself in similar uncertainty with his dismissal from JGR after the 2012 season. “The question was asked about next year and what it was, and I said, ‘Oh, my God. I remember this,’ ” Logano said. “It just came rushing back and I was like, ‘Oh, this poor kid.’ ”
Jones said that he and Logano hadn’t been especially close in the past, but Logano texted him on the plane ride home from Michigan, extending the offer for them to talk if he wanted. That led to a meeting over lunch, where the two drivers shared their experiences in navigating the sometimes choppy waters of a stock-car racing career.
“Hearing his whole story is scary how similar it is, like it is almost identical the way he was brought up racing, the way he was at Gibbs. It was almost identical,” Logano said. “That being said, you can‘t tell the future and know where he‘s gonna go next and that it‘s all gonna be great and it be the best thing that ever happened to him, but I did say that God put you in these positions a lot of times to make you stronger and grow you and direct you in the place He wants you to be. In the moment, you don‘t know that. In the moment, it‘s the worst. It‘s awful.
“The stress, and I remember thinking so many times that, ‘Oh my gosh, all I ever wanted to be was a race car driver. I put all my eggs in this basket and it‘s coming to an end. What am I gonna do with my life?‘ Those thoughts run through my mind and it‘s kind of scary, it‘s really scary if we‘re being honest.”
Logano acknowledged one key difference between their two experiences, that Jones was facing late-season without his father, Dave, who died in 2016 from cancer at age 53. Dave Jones was instrumental in shaping his son’s career, which climbed the NASCAR developmental ladder through the Toyota Racing system to a national-series debut at age 16.
Logano was also a Toyota-fed prodigy, a Cup Series rookie at age 18, but on the outs with Joe Gibbs Racing by 22. Both Logano and Jones had expressed optimism for returning to JGR during their contract years before the organization decided to cut ties.
“It felt so similar that I had to say something,” Logano said, “and after talking to him it was crazy how close it was, so the whole situation all the way through was like, ‘Yep. I’ve been there.’ So it was kind of fun to talk to him, and I hope something works out for him, I really do. He seems to be a really good kid. I say kid, I sound like an old guy when I say that, but, young man, I guess.
“But he‘s grown a lot already in a lot of the same ways that I have. I came in as a cocky, arrogant little kid that was gonna come in and beat everybody and then I realized that I‘ve got a lot of work ahead of me to do and him showing his humbleness to talk to me about that shows a lot of growth as well.”
Jones’ next chapter is still taking shape, but the rest of the story for Logano was rejuvenation with his addition to the Team Penske fold in 2013. His time there has yielded 23 of his 25 Cup Series wins and that 2018 championship.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Logano, others on playoffs
A second title in 2020 would come with no asterisk as the Cup Series is on target to run a full schedule. But this season’s champ will have earned the distinction of prevailing in one of the sport’s most unusual years, through a shifting schedule and a season held largely without practice and qualifying in its streamlined race weekends.
Asked what it would mean to be crowned this season versus any other, Logano motioned to the image of the Bill France Cup on the teleconference’s backdrop.
“Nothing less than it would have if it was a normal year and nothing more,” Logano said. “It‘s a championship and that‘s all that matters is the trophy on the little thing back here, and it‘s reminding me how badly we want it. No matter what the rules are they‘re the same for everybody. There‘s gonna be a winner and there‘s gonna be a loser and we just approach it the same way. Yes, we have to do things differently to achieve that trophy than we would have if it was a normal year, but the cards are dealt and we know what we‘ve got and we‘ve just got to play them the best that we can.”