HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Joey Logano busted up The Big Three and captured an improbable first NASCAR title by soundly beating a trio of champions.
Logano won the season finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway to grab his first Cup championship in a season in which he barely contended until the playoffs began. The year was dominated by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., with Logano calling the final-four field "The Big Three and Me."
But Logano kicked it into another gear during the playoffs with two victories and got eight top-10 finishes in the post-season. He led a race-high 80 laps but the title was slipping away until Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski spun Busch teammate Daniel Suarez for a race-changing caution.
He was fourth on the restart with 15 laps remaining but powered his way alongside leader Truex, used a power move in the outside lane three laps later to take over the top spot and he pulled away to win for Roger Penske.
"We were the favourite. We executed down the stretch like nobody’s business," Logano said. "I knew we had a short-run car. I said it before the race started that if it was anything longer than 25 laps we were going to be in trouble. That showed all day. But it came down to the short run and we are champions. NASCAR champions."
Logano won the title in his 10th season in NASCAR and with his second team. He started with Joe Gibbs Racing as a teenager, was pushed into the Cup Series prematurely when Gibbs needed a replacement driver for Tony Stewart, and was snagged by Penske when Gibbs let Logano go after the 2012 season.
"I think it’s great for them and Joey," Gibbs said. "Great kid, great family. I’m sure he’s going to make a great champion."
He is the second Cup champion for Penske, the titan of motorsports who has had a banner year. Penske also this season was elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, won the Indianapolis 500 for a record 17th time and celebrated Team Penske’s 500th victory as an organization.
Team Penske has also been the cornerstone for Ford the last six seasons and Logano gave the manufacturer its first Cup title since 2004.
"He sure delivered for us," Penske said. "I don’t want him to change at all. He needs to do just what he did today, beat all these guys and win fair and square."
NASCAR’s final weekend concluded with three new champions from three different teams representing all three manufacturers. Brett Moffitt won the Truck Series title in a Toyota for Hattori Racing, Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity Series title in a Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, and Ford finally got a title on what is officially called "Ford Championship Weekend."
Truex finished second in his final race with Furniture Row Racing. The team is closing because it lost its primary sponsor midway through Truex’s championship reign.
"It’s a tough way to lose," Truex said. "I had nothing for him at the end. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t know what else to say. It hurts a little, and I’m going to miss all of the guys."
Harvick was third and Busch fourth as the title contenders followed each other across the finish line.
"We weren’t even close," said Busch, who used strategy to keep up with the other title contenders.
"We were so bad tonight on the racetrack and on pit road that nothing was kind of going our way. So it was just not all there the way that we needed it to, and sometimes it all falls into place and falls your way, and other times you’ve got to be able to go out there and go earn it, and we didn’t have either."
In fact, Busch’s crew had one of its worst races of the year on pit road as the front tire changer had hiccups on several stops. It negated any advantage Busch gained when team owner Gibbs forced Denny Hamlin not to take the first pit stall and leave it open so Busch would have an easier exit back onto the track. But he lost six positions during one stop, four in another, and his team had to gamble on strategy to stay in contention.
It was Busch who said losing the title would be most disappointing if it went to Logano because Logano wasn’t in the same league as the Big Three all season. But Logano was adamant he was the favourite, in part because he wasn’t even supposed to make the final four after just one regular season victory. Busch and Harvick ended the season with eight wins each, while Truex had four.
"Lots of wins," Busch said. "Forget about it now, move on."
The title is redemption for Logano, who could have washed out of the sport when Gibbs cut him from the team. But he reinvented himself under Penske and became comfortable as an aggressive driver, even when it cost him.
Logano was the favourite to win the 2015 title but missed the finale because a feud with Matt Kenseth cost him on the track. He was the championship runner-up in 2016, and a penalty kept his No. 22 out of last season’s playoffs.
Logano this season had to move Truex out of his way in the final turn at Martinsville Speedway last month to earn his berth in the championship race. Logano The 28-year-old Connecticut racer was criticized for his aggressiveness, and Truex promised he’d prevent Logano from winning the Cup, but Logano insisted he made the necessary move to win a championship.
And in the final 15-lap shootout to the finish, Logano simply drove around the outside of Truex and pulled away. If Truex had any intention of stopping Logano he had to catch him first, he couldn’t and finished 1.725 seconds behind.
Logano’s third win came at Homestead, where the champion has won the race to win the title since this format was introduced in 2014. He’s NASCAR’s 33rd different champion and first from Connecticut.
Team Penske also won the owner’s championship.