Two years ago, Joey Logano's meteoric rise had stalled. At age 22, the NASCAR driver from Middletown, Connecticut, was admittedly "down in the dumps" and had lost his confidence with Joe Gibbs Racing. His chances of contending for a title looked as slim as his 140-pound frame.
The youngest driver to win Nationwide and Sprint Cup races in 2008 and 2009, Logano had been forced out of his ride by JGR's signing of Matt Kenseth. Then, opportunity knocked at Penske Racing, where Logano has paired with Brad Keselowski to create a formidable 1-2 punch.
"I grew up and took the bull by the horns," said Logano, recalling the moment he walked into the Penske shop. "I was very fortunate to team with the right people to help me grow."
Logano won't be a favorite, but he can't be ignored, either, as NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with a new format. His three Sprint Cup victories are as many as he earned in his first three full Cup campaigns and he's been a threat for the pole nearly every week.
Keselowski, the 2012 champion, enters as the top seed after notching his fourth 2014 victory at Richmond International Raceway last Saturday. Six-time champ Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each won three times in the 26 races used to set the 16-driver championship grid.
But Logano has established credentials, winning at mile-and-a-half Texas Motor Speedway, Richmond (in April), then in the 500-lap August race at Bristol Motor Speedway to earn the fifth seed.
"I don't underestimate him," said Keselowski, who was instrumental in securing Logano for Penske. "We've got two teams that are legitimate contenders, so I'm very proud of that."
Logano gained valuable experience with his first Chase appearance last year. He won the pole in the opener at Chicagoland, but engine woes relegated him to 37th and short-circuited his championship hopes before he could get rolling. This year, there is confidence to go with performance.
"We are ready to go, man," said Logano, after finishing sixth at Richmond last week. "We can win the championship. We've showed it at every kind of race track. We've got [a car] we can do something with."
NASCAR's revamped Chase format will eliminate four of the 16 drivers after three races, six races and nine races, leaving the top four to duke it out in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A victory in any race virtually assures that a driver will advance to the next three-race stage.