WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
Joey Logano isn’t quite ready to push the panic button as NASCAR’s playoff season looms.
At least he knows what will ease his mind — winning one of the next five races.
“I’m not sure it’s even a must-win yet, but it’s getting closer to that point,” Logano said Saturday before Cup practice on the road course at Watkins Glen. “This is one of our best shots, but we also have some great racetracks coming up.
“We’ve won at four of the next five. We know we can do it.”
Logano has a victory already, but NASCAR ruled that his win at Richmond in April was “encumbered,” so it won’t count toward a playoff berth.
Logano has become a fixture in the playoffs and has made the final round two times in the three years the current format has been in place.
The only time he failed was when he was intentionally wrecked by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville in 2015. That year, he led the series with six wins and appeared to be the driver to beat.
But this summer hasn’t been kind to him. In the last 10 races, Logano has six finishes outside the top 20, and last week at Pocono the No. 22 Penske Ford team self-destructed with pit road problems.
He had to make three stops late and finished 27th, leaving him 69 points behind Kenseth in the race for the final berth in the playoffs.
Both Logano and Clint Bowyer, who enters today’s race just 17 points behind Kenseth, have road-course wins on their Cup resumes — Logano at Watkins Glen two years ago and Bowyer at Sonoma in 2012.
Bowyer finished second at Sonoma in June behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick, and at Watkins Glen International he’s earned one top-five and four top-10s. Kenseth has never won on a road course.
Logano has emerged as a real threat at this track. He’s won two straight races in the Xfinity series and finished second last year in the Cup race to Denny Hamlin.
Strategy always comes into play on both road courses the Cup series visits each year, and in this race it’s likely to be key for several drivers. The repaving of the track before last season’s race has made passing more difficult.
Add stage racing — the first two segments of the 90-lap event are 20 laps and the cars have a range of about 30 laps on a fuel load — and there’s a recipe for intrigue.
“That second stage is going to be critical,” said AJ Allmendinger, whose only Cup victory came at Watkins Glen three years ago. “I can easily see people giving up stage points and pitting early before the stage ends to get an opportunity to be up front on the third stage. Track position at Watkins Glen is always critical.
“For every person, it’s a little different,” Allmendinger said. “Those guys that are right on the edge of making the playoffs when it comes to outright points [Kenseth, Bowyer], those guys are in the running. They’re going to try to stay in it for the points.”
In the first Cup practice on Saturday, several drivers spun out, including Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick.
Kyle Busch topped the session, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Jamie McMurray and rookie Erik Jones. Logano was seventh, Bowyer 12th and Kenseth 13th.
In final practice, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Truex and Hamlin were the five quickest while Earnhardt struggled mightily, finishing 31st out of 36 cars, nearly four miles per hour off the leader’s pace.
Logano said he anticipated a lot of different strategies as the Cup race plays out today. Under the new condensed weekend format implemented by NASCAR, qualifying is three hours before the race.
“We’ll have to see where we qualify,” said Logano, who was 12th at Sonoma in June.