NASCAR at NHMS: Joey Logano looks for more speed at home track in New Hampshire

  • Joey Logano (left) and his crew work on Logano’s car during a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Friday ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Joey Logano (22) gives an autograph following a NASCAR Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Friday, July 14, 2017. The Overton's 301 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series auto race is Sunday. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Joey Logano (22) is seen during a NASCAR Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Friday. The Overton’s 301 Monster Energy Cup Series race is scheduled for today. Logano is searching for his third career Cup victory at the Magic Mile. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Joey Logano (22) is seen during a NASCAR Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Friday, July 14, 2017. The Overton's 301 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series auto race is Sunday. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Joey Logano (22) takes questions during a press conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Friday, July 14, 2017. The Overton's 301 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series auto race is Sunday. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Saturday, July 15, 2017

Joey Logano hopes to find some comfort on his home track Sunday in what has been an uncomfortable season for the Team Penske driver.

Logano, a native of Middletown, Conn., has accrued many fond memories racing in New Hampshire over his nine years as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series. Sitting down for a press conference on Friday, Logano couldn’t help but glance over at the blown-up photo of him celebrating his second Cup win here in 2014.

In the years since his first win here in 2009, Logano has developed into one of the top drivers in the circuit, one who many predict as a championship contender at the beginning of each season. 

But Logano has faced adversity in the 2017 season. The team behind the 22 Ford hasn’t found the speed that carried them to 15 wins between 2013 and 2016. Logano’s average finishing position this season is 14.5 after averaging 10.5 last year and 9.2 in 2015.

When Logano finally found his way back to Victory Lane in Richmond this year, the win was unencumbered due to a violation discovered in post-race inspection.

That means Logano still has to win another race to lock-up a position in the playoffs and his opportunities are quickly running out. Only eight races remain, including Sunday at NHMS, before playoffs begin Sept. 17 at Chicagoland. 

“This isn’t what you expect when you start the season,” he said. “You go out there expecting to win the championship and the playoffs you just assume you would be there. I still assume we are going to be there. We just have to work hard to get there.”

Logano has said before and repeated Friday that winning here has meant more to him than his 2015 Daytona 500 victory. Some might think Logano is crazy to feel that way. A win in the Daytona 500, basically the Super Bowl of NASCAR, is on every driver’s bucket list. 

But for a 19-year-old Logano in 2009, nothing beat grabbing that first checkered flag in front of friends and family. Taking another during the Chase (now simply called the playoffs) in 2014 added to his nostalgic feelings for this track and his relationship with the region.

“This race track has always been a special place for me because it is home,” Logano said. “I started my first Cup race here, watched my first one here, won our first one here. It makes it a special place any time I come here.”

“When we won that race (in 2014) I look at that as the biggest win of my career. Bigger than the Daytona 500 to me. That is what this track means to me. If we can make it happen again – we will try our hardest and hopefully get it.”

Logano is part of a small contingent of drivers from the northeast, and he doesn’t always find the love he receives in New Hampshire at other tracks across the circuit.

“I always joke when I come up here to New Hampshire I feel like Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. because everybody likes me,” Logano said. “There aren’t many other places (where) everybody likes me. So I want to race here three or four times a year. That part is nice. I really appreciate that.”

Logano would likely be on the outside looking in if the playoffs began this weekend, a position he’s surprised to find himself in.

New Hampshire should be a track that offers Logano his best shot at securing that needed victory, but it won’t be easy as the 22 car qualified 20th on Friday and will start in the middle of the pack when the Overton’s 301 begins 3 p.m. 

“We are just struggling for speed again,” Logano said in a statement released by Ford following Friday’s qualifying. “It has been a struggle and it is a struggle again this week.”

Logano’s speed was on the better side of average through two practice sessions Saturday. He turned his best lap in the final practice at 129.626 mph for 16th among 37 drivers in the session. Kyle Busch led that session with a speed of 130.950. Martin Truex Jr. topped the first practice of the day at 131.338 mph.

Pole position is important on the Magic Mile where passing opportunities are often limited to the corners, but a smart driver in a fast car can usually find other ways to climb the ladder. 

“We have seen interesting finishes (at NHMS),” Logano said. “There is a group of cars that are fast every time you are here, but for some reason there is always a guy that kind of sneaks up there and wins the race.”

That’s how Logano won here in 2009. After starting 24th, Logano had to wade through the crowd to reach the front. He led 10 laps that day in a race limited to 273 laps due to rain. Logano’s second win in Loudon came during a race where he started seventh and led 73 laps. In four races since then, Logano has finished in the top-five three times and finished 11th here in September. 

New Hampshire will host its final September race this year. The playoff race moves to Las Vegas beginning in 2018. Logano was obviously disappointed but understands the opportunity NASCAR sees in adding another race west of the Mississippi River.

“Yeah, it’s a bummer for me. I want to come up here as much as I can,” he said. “Vegas is a great race track though. ... I understand why it is probably a good move for our sport but selfishly I love coming here and want to keep coming up here as much as we can. It is what it is.”

Logano knows nothing will be given to him on Sunday. If he can break into the front group, he’ll still have to battle other heavy hitters such as Martin Truex Jr. (the pole sitter and a three-time winner this year), Jimmie Johnson (three wins at Loudon) and Matt Kenseth (a three-time winner at Loudon, including two of the last three races). 

It is possible that there will be more passing and side-by-side racing on Sunday than what is typical at Loudon. A traction compound was added to the low and high grooves on the Magic Mile while leaving the preferred middle groove untouched. The substance is heat-activated and weekend temperatures are expected to peak Sunday afternoon. 

If the extra traction turns out to help drivers and create at least one extra lane, the driver who uses it best may find an unexpected advantage.

“The wider we can make the race track, the more air we can get on the nose, the more passes that can be made,” Logano said. “How do we make it wider? We have to go to where we don’t run.” 

The favored groove at New Hampshire is in the middle lane because it has the steepest bank, which means more grip through the corner. Adding traction on the low line invites drivers to dive down and attempt a pass.

Logano may need to employ some creative maneuvers to cut a path through the field on Sunday. Pressure is mounting each week to accumulate points and secure a spot in the playoffs.

“Any team can take off on a streak,” Logano said. “It is a matter of getting the speed back. I feel the team is where it needs to be. … We are racing well and just need to get faster. That is the biggest thing right now.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)