By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
Things have not gone according to plan for Joey Logano in his attempt to defend the title of NASCAR Cup Series Champion. The same can be said about his outing in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to open up the playoffs.
Entering the Round of 16, Logano had one win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which came all the way back in March, 13 top-10s and only 260 laps led through 26 races – a stat line that would remain the same by the end of the crown-jewel event.
Much like 2022, it’s no secret the Fords have been a step behind the other two manufacturers this season. But the gap has begun to tighten significantly.
Going into Darlington, blue ovals accounted for four of the last five wins in the Cup Series – including the race the weekend prior at Daytona International Speedway – after only winding up in victory lane two times in the other 21 races.
Labor Day Weekend started off well for the Fords, who accounted for 70% of the top-10 starting spots. In the end, it was Kyle Larson in a Chevrolet who ended up with the win, and the Toyotas who paced the field for 307-of-367 laps.
Although it was mainly the Chevys and Toyotas that dominated the headlines (for better and worse), many Ford drivers made their presence known and put together fairly consistent races.
But for some who didn’t execute, they were able to overcome adversity and put up a respectable result – like the driver of the No. 22.
Logano started the Southern 500 in sixth and ran around the back-half of the top-10 for a bulk of the opening segment. As is customary at the 1.366-mile track, the two-time champion collected a few “Darlington stripes” early in the race – most notably on Lap 86 between Turns 3 and 4.
Nearly 30 laps later, while battling with fellow playoff contender Bubba Wallace for the 11th-spot to close out Stage One, the driver of the No. 23 sailed up the track and into the left-rear quarter panel of Logano’s No. 22, sending the yellow-and-red Mustang into the wall and the McDonald’s-sponsored Camry spinning off exit.
From there, Logano made multiple extended stops on pit road, in which the team found a bent toe link. Following countless efforts of diagnosis and remedies, the reigning champion rejoined the race all the way back in 31st, albeit on the lead lap, to start Stage Two.
Before resuming the second segment, crew chief Paul Wolfe informed Logano one of Wallace’s team members walked over to apologize for the on-track blunder. The 33-year-old almost instantaneously sped up to catch the field and voiced his displeasure by jamming into the rear bumper of the No. 23.
“I got ran in the wall a third time and bent the toe link,” Logano said. “The guys did a great job changing that and staying pretty much on the lead lap and then [we] started to grind our way back through the field. I probably could have done a little better.”
“Just not happy with myself,” Wallace told NBC post race. “Apologies to Joey. I think the important thing to learn here is to not make enemies in race-one when you’re in the playoffs, because they make it hell. I deserve everything I got out there tonight. Just did not execute.”
By the end of Stage Two, all hope appeared to be lost for the No. 22 team, who took the green-and-white-checkered in 27th with 135 laps to go.
As any championship-caliber team does, Logano and his crew kept their composure and rallied to finish 12th as the fourth-best Ford in the field behind Chris Buescher (third), Brad Keselowski (sixth) and teammate Ryan Blaney (ninth).
At the end of the day, the No. 22 team was able to limit the bleeding in an otherwise hellish start to their quest for a third championship. Logano entered the Round of 16 as the 11-seed one-point above the cutoff. He finds himself in the same position, only now three points to the good.
Unable to capitalize on stage points, Logano wound up with 25 total points leaving the Southern 500 – 11th-most of the 16 drivers to qualify for the postseason. Luckily for him, the four drivers that started Darlington below the cutline (Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick and Wallace) remained there.
“I probably gave up overall 15 points on the day,” Logano said. “I think we’re [three points] to the good right now, so those 15 would’ve been nice.”
Next up is Kansas Speedway, where Logano has found victory lane three times and finished sixth earlier this season.