DEARBORN, Mich. — Joey Logano couldn’t have had a bigger smile on his face Wednesday as he drove a restored 1914 Model T around the Ford Motor Company grounds.
He joked about racing the train that transported visitors. He took the turns carefully to prevent a rollover. He seemed like a guy without a care in the world, cracking up with every push of the pedal even if max speed was 30 miles an hour.
But come Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, he will fire up for a ride much more bumpy and one that could generate much fewer smiles at close to 200 miles an hour. He enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which for the third consecutive year will feature an elimination-style format.
If anyone knows just how crazy and out of control the Chase can get, it’s the 26-year-old Logano. Last year, Logano wrecked Matt Kenseth while going for the win at Kansas Speedway even though Logano already had won a week earlier and was guaranteed a spot in the semifinal round.
A few weeks later with Kenseth not having advanced, a nine-laps-down Kenseth — angry at Logano teammate Brad Keselowski — pile-drove Logano into the Martinsville Speedway wall. Kenseth was suspended for two races. Logano didn’t advance to the final round.
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NASCAR chairman Brian France created the rules for the Chase, in some ways, to have those types of moments, stirring emotions. The first two years of the elimination style formats have seen fights outside the car (Kenseth-Keselowski, Jeff Gordon-Keselowski to name a couple) as well as that on-track drama.
“Hopefully I’m done with that [drama],” Kenseth said last month when talking about the Chase. “Hopefully it will be just nice and calm. Everybody is happy.”
Yeah, right. The rules weren’t designed for Kenseth’s happiness.
Logano was happy Wednesday. Whether that happiness stays or not, he can’t predict. But he knows in a format in which four drivers are eliminated every three races — race-winners of each round and those best in points advance — that the formula heightens emotions and intensity.
“Some people have a pretty uneventful 10 races,” Logano said. “Some people have an over-eventful 10 races. I’ve been on both sides of that.
“If I look at two years ago when we got to Homestead [Florida], it was very uneventful, we won one race throughout the Chase, we kind of did our thing, we were under the radar and we found ourselves racing for a championship. Last year, we won three races and found ourselves in the middle of everything and we didn’t get to Homestead.”
While he said he learns something every day from his experiences and hopes to put that into use, Logano is more focused on this year than thinking about what went right or wrong a year ago.
When a driver puts on a race helmet, the idea is to win the trophy.
“You have to do what you have to do for your team and then you worry about the repercussions later,” 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick said. “Obviously with Joey and Matt last year and the repercussions, probably Joey having the best car and ending up not winning the championship, there is a lot of things to balance.
“But when you’re in the car and in competition and kind of in that mode of really going after it, it’s hard to think about those things.”
Logano has long been on record that he has no regrets. His job remains to win races.
“It’s a race,” Logano said. “It’s not just one race. It’s 10 races. A lot of times, you don’t have time to think about repercussions or anything. You go out there knowing the job at hand and you just get the job done.
“We all sign up for a job. It’s my job to make it happen.”
Did Logano think he got the job done last year?
“I think so,” Logano said. “Hey, we raced hard. We won races. We were fast. We learned a lot. That’s success. We learned about a lot of things — we learned a lot about our race team and [are] proud of that.
“I feel like we’re stronger this year because of it.”
Kenseth and Logano weren’t alone in their drama last year in the Chase. Harvick shoved Jimmie Johnson with a closed fist after the Chicagoland race opened the 2015 Chase.
“It’s designed for chaos,” Johnson said. “This format creates that. … Honestly, just the way we race has changed so much over the years from the Mark Martin ways of pointing somebody by and it will come back to you later in the race.
“You never do that now. You race the fire out of the guy next [to] you. It just is how it is. The culture is changing. The mindset is changing.”
That culture, Kenseth said, doesn’t necessarily come with the Chase. He said he sees it during the regular season.
“I don’t feel like anybody is going to dump you and wreck you on purpose for a win necessarily because it is going to advance them to the next round if there’s still a couple of rounds left unless it’s the same guy who would do it [in August] at Bristol,” Kenseth said.
“I don’t know that it is any different. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m naïve.”
So what happens over the next 10 weeks? Any chance of it being calm?
“Anything is possible,” Keselowski said. “I’d have to see it first. I don’t think it’s made to be calm.”