FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Joey Logano has again arrived at Texas in the middle of a rift with another playoff contender after some short-track shenanigans.
It all comes with the defending NASCAR Cup champion trying to lock in a spot for the championship finale.
A year ago, Martin Truex Jr. was upset over Logano’s bump-and-run on the final lap at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. Truex promised that the No. 22 Team Penske driver wouldn’t win the title, although it didn’t quite work out that way.
Fast forward to last week: Truex was celebrating his first victory at the Virginia track, with the 2017 Cup champion securing a spot in the final four for the Nov. 17 championship race, when Logano went to Denny Hamlin on pit road to discuss an on-track incident.
That turned into a chaotic confrontation, with Logano smacking Hamlin on the shoulder before one of Logano’s crew members yanked the rival driver to the ground.
“Yeah, I guess that means we are running up front and racing for wins,” Logano said about all of these squabbles. “That is what that means. You are up there and trying to win. The mini disagreements are when you are running 20th. If you are running up front and in the top-five they become escalated.”
Logano is fourth in points going into Sunday’s race at the 1½-mile Texas track, trailing Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Truex, Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney — after boldly dressing as Princess Leia for his Halloween party this week — Kyle Larson and hard-luck Chase Elliott are also still in playoff contention.
Harvick won at Texas last fall, when he got past pole-sitter Blaney in overtime. After a good start to the playoffs this season, ranking second after the first two races, Harvick has slipped below the cutline but will start on the pole after a qualifying lap of 189.707 mph Saturday night.
“We have done nothing but shoot ourselves in the foot that last few weeks,” said Harvick, who finished seventh last week. “We started last at Kansas and crashed at Talladega and I don’t know what we did last week. I guess it was just typical Martinsville.”
Erik Jones, the Gibbs driver who is not in playoff contention, qualified second and Hamlin was third.
The other five drivers still trying to get one of the three remaining championship-chasing spots in the Nov. 17 season finale qualified in a clump together — in the 11th through 15th spots. Logano was 11th, ahead of Busch, Larson, Elliott and Blaney.
Five years removed from the only Cup title in his 19 seasons, Harvick believes the experience of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas team has helped during the tough stretch.
“It has definitely been a fight every single week in order to get the finishes that we have had and keep ourselves in contention,” he said. “I think for us the experience and the continuity of the race team and the experience of being around each other has allowed us to get the most out of everything that we’ve got.”
Hamlin and Busch are three-time winners at Texas. Hamlin, who won the spring race there seven months ago, won at Kansas two weeks ago. He was in the previous round of the playoffs, although that didn’t guarantee him a chance to run for the title at Homestead on Nov. 17.
Busch has four wins this season, but the last was five months ago at Pocono. In the seven playoff races, he finished 14th or worse for the fourth time last week.
Chase Elliott was the runner-up to Hamlin at Kansas, but finished 36th at Martinsville after a mechanical failure, and there was also his last-place finish among 38 cars at Dover when his engine gave out after only eight laps.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver’s mindset is “just trying to keep our season alive.” He needs to get to Victory Lane at Texas or Phoenix to get into the top four.
“I have confidence that we’ve put enough effort and emphasis on the failures and I think if we can get things corrected,” Elliott said. “Like I said, it is unfortunate. And I think if you’re going to fail something, now is not the time to fail it. … If it’s mechanical, it can break. That’s just part of it.”
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