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Tougher Logano headed for NASCAR title


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There was a time not so long ago when it was easy to pick on Joey Logano.

He was tongue-lashed by Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman. He feuded for weeks with former teammate Denny Hamlin and was cast as the bad guy when hard racing between the two ended in a hard crash that broke Hamlin’s back.

Logano was ridiculed when his father once angrily ordered his son to confront Harvick after a 2010 incident. Already viewed by many as a rich kid who used his daddy’s money to crack NASCAR’s top series as soon as he turned 18, his father’s constant presence did Logano no favors.

So it was no surprise last November when Harvick, ever the pot-stirrer, poked and prodded at Logano in the leadup to the championship-deciding season finale. Harvick may have rattled Logano a little bit, but with a square jaw and an awe-shucks smile, Logano did his best to tune out the eventual Sprint Cup champion.

Now here we are, nearly a year later, and Logano doesn’t appear willing to be picked on by anyone anymore. He’s shrugged off any Harvick comments, downplayed any notion that all the title contenders are chasing the reigning champion, and he’s raced as if he won’t back down from anything.

His aggression was on display Sunday at Kansas Speedway when he chased down Matt Kenseth in the closing laps for the win. Kenseth was in a dire situation, badly needing the win to guarantee his Chase doesn’t end with this week’s elimination race at Talladega. Logano, on the other hand, had nothing to lose: A win at Charlotte last week earned him an automatic berth into the third round and a victory at Kansas was worth nothing but the trophy.

So Kenseth threw a block on Logano’s attempt to pass him for the win. That move, many believe, meant all bets were off when it comes to a gentleman’s code. When Logano tried again to get past Kenseth, he made contact with the leader and caused Kenseth to spin.

The move earned Logano the victory — his second of the Chase, fifth of the season — and likely cost Kenseth his shot at the Sprint Cup title. Barring a win at Talladega or serious mishaps to several drivers ahead of him in the standings, Kenseth will be eliminated from the Chase on Sunday.

Logano was unapologetic about the outcome.

“We both went for the same piece of real estate,” Logano said. “We ran each other hard. He ran me hard, and I ran him hard back.”

Kenseth was adamant he was intentionally wrecked and willingly added his name to a list of drivers who dislike Logano. He also added he had nothing to discuss with Logano.

“You make decisions every day. You make decisions every minute behind the wheel,” Kenseth said. “To me, strategically, that doesn’t seem like a great decision for him. But it’s the one he made and that’s how he wanted to win. I’m one of the only guys that I think hasn’t been into yet with Joey and I’ve always raced him with a ton of respect, I’ve actually been one of his biggest fans. I’m certainly not anymore.”

That didn’t seem to bug Logano, who at just 25 years old is in his seventh season of fighting for respect.

Sure, when he was 18 with the nickname “Sliced Bread” and a clear path to replace Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing, it was easy for other drivers to resent Logano. It was also easy for him to back away from a fight, to avoid conflict, to let the veterans push him around.

But he now drives for Roger Penske, one of the most successful businessmen in the world, and Penske has stood firmly behind his driver. He’s offered advice and anecdotes, and he defends his driver in every situation. The way Penske saw it Sunday, it was “one of those racing accidents” spurred at least in part because “there was no question that Kenseth was doing everything he could to keep Joey from going by.”

It isn’t that Logano spun Kenseth that shows something about Logano’s mettle, rather it’s the shoulder-shrug position he took after the fact. It’s the kind of attitude that could win him a championship because he no longer will be bullied. But, it could also cost him a title if his driving leads to retribution.

Either way, he recognizes he’s come a very long way from that scrawny kid thrust into the big leagues with high hopes of being a big star.

“It’s tough. It’s not supposed to be easy. That’s why this is the top level of motorsports,” he said. “I’m proud to be in it and proud to be winning in it. Does it toughen you up? Yeah, it toughens you up. I toughened me up pretty quick in the first two or three years of my career. You don’t really have an option sometimes but to toughen up.

Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer