Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 8 – Joey Logano’s breakout season

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source: Getty Images
Joey Logano scored five wins and a Championship 4 berth in 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we’re at No. 8 – the long-awaited rise of Joey Logano into the Sprint Cup Series’ elite…

It’s really a shame that the final images of Joey Logano’s 2014 season are in such jarring contrast to the superb year that he had.

With less than 20 laps to go in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Logano and the rest of the Championship 4 all stood a fair shot at taking the title for themselves. Under caution, Logano was brought into the pits from sixth place.

But as the crew changed the left side tires on Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford, the car fell off the jack. Logano returned to the track 22nd after his ill-fated stop.

Unable to suppress his frustration, he was caught beating the steering wheel with his fists. He would finish 16th in the race and settle for fourth in the Sprint Cup championship standings.

It was a bitter ending for sure. But 2014 will still likely be remembered fondly by Logano, crew chief Todd Gordon and their No. 22 team – and they have plenty of reasons to see it that way.

Logano broke into the Chase in style by defeating Jeff Gordon in green-white-checkered at Texas Motor Speedway. He would follow that up with two more wins in the regular season at Richmond (two weeks after Texas) and the Bristol night race.

But like all top-tier competitors do, Logano turned up the proverbial wick at the most important time of the year.

After Penske teammate Brad Keselowski opened the Chase with a win at Chicagoland, Logano followed him into the Contender Round with a win of his own one week later at New Hampshire.

Then, in the Contender opener at Kansas Speedway two weeks later, he became the first to punch his ticket to the Eliminator Round with what would be his last win of 2014.

Things got tense for Logano in that Eliminator Round. He opened with a fifth at Martinsville but in the middle race at Texas, lug nut problems in the pits and a tire failure knocked him back to 26th. Undaunted, he still rallied in Fort Worth to finish 12th with the help of several late cautions.

Trouble threatened him again in the Eliminator finale at Phoenix. There, Logano was penalized for leaving the pits with his gas can still attached to the car and fell a lap down.

But once more, the man formerly known as “Sliced Bread” dug deep and ultimately pulled out a sixth-place finish that sent him to Homestead with a chance at the Cup.

Out of the Championship 4, it was clear that Kevin Harvick (the eventual champion) was the favorite in South Florida. But that didn’t stop him from attempting to play mind games with Logano at the contenders’ press conference in the week leading up to the race.

In hindsight, that may be the biggest sign of how far Logano has come.

In 2012, he lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing following big initial hype and years of unfulfilled expectations. His career in Cup was not assured.

Two years later, he was considered such a worthy adversary that his biggest title rival was compelled to try and come after him mentally before the most important race of the season.

It’s taken perhaps longer than expected, but Joey Logano has finally become what many thought he would be: One of the elite drivers in America’s most popular motorsport.