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BROOKLYN, Mich. (Sunday, August 18, 2013) — Joey Logano, the happy-go-lucky Penske Racing driver, burst into laughter when he heard the question.
A news reporter wanted to know how far Logano had come since being viewed as a villain in some NASCAR circles after a March crash led to former teammate Denny Hamlin breaking his back.
"I look like a villain, don't I?" Logano said.
Villain or not, Logano and his No. 22 Ford team already have been through a surprising amount of trials together in their brief marriage. There's been the Hamlin rivalry; the pit road fight with Tony Stewart in Fontana, Calif., after he blocked Stewart and later wrecked Hamlin; the NASCAR penalties at Texas Motor Speedway (which cost the team 25 points and saw crew chief Todd Gordon suspended for two weeks); and a couple of wild swings in the Sprint Cup standings.
"If that doesn't toughen you up, nothing does," Logano said. "This team has gone through a lot this season. They don't quit. They keep pushing hard."
Sunday, Logano scored his first victory since June 2012 and thrust himself into contention for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup in a big way at Michigan International Speedway, winning from the pole at the home track for team owner Roger Penske and manufacturer Ford.
Now Logano needs to push hard for three more races — Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway — to see if he can make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. In the last four weeks, Logano has been as low as 18th in the standings but is now 13th and seven points from a wild-card spot.
"We have to keep that momentum going," he said. "Just goes to show as long as nothing goes wrong — knock on wood — we've been pretty good."
Though he's 23, Logano's tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing had grown stale after four seasons. The team wanted him to run a full Nationwide Series schedule with part-time Cup races, but Logano decided to move to Penske's No. 22 car and join defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski.
Sponsor Shell-Pennzoil needed a clean-cut, winning driver after its previous two drivers — Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger — had high-profile foul-ups. Penske convinced Shell that Logano would "fit the mold" of a great driver.
"We knew he knew how to win," Penske said. "I think giving him a chance to come with us, he's just matured and he's exactly what we expected. As you saw today, he's not afraid to stand on the gas when it counts."
On Sunday, Logano used an aggressive move on the final restart to stay ahead of Kevin Harvick for second place (race leader Mark Martin didn't have enough gas to make it to the finish). Logano said he was willing to put his car in that position because "that's what you have to do to win.
"You just got to show that you want it more than them," he said. "It was a race-winning move."
But that approach also has gotten Logano in trouble. He feuded with Hamlin at Bristol, then fought with Stewart at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana when the three-time Cup champion took exception to how Logano blocked on a key restart.
All along, Logano has maintained he regrets none of his actions and vowed not to adjust his style — even though it's drawn the ire of some fans.
"When you go on Twitter and read that everyone hates you, it doesn't make you too excited to read something like that," he said. "I know who I am. I know I did the right thing. I'm confident in myself.
"I just race like I always have. I didn't change a thing. That's what has got me here and is going to keep me here, keep me winning races."
Over the next three weeks, Logano and his team will have to determine how aggressive to be with race strategy and setups. Is it better to fight for another win in hopes of sealing a wild-card berth, or will points racing be the path into the Chase?
Logano and Keselowski are scheduled to test at Richmond today in preparation for the pressure-filled Chase run.
Gordon called it an "aggressive testing program leading up to the Chase."
"I guess we'll look at the scoreboard in three more races and find out whether (the season) has been a success or not," Penske said. "But I'm going to tell our guys to do what they've been doing: Work smart, bring their car home."
Logano wasn't the only one who helped himself on the 2-mile oval. Kurt Busch used a mind-boggling restart — he gained eight spots in one lap — en route to a third-place finish, which boosted him two spots to ninth in the standings.
Still, Busch is only six points inside the top 10, and the battle from eighth to 15th place is fierce. Those eight drivers are separated by 31 points, which means even the smallest slip-up at Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway or Richmond International Raceway could mean the difference between qualifying for the title hunt or bitterly watching others take those coveted spots.
"You can't celebrate with a third-place finish," Busch said. "You just have to feel confident and to know that you can go back next week and do it again."
There are plenty of big names fighting for the last five positions. Defending champion Brad Keselowski is eighth, followed by 2004 titlist Busch and five-time Chase participant Greg Biffle.
The wild cards, which go to the drivers 11th through 20th in points with the most wins, are Kasey Kahne (11th, two wins) and Martin Truex Jr. (12th, one win). One-win drivers Logano and Ryan Newman (15th) are lurking, and there's always a chance 14th-place Jeff Gordon could get himself in the mix.
Chase strategy dictates the decisions for many of those drivers. Keselowski was running up front at his home track, but instead of gambling on fuel for what would have been his first win of the year, crew chief Paul Wolfe called him in for a late pit stop.
"That is all you can do," Keselowski said. "Get the points you can and move onto the next week."