Logano coasts into NASCAR championship

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Joey Logano claimed the first berth into the Nov. 8 Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway by winning Sunday at Kansas Speedway in the first of three races during the Round of 8.

Three more invites are awaiting among the seven eligible drivers. Win at either Texas this week or Martinsville next week and get the automatic bid, or else score the most points to advance.

Logano wasn’t expected by most to be one of the Championship 4 drivers because he last won a race before the pandemic shutdown. He had won two of the four NASCAR races before it, but none after the season was rebooted, until Sunday.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s updated futures have Logano at 3-1 to win the 2020 Championship behind Kevin Harvick (6-5), and ahead of Denny Hamlin (7-2).

Logano has no pressure now and can coast into Phoenix where they’ll be using the race package with 750 horsepower which has proven to be his best package this season — he won at Phoenix in March. But he also showed signs of improved performance in the 550 hp package he won with Sunday at Kansas and it was apparent they were all better with it in the July 19 Texas race when he finished third after leading 22 laps.

Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas will be the 11th and final race on a 1.5-mile track and also the 20th and final race using the 550 hp package. Eight of the 10 races on 1.5s have been won by different drivers with Hamlin and Logano having multiple wins. Harvick has a series-leading nine wins on the season, but just one win on a 1.5 track (Atlanta, June 7). On Sunday at Kansas, Harvick was runner-up after leading a race-high 85 laps.

Harvick was winless in his Cup career at Texas in his first 29 starts, but he’s won three of the past six races there — one each in 2017, 2018, and 2019. He was fifth in the July race, leading 40 laps, to drop his career average finish to 10.2. He’s got a 41-point lead over the fifth-place driver and could coast into the next round by just playing it safe the next two weeks. But that’s not Harvick. He’ll drive to win.

Hamlin’s 15th-place finish at Kansas last week looks like a disappointment. But he actually scored 40 points, 2 points less than winner Logano scored. He scored bonus points for winning the second stage and leading 58 laps. It’s the third straight race of 1.5s that he’s led at least 57 laps.

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Before he threw his car into the fence on Sunday, he was cruising for another Kansas win. He has three Texas wins, the last coming in the spring of 2019.

One of the biggest surprises of the season happened at Texas in July when Austin Dillon won and paid out 100-1 odds. It was a Richard Childress Racing exacta as Tyler Reddick had his best finish of the season in second place. Those notes of the winning set-up should still be fresh and be able to be applied here, but neither driver recreated the magic in the remaining three races on 1.5s, although Dillon was runner-up at Darlington Raceway’s 1.366-mile track Sept. 6.

Alex Bowman came away with third-place last week at Kansas giving him three straight races on 1.5s of finishing eighth or better, as well as a sixth at Darlington last month. He was fifth last fall at Texas. They’ve got something clicking with the No. 88 team.

Bowman’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson holds several track records at Texas such as wins (7), top-fives (16), and laps led (1,152) and this will be his last race which will surely garner him some goodbye gifts. I wish I could suggest he might be a good bet this week but his only top-five using this week’s race package was at Las Vegas in February.

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