With ‘all the effort, all the time,’ Logano, Wolfe driven for Cup Series title shot

Crew chief Paul Wolfe has been a part of Team Penske since 2010, when he helped guide a young Brad Keselowski to the Xfinity Series championship. Joey Logano has been with Roger Penske’s organization since 2013, when he took over driving duties for the No. 22 Ford that is now his longtime home.

The two have worked on separate teams for most of their Team Penske tenure, but their goals were on common ground, oars that helped to keep rowing the collective operation forward. This season — a most unusual season for driver-crew chief communication — became their first working under the same No. 22 umbrella.

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Given their career overlaps, Wolfe was already familiar with the competitive fire that has pushed Logano to elite status in the NASCAR Cup Series garage. Now he’s seeing it first-hand, week upon week.

“It’s a lot,” Wolfe said after Sunday’s latest triumph. “I mean, that’s the one thing I’ve noticed with working with Joey for the short time now, is how big of a team player he is, effort and things he does to make sure we have a strong team all working together, pulling in the same direction.”

Logano and Wolfe took the next step toward each landing their second premier-series championship, winning Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway and locking up the automatic Championship 4 berth that came with it. Wolfe and Keselowski won the Cup Series title together in 2012; Logano did it six years later, paired with veteran Todd Gordon atop the pit box.

The Logano-Wolfe partnership stemmed from a three-team crew chief shake-up orchestrated by Penske before the season in an effort to boost overall performance. The overhaul meant Wolfe’s first new driver in 11 years and Logano’s first new crew chief in eight.

The combination leapt from the starting blocks quickly, grabbing two victories in the first four races of the season before the COVID-19 outbreak placed the sports world — motorsports calendar included — on hold. The initial footsteps for Logano and Wolfe toward building at-track chemistry went on hold as well.

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The return to racing in mid-May was a difficult one from an adjustment standpoint, with practice or qualifying scratched in an effort to streamline weekends to control both costs and the disease’s spread. For a new driver-crew chief pairing, those adjustment hurdles may have been more pronounced.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

“It’s been an amazing challenge, if I’m being honest with you,” Logano said. “The beginning of the year with practice, we were able to get to know each other, get to know what I needed with the car, work on it during practice. COVID started. Coming back with no practice, we started getting our butts handed to us pretty hard. We were struggling for the first, I don’t know, 15 races back. Just really struggling, trying to get a handle on the car, what direction we need to go. It’s really hard to fix things when you don’t have practice.

“We’re going to the race track for the first time together, honestly it’s kind of shooting from the hip from a setup standpoint, just trying to find something that we can hit on that’s decent.”

Those opening two wins became a more distant memory after NASCAR’s return, in part because of the lengthy interruption of the racing schedule but also because of the downturn that Logano noted. His playoff fate was already secure, but the No. 22 team posted just one top-five finish in the first 13 races back, as rivals Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin quickly took control of the series’ win column.

That’s when Logano, Wolfe says, became more vocal, all in an effort to instill the same competitive drive in the rest of the team.

“It was kind of a rocky road there for a while, a lot of ups and downs, some struggles,” Wolfe said. “Towards the end of the summer, before the playoffs, we kind of got together and talked a lot. It was very important for him to make sure everyone was focused and pulling in the same direction. He’s a great leader from that standpoint, keeping the team and the guys around him motivated.

“Everyone knows you’re getting all the effort, all the time. It really makes everyone want to step up and do their part.”

Logano still trails Harvick and Hamlin in the season’s win count, but Sunday’s victory gave the 30-year-old former prodigy a measure of one-upmanship. He’s now the only driver automatically qualified for NASCAR’s final four in the season-ending race Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway — a track Logano conquered in March during the series’ last event before the coronavirus outbreak.

Pandemic aside, the parallels between this season and Logano’s previous title march are uncanny. Two years ago, in a campaign that also included a midseason lull, Logano also won the Round of 8 opener (then held at Martinsville), earning the No. 22 team a two-week release of postseason pressure to focus on the championship race.

Logano entered that finale as the Cinderella facing that year’s Big 3 of Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — winners of 20 of the 36 races. This year, it’s Harvick (nine wins so far) and Hamlin (seven) who — barring catastrophe — will likely enter the Phoenix final as co-favorites.

Logano embraced the “Big 3 and Me” mindset ahead of the 2018 championship race, saying, “I might be the underdog on the stats standpoint, but we sure don’t feel like we are.” Sunday, he indicated he’s ready for the next test of his competitive spirit, aiming for a sequel of the movie that debuted two years ago.

“I hope so. I hope so,” Logano said with trademark grin. “I’m A-OK with being the underdog. Kind of been there for most of my career. I’m fine with that, doesn’t bother me a bit.”