NASCAR Cup Series
Joey Logano, William Byron and 'Doing What I Had to Do' at Darlington
May 9, 2022
Eye for an eye?
Head for an eye.
This is the new normal in the NASCAR Cup Series, where the value of winning is near absolute and the traditional rules of engagement are a distant memory.
Of course, there is more nuance to what happened on Sunday at Darlington Raceway between Joey Logano and William Byron but the current style of racing and how you feel about it ultimately comes down to winning races at the highest level.
Quick recap: Logano won the race with a pretty significant shove and run on Byron in Turn 3 on the penultimate lap. It sent Byron into the wall and from first to 13th with a crippled car. Logano was adamant that he only drove that hard due to contact between the two on the restart. That contact wedged Logano between Byron and the wall in Turn 2.
But let’s go deeper:
Byron chose the bottom lane for the restart with 25 laps to go. There is a bump in the pavement in Turn 2 that cars on the bottom had struggled with all day in the twitchy Next Gen car. That is by Logano’s own admission.
"Now, this car, once it starts getting sideways, the diffuser shuts off, all these things just go the wrong way, and it wants to spin out even quicker," Logano said. "So, there's a point where everything is really good, and then if you go past it, it's a light switch and all hell breaks loose.
"When you take a track that has less grip and the car naturally wants to yaw out more, it puts you on that edge more, and then when you add the bumps to it, as low as we're trying to run the cars and cars hitting the wear blocks off of 2 or whatever setup they have, it just becomes very unpredictable when you hit a bump and then it gets sideways quick and it's gone."
Byron and Logano, rightfully held each other tight with the expectation this could be the decisive restart, and it was.
The end result was just a byproduct of racing, but Byron bobbled and the contact indeed pinched Logano in the wall. It wasn’t a block or nefarious intent by the Hendrick driver, but the 2018 Cup Series champion already had his mind made up.
"At that point, I'm lucky my car isn't broken," Logano said. "I'm a very angry driver, and I think anyone in the field would probably agree, if someone is going to be willing to do that to you, well, the gloves are off at that point. I knew if I got back there what I was going to do and what I had to do."
It's not too dissimilar from what transpired between AJ Allmendinger and Ross Chastain at Circuit of the Americas in March. The initial contact was met with an escalated response.
Byron knew the potential for the bump-and-run was there, and he seemingly backed up his entry into the corner to protect from it. The line and that speed would generally stabilize the car from rear impact but Logano really sailed it in.
Again, he had his mind made up and that decision sent Byron into the wall, but also sent him to Victory Lane.
"I mean he runs everybody over, so I don’t see what’s different," Byron said as he made a hasty exit from the race track after his TV interview. "… I mean, he was faster. He could have easily just gotten to the left rear and loosened me up, but he runs in there 10 miles an hour faster. He didn’t even barely make the corner, so I don’t know why he goes in so hard and knocks the (expletive) out of you. Makes no sense."
And that was the point of contention, right?
Byron seems to believe some contact was justifiable, due to what he believed was slight contact with Logano and the wall, but that was inconsequential to the Team Penske ace -- that it was relatively minor contact.
"Okay," Logano said flatly and with a pause. "Okay."
Then he laughed.
"Maybe from his side," Logano said. "But I felt his car on one side and the wall on the other side as I was sandwiched in the fence. Okay. Cool."
For Logano, similar to Chastain in how he races, it comes back to head for an eye.
"If you're willing to make the move to get the lead by doing that, drive another car into the wall, you've opened the door for retaliation to get the victory," Logano said. "When you do that, you have to see it coming and he expected it too, which is why he went into the corner slow and low. He knew it was coming.
"So yeah, it's what I had to do. I'm not going to get pushed around. I'm not going to get bullied. That's how this works. That's how this sport has worked for years. Like I said, if that's not how it happened, I'm not making that move. I'll race cleaner and try to make the move a different way."
Logano basically said it was business and not personal, as there was no prior issues between them. In fact, Logano was chasing Byron down in the closing laps at Martinsville last month and even expressed some reservation that he didn’t drive in the corner deeper at the end of that race.
There was an action and reaction on Sunday at Darlington. That’s causality.
"We're equal," Logano said. "We're equal, man. You put me in the wall first. Like I said, it's game on. At that point in my eyes it's equal. If I punted him out of the way for no reason there to win the race without him doing something to me in the past at any point, which he never has in the past, and it's not like he meant to fence me. I don't think he meant to run me into the wall. The facts are he did.
"It's racing, and it kind of took the win out of my eyes or my hands, so at that point, like I said, you're going to have to do what you have to do to get the lead back in the same manner he got it, so that's kind of how that works."
It will be fascinating to see how the usually even keeled and mild-mannered Byron responds. As crew chief Rudy Fugle put it, the ‘shoe might be on the other foot someday’ and as Jeff Gordon put it, Byron has one in his back pocket for later.
This could also determine how other drivers race Byron in the future.
We’ve already seen it on several occasions where drivers who have had previous run-ins with Chastain are now backing out of the potential of further escalation because they’ll lose that tit-for-tat with him more often than not.
Recently: Ryan Blaney at Richmond.
It’s just how Chastain races, and right or wrong, it has afforded the Trackhouse No. 1 a lot more runway in battles that he has used to his advantage in 2022. Logano has been afforded that runway over the years too, although the likes of Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have drawn figurative lines in the sand over the years.
Matt Kenseth, too.
Byron will have an opportunity to draw a similar line as well and the garage will take notice.
Conventional wisdom in the NASCAR Cup Series dictates that May and June is where teams start to create separation and establish a pecking order to break through the annual spring parity, but this is no conventional season.
This is the start of the Next Gen era and anything is possible.
For the first time since the current championship format was established in 2014, the possibility of 16+ regular season winners seems plausible, even if it remains unlikely. First, let’s take a look at the playoff board.
What is especially remarkable about this list is twofold: 1) The marquee drivers who haven’t won in Harvick and Truex; but also the depth of talent who have looked capable of winning or aren’t in the immediate mix on points in Busch, Suarez, Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse.
The Next Gen car has, at least for now, brought the field tremendously closer together. That combined with the increased number of road courses and two new superspeedway style races at Atlanta means that 16+ winners is a non-zero possibility.
Haley finished third at Darlington!
"Definitely a good run for our organization," Haley said of Kaulig Racing. "It’s something we need. We’ve been clicking off top 15s and right around that area, but to show we can do it here and showcase my talents, I’m super thankful."
And now, with this car, if you’re capable of a top-15 consistently, racing for the win is just a matter of hitting the set-up, having fast pit stops and driver execution.
That’s part of the reason Logano could have felt some urgency to get the win, no matter how, when the opportunity presented itself. There was no guarantee that a top-10 regular season points finish would be enough to get him in the playoffs without a win.
"I don't know if it (was) must-win yet, but it's getting closer to it," Logano said. "Like you said, week by week, as you get different winners...
"I do think at this point, though, you see a lot of the same characters up front now. Like, you kind of could say, ‘okay, here's some of the stronger cars that are consistently running up front,’ and then you may sprinkle in a couple every now and then that hit on something that weekend."
But there have been a lot of sprinkles through the first 12 races.
Would you really be surprised to see Jones, Reddick, Suarez and Keselowski win? That’s 16. Truex and Harvick. 18.
It’s not crazy talk.
Typically, during the summer months, a team will R&D a component that helps them separate from the pack. That, combined with slick summer races that reward the best drivers, inevitably results in a team rolling off multiple wins over a several week stretch.
We don’t live in that world anymore. So, what’s more likely -- a team finding something with a spec car or this level of parity continuing through the summer and towards the playoffs?
Penske No. 22 crew chief Paul Wolfe thinks it’s going to be tough to go on a streak.
"Our box to work in is smaller," Wolfe said. "I think early in the season to where we're at today, I mean, teams are still learning a lot. We're still trying to figure out setups, where we want to be. I feel like that will tighten up as we get more opportunities at tracks and guys will start to figure it out when everyone will get closer, and I feel like for sure it will get harder and harder …
"Yeah, it's going to be tough to win races. A lot of guys have speed right now, and I expect that just to get tougher as we go when everyone figures the car out."
In 2012, the first year of the DW12 spec Indy Car, eight drivers from five teams won across 15 races. In 2013, 10 drivers from six organization won across 19 races. It's not apples to apples, but that's the kind of competition spec racing inspires when it goes right.
The traditional pecking order will remain in some form, but the gap between the powerhouses and the mid-pack is considerably closer and the list of winners is legitimately over 20 cars deep this year.
So, when Logano makes a move like he did at Darlington, it’s not entirely unreasonable of him to want to do it.
And just you wait to see what happens when the playoffs begin if winning is still at this kind of premium.
Much will change with the NASCAR Cup Series schedule over the next decade. Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is inevitably on course to return to the highest level of the sport. NASCAR seems adamant on adding a downtown city street course. International exhibitions are not out of the equation. Even North Wilkesboro Speedway is back on the table, because it’s really hard to see $30 million in renovations not resulting in a Cup race, right?
With that said, Darlington Raceway having two races a year again just feels right and hopefully that remains intact through this season of change.
The best thing to come out of COVID from a NASCAR standpoint was running three races at the venerable 1.33-mile course in South Carolina in 2020. It seemingly made us realize just how important it is to the sport’s ecosystem.
Darlington is amongst the best showcases for this discipline, regardless of rules package or vehicle type. It’s quintessential NASCAR and it’s a home track for all the teams based in the Carolinas.
With that said, the Throwback Weekend is probably in need of a second thought or recalibration.
This past weekend very well could be the end of the concept as we know it. Many teams chose not to participate altogether, with others choosing Late Model, Modified or Legends paint schemes, over NASCAR.
That’s fine, by the way, but it seems scattered and unorganized.
While the number placement isn’t the biggest deal in the world, if there was ever a race to move the number to the doors, it would be this one. But, of course, that would just relitigate the discourse from the off-season when that decision was made in the first place.
So maybe it’s just time to move on to the next concept, which is also fine, because having two races at The Lady in Black is old school cool enough anyway.