NASCAR Barometer: Logano Pulls Off Upset; Wins First Championship

NASCAR Barometer: Logano Pulls Off Upset; Wins First Championship

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Joey Logano bucked the trend of the season and upset Monster Energy NASCAR Cup's "Big 3" drivers to win his first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his first championship in the series. The championship contenders finished the final race in the top four positions, proving that they were the men to beat as the series title battle progressed to its close Sunday evening. Each driver had his share of problems throughout the year but worked to be at their best on Sunday. Logano seemed to be the best prepared, as he dominated the weekend's practices and made a strong late-race move on Martin Truex Jr. to take the lead, winning the title over the rival with whom he clashed just a few weeks earlier.

The finale at Homestead also marked the end of several familiar things to fantasy owners. Daniel Suarez, A.J. Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth have unannounced plans for 2019, but are out of their current roles. One of the most successful pairings in series history also ran its last race together, as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus end their partnership of 17 years. The race was also the final one for the current Ford Fusion body. The manufacturer is bringing the Mustang to race in 2019, and its impact won't be fully felt until a few weeks into the new racing season.

For now, the series heads into the winter break to rest and prepare for 2019. A new rules package, new Ford machines and new

Joey Logano bucked the trend of the season and upset Monster Energy NASCAR Cup's "Big 3" drivers to win his first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his first championship in the series. The championship contenders finished the final race in the top four positions, proving that they were the men to beat as the series title battle progressed to its close Sunday evening. Each driver had his share of problems throughout the year but worked to be at their best on Sunday. Logano seemed to be the best prepared, as he dominated the weekend's practices and made a strong late-race move on Martin Truex Jr. to take the lead, winning the title over the rival with whom he clashed just a few weeks earlier.

The finale at Homestead also marked the end of several familiar things to fantasy owners. Daniel Suarez, A.J. Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth have unannounced plans for 2019, but are out of their current roles. One of the most successful pairings in series history also ran its last race together, as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus end their partnership of 17 years. The race was also the final one for the current Ford Fusion body. The manufacturer is bringing the Mustang to race in 2019, and its impact won't be fully felt until a few weeks into the new racing season.

For now, the series heads into the winter break to rest and prepare for 2019. A new rules package, new Ford machines and new faces are hurdles that need to be planned for to navigate the path to Homestead with a shot at the title. For now, Logano and his Penske Racing team will take time to celebrate before joining the rest of the garage in their full-time quest to hoist the trophy in 2019.

UPGRADE

Joey Logano – Logano joined the Cup series full-time in 2009. He was one of the top drivers in the junior categories en route to Cup and scored his first win the series in his rookie campaign. Two years passed before he won his second race, and it took until 2014 to win multiple races in a single season. He was not the dominant driver throughout 2018 but grew stronger as the calendar marched toward Homestead. In joining the other three championship contenders, he made himself the underdog by having never won at the track nor having a title to his credit. A strong move to pass Truex and drive away in the final laps got the job done. His journey to the top is complete, and now all eyes will be on him and his ability to maintain that momentum.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex famously said at Martinsville that Logano may have won that battle but wouldn't win the war. It was only fitting that the two rivals determined the championship in a head-to-head battle in the final laps of Sunday's finale. The race was the final for Furniture Row Racing, and the team couldn't replicate their success from a year ago. Instead, Truex will move to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, joining fellow championship contender Kyle Busch in the same organization. The pairing will be one of the talking points of 2019 as both fight to be the top Gibbs driver. That organization's environment, with Denny Hamlin as well, may take time to form, but with the strength Gibbs consistently shows, it shouldn't take any time for Truex to maintain his winning ways.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick spent much of 2018 as the dominant driver and favorite to win the championship. He won eight races to get to Homestead but couldn't win the one that mattered most. The season will feel like a missed opportunity for him, and that could spur the team to even greater success in 2019. Despite losing the championship, it was Harvick's best season in the series in terms of victories. It was the third time he finished in the top four since winning his championship in 2014. In fact, he's only missed being in the final four once since 2013. Harvick is motivated by adversity, but the most detrimental thing to his success are mistakes. The organization will take this winter to analyze changes to minimize those in 2019. By doing so, they should be one of the favorites starting as soon as the cars reach Daytona.

Kyle Busch – Like Harvick, Busch had a stunning season with eight wins. He had the same win total in 2008 and finished in the top four in each of the last four seasons. It took Busch a bit longer than Harvick to reach Victory Lane early in the season but he made quick work of drawing level with the early championship leader. The two then spent much of the year battling back and forth with inconsistent challenges coming from Truex. Truex will be Busch's teammate in 2019 and could push the organization to even greater success. It has one of the most formidable lineups in the series, and all eyes will be on the team dynamic with another championship contender under its roof in 2019.

DOWNGRADE

Daniel Suarez – Despite entering the Cup series with much promise, Suarez was never able to achieve the same heights he had in the lower series. His final race with the Gibbs organization ended with a crash and unfulfilled potential. Suarez will be replaced by Truex next season, as the Furniture Row Racing refugee settles into one of the most potent teams in the garage. Without a race win, Suarez is facing an exit from the series and has yet to announce any plans for the 2019 season. His late-race contact with Logano's teammate Brad Keselowski set up the final charge among the championship contenders but may have simultaneously ended Suarez's career in the series. A long winter is ahead as he sorts out his future.

Jimmie Johnson – Sunday's race at Homestead marked the end of an era for Johnson and long-time Crew Chief Chad Knaus. The highly successful pairing has endured a long dry spell more recently, and Hendrick Motorsports decided a change was needed. Both Johnson and Knaus will work in new pairings at the organization in the hopes that change will spur a turn of fortune. The moves look to set up a knowledge transfer of the multiple-times champions to younger team members as they build their experience and lay the groundwork for future success. The past success of the powerhouse may have faded, but their legacy will continue in the new mentorships on which they are now embarking. Next season will be a test of both as they look to earn success separately.

A.J. Allmendinger – Like Suarez, Allmendinger may have raced his final Cup series event on Sunday. He finished 19th in his final run with JTG Daugherty and faces an uncertain future heading into the offseason. Allmendinger has had a bumpy career in NASCAR but has proven his capabilities at times. His lack of consistency and top results may have cost him a chance at continuing, but his ability to lift the small organization to greater heights has proven to be a challenge. He will remain one of the best drivers on a road course, and his prowess on ovals has also been one of his strongest attributes. Like some others, he heads into this winter without announced plans for the coming year. Fantasy owners will have to wait and see what transpires.

Paul Menard – After Ryan Blaney's success with Wood Brothers Racing, it appeared as though Menard would have a firm foundation from which to build in 2018. Instead, he and the team appeared to take a step backward in production. Menard struggled to match his traditional early-season form as he settled into the new organization, and his usual waning in the second half of the year also happened again despite the new surroundings. Menard and Wood Brothers have a lot of work to do to leverage the partnership with Penske Racing and find some success from their championship-winning partners. Fantasy owners may wonder whether the lack of results was from Menard's inability to hit the ground running, but 2019 should be a good measure of how capable he is of overcoming that challenge.

Jamie McMurray – McMurray has won some of NASCAR's biggest races, but his 18th-place finish at Homestead may have been his final as a full-time competitor in the series. His departure from full-time racing in the series was announced earlier in the season, and no firm plans have been confirmed. All signs point to him remaining with Chip Ganassi Racing, but in more of a driver-for-hire type of role where he spends time in many of the organization's race cars with none being a full-time run for a championship. His departure, along with many others following Homestead, are signaling a change in the future stars of the sport. The old guard is making way for the new superstars. McMurray still has much to give, but it will be less frequent for fantasy players.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aric Almirola – By all accounts Almirola had his best season in the series in 2018. The oft-overlooked driver raised his game by joining Stewart-Haas Racing and took the No. 10 team to success it hadn't experienced in some time. His fifth-place finish in the standings was his first even inside the top 15 since joining the circuit full-time in 2012. He picked up his second career win with his victory at Talladega and will be aiming to make his mark by winning at a non-plate track in 2019. Having better equipment and quick mentors in the organization boosted his profile and all that was left was for him to seize the opportunity. He has some road left to cover to score multiple victories in a season, and he will certainly set his sights on making an appearance in the final four next year.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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