Dearborn — Chevy and Toyota were the new cars.
Back in February, before the Daytona 500 and the start of the NASCAR season, a lot of well-informed folks thought racing with an older body and chassis would be a disadvantage for Ford. For sure, they said.
In June, when Team Penske arrived at Michigan International Speedway with its Fusions, one season before it would get new Mustangs, Rochester Hills’ Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney searched for speed.
When they returned to the big track for the August race, the pace they seemed to have gathered proved elusive.
But on Sunday, at Homestead, Fla., with a dozen laps left in the season, when Logano drove off the banking in Turn 4 and went by Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota, he left both the defending champion and a season-long fight to be fastest in his rearview mirror.
At precisely that moment, with the NASCAR Cup championship on the line, no one had more pace than the mustard-and-ketchup colored No. 22.
Logano rode a rocket.
“As you’re making the move, you’re in the moment,” Logano said. “You’re living the moment you’ve prepare your whole life for. You’re racing. That’s what it’s about, at that moment. Trying to find a route. Trying to find a way around him. I was able to get a good run out of (Turns) 3 and 4 on the topside, down the front straightaway. And, when he went to the bottom, I just said, ‘I’m going to get to the outside of him, right here!’”
In an interview with The Detroit News, Logano said after nearly washing up into the wall, with all of the pace he gathered to pass Truex, he managed to stabilize it. Suddenly, he vaulted to a two-second lead.
Competing against the three drivers who won most of the races in 2018 — Truex, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick — Logano called the contenders, “The Big Three and me.”
But Logano went to Miami saying he felt like he could prevail despite the trio having won 20 of 35 races. When he climbed into the car, he told one of his mechanics, “I’m getting in as a driver and getting out as a champion.”
The champ knew his team.
“I think I felt prepared. I felt like, not only myself but this team, we were ready,” the 28-year-old Connecticut native said a few days after the race. "We knew how to prepare.
“I guess the confidence that came across, that’s how I really felt. In sports, one of the most important things you can have is to think you can be successful, to be confident in your team and your ability.”
The route to the second Cup championship of Roger Penske’s career proved trying.
“It was an interesting season,” said Logano, in whom Penske put great faith, hiring him to drive in September 2012.
Team Penske’s best runs finished about fifth through 10th at the start of the season, before improving to third through seventh without enough contending for checkered flags.
When the playoffs started, the winning began.
When the playoffs ended, they were champs.
After the race, “The Captain” talked about his driver, his car, and crew chief Todd Gordon.
“He’s tough, and Joey wanted it bad,” Penske said during a NASCAR media conference.
Six years ago, when Joe Gibbs Racing decided it did not have a full-time ride for Logano, Keselowski met with the boss.
“Brad and I sat down,” Penske recalled. “And Brad and I thought that he’d be the guy to come to the team. I sat down with Joey and his dad. It was no agents, it was just us sitting down and shaking hands on what we were going to do.”
As he so often has, over more than 500 wins and in 50 years of racing, Penske got the right man. Logano won Penske his 33rd title in motor sports.
“I think when it's time to go, he's the guy,” Penske said. “I mean, there's no question.
“To me, I couldn't ask for a better result and a guy that delivers it for the whole team.”
Logano now strides the racing world as a Cup champion.
“For me, after the season, one of the things you learn is that you’re never out of it,” he said. “Sometimes you kind of doubt you’re going to make it back to the top. If you win the right races and do the right thing, the next thing you know is you’ve got a shot at it.”