HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The Big 3 was the talk of the 2018 season. They dominated and, at times, looked untouchable. Many thought no one could beat them.
But on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Joey Logano did.
And he has the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy to prove it.
“If you look at it, it was the Big 3 and me, right,” No. 22 crew chief Todd Gordon said. “So we were the fourth wheel of the group and able to race all night long. … That’s just surreal to think about he got to race Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch for a championship and execute.
“Phenomenal group of guys, and again, we proved you’ve got to win, and Joey elevated himself to do it.”
Logano emerged from his No. 22 Ford on the frontstretch after taking the checkered flag for the title. He banged the roof of his car, as his crew members crowded around cheering and celebrating with the new champion. They hoisted him upon their shoulders.
As the celebrations continued, front tire changer Thomas Hatcher kneeled on the blue-painted surface. He wiped his face and looked upon his team members, who were now champions.
“You try so hard, you come so close and everybody does. And I just kind of got hit with it,” Hatcher told NASCAR.com of the emotional moment later. “It was tough. When I say it was tough, I mean it was emotional, it was everything came together. And honestly, the last pit stop … we weren’t able to beat (Martin Truex Jr.) out and I didn’t know if it was over with. But Joey got up on the wheel and, holy smokes.”
Hatcher has been a pit crew member for 14 years and a part of Logano’s crew for five years. He was there for the 2014 heartbreak when the No. 22 Ford fell off the jack on the final pit stop, costing the team valuable seconds and ultimately the title. He was there when Logano and Carl Edwards tangled with 10 laps to go, with Jimmie Johnson going on to take the championship that night.
And he was there for the team’s brightest moment tonight on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
“I got my expectations up really high in ’14 and I did in ’16 too, especially ’16. I wasn’t going to let my emotions take over tonight,” Hatcher said. “I think everybody was pretty calm, everybody was pretty loose. Trying not to get our hopes up but Joey motivates us and I feel like we motivate him. … When he makes moves like I said on the track, we want to crush it on pit road. And man, I feel like we crush it on pit road, it motivates him to make moves like that on the track.
“It’s a team sport.”
It’s partly because of his team that Logano knew he wasn’t the underdog heading into the race, the David in a David-and-Goliath situation.
“We built a great race car that was able to be good on short runs … my race team, I wasn’t worried about them at all,” Logano said. “And I just had to do my job.”
But that “job” is often a tough task; with more than 35 competitors on the track every week, race wins — much less, championships — are challenging to earn. A winning stretch is even tougher to maintain throughout the long racing season. And while Logano pinpointed himself as the favorite ahead of Championship 4 Media Day, he wasn’t as sure of his chances before the 10-race stretch of the NASCAR Playoffs.
“Twenty weeks ago, I thought man, if we get to run to the Round of 8, that’s pretty good this year from where we were at the time,” he said. “We were consistent, that’s what kept us up in the points all year long. We didn’t have many bad races throughout the season.
“But I guess just as the Playoffs went, everyone rose to the occasion. Everyone picked it up. We talked about it at Playoffs Media Day … and I was talking about how you have to find another little bit inside of you to just maintain when the playoffs start because everyone’s able to get a little bit better. As we do that, we just started running better … I don’t think anyone scored more points than us throughout the playoffs. …
“It goes to show that we executed under pressure, not just today or the last five races, but the last 10 is when I felt like, ‘We got a shot at this thing.’ “
The 28-year-old driver certainly didn’t look like an underdog under the lights in Florida; he paced the field for a race-high 80 laps, restarting third behind Championship 4 contenders Busch and Truex Jr. with 15 laps remaining. Truex grabbed the lead, but with 12 laps remaining, Logano charged forward to take it back.
In the waning laps, he pulled farther ahead to take the most important checkered flag of his young career. Beating reigning champion Truex across the start-finish line, with 2014 champion Harvick and 2015 title winner Busch behind him.
When everything was on the line, he executed. And beat the best.
Maybe, he was never really the underdog after all.
“We proved why we’re not (the underdog),” Logano said. “This is the favorite, and I told you that before the race started. I’m so proud of everybody. Everyone rose to the occasion, executed under pressure like nobody’s business. …
“Man, you just — I’ve worked my whole life to get here, to get to the championship. I’ve been so close. I spent 10 seasons fighting for this. I wasn’t sure we were going to get it, but, man, Todd made a good adjustment at the end, and it was a ‘no-quit’ attitude.
“I was going to pass that car no matter what.”