Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – Déjà vu will be just fine for Joey Logano.
The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford won the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series spring event at Darlington Raceway from the pole.
After edging Christopher Bell for the top starting position in Saturday’s time trials, Logano will have a chance to repeat the feat in Sunday’s Playoff opener, the Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In the final round of qualifying, Logano negotiated the 1.366-mile egg-shaped speedway in 29.181 seconds (168.521 mph) and waited to see if the lap would hold up.
The last driver to make a qualifying run, Bell (168.469 mph) lost time in Turns 3 and 4 and fell just .009 seconds short of Logano’s time.
“I love winning,” exalted Logano, who earned his second Busch Light Pole Award of the season and the 24th of his career. “When you fire off in the Playoffs, you want to have a good start to it. This (No. 1) pit stall here is so important—it really helped us win the race here in the spring.
“(Crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) did a good job adjusting on our car from the spring race and even from practice as well. We keep trying to find the speed and got a couple of poles here at Darlington this year.”
Logano completed the first season sweep of pole positions at the Lady in Black since Sterling Marlin accomplished the feat in 1992. Marlin, however, finished 22nd and 28th in the two races.
Logano and Bell were two of eight Playoff drivers who advanced to the final round of qualifying. The exceptions were eighth-place qualifier Bubba Wallace, who is competing for the owners’ championship in the No. 45 23XI Toyota, and 10th-place Michael McDowell.
William Byron (168.186 mph) will start third on Sunday beside Tyler Reddick (167.853 mph). Kyle Busch claimed the fifth position on the grid, and Austin Cindric will start sixth. Reigning series champion Kyle Larson was seventh and Ryan Blaney ninth.
Regular-season champion Chase Elliott qualified 23rd.
The No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet of Playoff driver Daniel Suarez failed pre-qualifying inspection three times. Suarez was not allowed to qualify and will start from the rear of the field on Sunday.
In addition, the No. 99 Camaro must serve a pass-through penalty after taking the green flag. Suarez also lost pit selection and the services of car chief Eddie d’Hondt Jr. for the Playoff opener.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson has a few more boxes to check
Driver Chase Elliott may be one to play down his chances to win a second NASCAR Cup Series championship, but his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, doesn’t mince words when it comes to his expectations for the Playoffs.
“If we don’t make it to Phoenix, I would be disappointed in any circumstances,” Gustafson said. “That’s always the goal and there are steps along the way; things you want to achieve, benchmarks you want to make. Certainly, we’ve checked quite a few of those boxes.”
Among those goals already accomplished is a regular-season championship, which Elliott won by a hefty 130 points over second-place Joey Logano. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet won a series-best four races this season, two more than any other driver.
Elliott enters the postseason with 40 Playoff points. Second-seeded Logano has 25.
Gustafson, however, says his goals wouldn’t be different, even if Elliott had been one of the last drivers to make the Playoffs.
“If we didn’t get bonus points from points positions and only made it in on points, been in Ryan Blaney’s position, Austin Dillon’s or whoever… if we were in that same position, our expectation would be to make it to Phoenix. The position we’re in now, that’s certainly the case.”
After qualifying 23rd on Saturday, Elliott will have to overcome the position he occupies on the grid.
Joey Logano says dominance is a fleeting thing this season
When pole winner Joey Logano says the cycles have accelerated in the NASCAR Cup Series this season, he’s not talking about the Harley-Davidson variety.
“We kind of knew this would happen at the beginning of the year,” Logano said on Saturday morning at Darlington Raceway. “When you have a brand new car, the cycles happen quicker, whereas typically before (the introduction of the Next Gen car), a team will figure it out and know they’ve got two-and-a-half to three months of kicking butt before the next cycle comes.
“Now it’s like three weeks before the next team is the dominant team. We’ve seen this cycle happen four or five times already this year, so you just have to hope you cycle to the front when it matters the most.”
In Logano’s view, the other hallmark of the season has been inconsistency, which in part accounts for the narrow points spread between the top of the Playoff grid and the bottom.
“This is the (closest) battle we’ve had coming into the Playoffs,” Logano said. “When you look at where everybody is with points coming in, everyone’s got wins. Usually, there are drivers that come in with zero playoff points. Now, you’ve got some with wins, stage wins, some regular season points that switched over, so it’s pretty close.
“And you look at the way it’s all seeded, I don’t think we’ve ever had it this close before, and that’s because of the inconsistency. We finished second in regular season points, and I’m not sure we had a second-place season in other years. It just shows how inconsistent everybody has been, and it’s not a surprise.”