MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Joey Logano was initially unrepentant, insistent he had done nothing wrong in a feud with Matt Kenseth that ultimately cost Logano a chance to win his first Cup championship.
A year later, Logano has a new perspective about the soap opera that fueled the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He returns to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday with a maturity about him that could put Logano in position to win that elusive title.
"I learned some valuable lessons last year," Logano said. "I learned a whole new level I didn't even know I had. Now I know how to reach that level mentally inside a racecar to make things happen and be a great leader for my team."
Logano was en route to NASCAR's championship race last year as perhaps the driver to beat for the title. He'd swept the three-race segment of the second round of the Chase, and was dominating at Martinsville, headed toward a win that would have advanced him to the season finale.
Then Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano as payback for a spat that started during the second round of the playoffs. Logano had already won at Charlotte to secure his spot in the third round, and Kenseth was closing in on a must-win victory at Kansas that would have extended his playoffs.
But Logano, who only had a trophy on the line that day at Kansas, raced Kenseth hard in the closing laps and spun his rival. Kenseth was livid at how hard Logano had raced him. Logano didn't care.
The hard feelings simmered for two more weeks, then with Kenseth out of the playoffs, he exacted his revenge.
Looking back, Logano knows now his shoulder-shrug attitude toward Kenseth flamed the fire. Had he picked up the phone, called Kenseth or sent him a text, it might have changed the entire season. Kenseth might have let it go, Logano would have won at Martinsville, maybe would already have a Cup championship.
That's all in the past as the third round of the playoffs begins Sunday at Martinsville, and Logano and Kenseth are both still in play. Logano scored a must-win victory last week at Talladega to advance , while Kenseth used consistency and a play-it-safe strategy at Talladega to ensure Joe Gibbs Racing got all four of its Toyotas into the round of eight.
Logano is the only Ford driver still in the playoffs. He's got to face the entire JGR organization — the team he raced for before they let him go and he was scooped up by Roger Penske — as well as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who leads 2014 winner Kevin Harvick and a trio of Chevrolets.
Penske believes Sunday is a critical race, for his driver and his team, in this Chase.
"It's a level playing field. We're satisfied where we are," he said. "I think we need to get through what happened last year at Martinsville and get some good success there so we can move on hopefully to the next round."
Logano, who starts second Sunday, very much wants this do-over. He had a bull's-eye on his back last year, in part because of that three-race sweep in the playoffs, in part because of his supreme confidence. But he had to deliver last week to get to this round, and he's not yet stamped himself as a favorite in this Chase.
"I think we're a little bit more under the radar than we were last year," he said. "We've just got to go out there and fight, do what we know how to do. Don't need to change anything. We've just got to keep the intensity up, keep realizing we like the pressure; I think we're better under pressure. That's kind of our motto this year. I look forward to those moments. I looked forward to this weekend."
Other drivers to watch:
JOHNSON: His quest to win a record-tying seventh championship begins in earnest at Martinsville. An eight-time Martinsville winner, Johnson failed to make it to the third round of the Chase in the first two years of this format. This is a good round of track for Johnson, who has 23 career top-10s at Martinsville and has won the last four Chase races at Texas.
DENNY HAMLIN: He squeezed into this round of the Chase on a tiebreaker, but he's a five-time Martinsville winner and feels like his shot at the championship race comes Sunday. "I think every time I come here that anything less than a victory is a disappointment," Hamlin said.
HARVICK: A poor qualifying effort has Harvick starting 20th on Sunday. But he has the best average finish among drivers on short tracks this year at 7.0, and he led 72 laps at Martinsville in the spring. No one is very concerned with how Harvick runs on Sunday, though, because he owns Phoenix, where the final four will be decided.
JEFF GORDON: Martinsville is his eighth and final scheduled race as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and it's presumably the last of his career. He's the defending race winner, and he's been to victory lane at Martinsville nine times in his career. Last year's win was one of the biggest of his career, and Gordon would love one last victory celebration.
MARTIN TRUEX JR: He was the Chase favorite just a few weeks ago after winning two races in the first round of the Chase. Then a blown engine knocked him out of Talladega, and out of the playoffs. Truex responded with a pole-winning run for Martinsville , and he's determined to close out the season with a string of wins to replace his championship disappointment.