Joey Logano wins at Homestead to claim NASCAR Cup Series championship

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Joey Logano proved that NASCAR's playoff system is about performance late in the year, as he turned a one-win regular season into his first career NASCAR Cup Series title.

Logano, who was fifth in the regular-season standings, capped a strong playoff run with two wins in the last four races, including capturing the victory Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I told you we weren't (an underdog) and showed you why we were not," said Logano, who had declared himself the favorite a week ago. "We were the favorite like I told you before the race started."

The Team Penske driver took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with 12 laps remaining for his first win at a 1.5-mile track since an October 2015 victory at Kansas Speedway. He outlasted the three other championship contenders, who finished 2-3-4. Truex placed second, Kevin Harvick finished third and Kyle Busch was fourth.

"I am so proud of everybody for rising to the occasion. We executed down the stretch like nobody's business. ... I can't believe it," Logano said. "I don't know what to say. This team, (owner) Roger Penske, (crew chief) Todd Gordon, the pit crew. Oh my God.

"They gave me the car I needed at the end to do my job, put me in position to do my job. I couldn't be more proud of them."

The championship race changed complexion with 20 laps remaining when Daniel Suarez spun following contact with Brad Keselowski.

Busch, who had not been in contention all day because of issues on pit road, was the leader because he had opted not to pit under green when the leaders pitted. Busch's only chance to win the title was to stay out, get track position, and hope the caution would come out before he ran out of fuel.

That happened with the Keselowski-Suarez contact, and following pit stops, Busch retained the lead, with Truex second, Logano third and Harvick fourth.

The race resumed with 15 laps remaining. Truex took the lead on the restart, but Logano blew by him a few laps later.

"I just needed time," said Truex, the 2017 Cup champion. "That's all I needed. They were faster than us for 15 or 20 laps all day long.

"It was like a reverse scenario from last year. Last year we took advantage of the short run car at the end -- (Busch's) 18 car should've won the race (last year) and tonight we should've won the race and they took advantage of the short-run car. I don't know what else we could've done."

Harvick possibly could have battled for the win, too, if not for the late-race caution. But the driver who led 58 of the first 167 laps didn't have as strong a car following sundown.

Both Harvick and Busch finished the season with eight wins (five more than Logano) but ended up without the title.

"Lots of wins," Busch said. "Forget about it now. Move on. ... Our car was just not even close. I don't know what happened to it, I thought we were way better than that and way closer than that.

"We wouldn't have unloaded today if we thought we were that far off."

Harvick was without his crew chief, Rodney Childers, who was suspended for the final two races of the year for an illegal spoiler in the win at Texas.

"It's been a great year and we just got beat," Harvick said.

Logano didn't have the great season of the other championship contenders, as he entered the finale with 12 top-5 finishes, the fewest among them. But he has been on the brink all year, proved by his 25 top-10 finishes in the 35 previous races.

Once the playoffs started, he showed his strength as he earned more points than any other driver in the playoffs. He had four top-5s and seven top-10s in the first nine playoff races, and his win at Martinsville to open the third round gave his team two extra weeks to prepare knowing it was in the championship event.

It was at that race at Martinsville where he executed a bump-and-run on Truex to capture the win. While viewed by Truex and others as potentially overaggressive, Logano has raced in that style for several years, especially after struggling in his four seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He moved to Team Penske in 2013 and soon found a place where he could thrive. The 28-year-old had made two previous championship appearances, finishing fourth in 2014 and second in 2016.

"There's no question that Joey wanted it bad," Penske said. "The team gave him a terrific car. We had the benefit of being able to work on our car after we got in at Martinsville, which certainly gives you a couple of weeks to not have the pressure, which definitely was a benefit of us.

"There's no question we had for 30-35 laps was outstanding."

Logano led a race-high 80 laps as he capped a comeback from a year ago when he didn't make the playoffs and finished 17th -- the best of the non-playoff drivers -- in the standings.

The title was the second for Team Penske to go with the 2012 title won by Brad Keselowski. It added another highlight to a year where the motorsports organization won the 2018 Indianapolis 500 with Will Power, earned its 500th overall victory with Keselowski at Vegas and is contention to win the V8 Supercars championship in Australia.

"It's something I never imagined it at the beginning (of the year)," Penske said. "We started out at strong when you looked at our speeds at Daytona. We had a little bit of a shallow spell there and our guys got to work."

It was also a big win for Ford, which had not had a driver win a championship since 2004 with Kurt Busch.

The 2018 season finale was possibly the last race for 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who finished sixth, his best race of the 15 he competed in this year while running a part-time schedule for Roush Fenway Racing.

It also was the last race for driver Jimmie Johnson to be paired with crew chief Chad Knaus. They won seven championships and 81 races over their 17 years together. Knaus will move to Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron next year while JR Motorsports crew chief Kevin Meendering will crew chief Johnson.

It was the first winless season of Johnson's career.

"I've had such a fortunate career and I would have loved to keep that streak alive -- clearly that is not the case," Johnson said. "Instead of reflecting on this year and how bad it was because I know that reality, I've been living it first-hand.

"I just think it's important for me and the team right now to look back on what we have done together over 17 years together."