The bewilderment washed over his face, and for a second — just a single moment — everything around Joey Logano stopped.
No, of course everything didn’t actually stop. As much as he might have liked it to. You can’t freeze time, you know?
The crowd slowly enveloping him at Homestead-Miami Speedway kept swarming, pushing in, growing and growing in every direction. The thick stench of burnt rubber endured, the odor as overwhelming as the scene unfolding on track.
Rain fell, fans cheered, beers cracked, the whole shebang.
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But right before Logano went onstage to properly accept his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, before he could hug his wife or kiss his son or do any of those “championship things” he’d always dreamed of doing, Logano paused.
Disbelief. Awe. Shock, even?
What exactly just happened?
No words required, but you could read it all on Logano’s tear-stained face.
“Man, I don’t even know how to put this in words,” Logano said.
Oh right, about those tears. They’re natural, of course, especially when you finally achieve your life’s dream. Think about that: How many people actually accomplish the one thing they’ve always wanted, the one thing they’ve sought for nearly three decades?
That’s especially so when you consider how close Logano came to never reaching this point. He’d twice before been a championship contender, both in 2014 and 2016, one of the four best drivers in the sport left vying for a title ... and came up empty both times.
Then last season, he missed the playoffs entirely. There weren’t sufficient adjectives to describe how awful, miserable, or truly terrible that feeling was, that sense that he had failed (although those three were certainly three of Logano’s preferred ones in the buildup to Sunday’s race).
And now, this.
“It took a little bit longer than I wanted it to,” Logano said with a grin after the race, “but now we’re here.”
Even earlier this season, as recent as 10 or 15 races ago, it didn’t seem like Logano had any sense being in this moment. A win at Talladega in the regular season got him into the playoffs, sure, but who has ever counted Talladega as an fair barometer of success? Rather, it was, ‘Oh, well Logano’s back in’ — never, ‘Oh, did you see that Talladega win? Logano’s going to race for a ‘ship.’
But Logano, the 28-year-old who has made his fair share of enemies in 10 years of Cup racing, didn’t hear any of that. He tuned out all the doubt or hate or whatever you want to call it, and just focused on the only thing he could control.
He kept building, growing, improving. Then when his moment finally arose at Martinsville three weeks ago, neck and neck with Martin Truex Jr. for a spot in the championship on the line, he was up to the task — he bumped Truex, to a bevy of boos and criticism, and went cruising into this race.
He did what he had to do.
The week before the championship race, Logano boldly declared himself the favorite. His competitors — Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, aptly named “The Big 3” for their 20 collective wins this year — and nearly everyone else even tangentially involved in NASCAR scoffed. Laughed his comments off, ignored him.
The Big 3 and me, Logano jokingly said all week.
Except me won.
“I told you we weren’t (the underdog) and showed you why were not,” Logano said. “We were the favorite like I told you before the race started.”
Even Sunday night, with 10 laps left, there was still doubt that Logano could seal the deal.
Jockeying for on-track position with Truex, the two of them in a rematch from Martinsville three weeks earlier, the championship could have gone either way. Truex inched forward, and Logano would counter. Logano scooched an inch ahead, and Truex would respond.
Until finally, the second wind came for Logano. He crawled ahead, fighting for every single centimeter of the lead ... and when he finally had it, he took off.
“You get the cautions at the right times and let this team do their job and let me do my job, and the next thing you know, here we are, NASCAR champions,” Logano said. “I don’t even know what to say.”
You could see all of that — the championship race, sure, but also the Martinsville saga, the disappointment that was 2017, the two failed championship bids before — swirling around in his mind before he went onstage.
So yeah, you betcha he took a pause.
“It’s crazy,” he said, “what life can throw at you sometimes.”
And then time clicked back to normal. Hats and tee shirts came all at once, inundating Logano with something tangible to grasp onto. The feeling is one thing, but there’s no bottling joy. There’s no stuffing elation and achievement into a bottle and saving it for later.
That’s what the memorabilia’s for — you embue a piece of that joy, maybe one memory or maybe the whole scope of them, into the trinkets and toys that come after.
Finally Logano got up on stage, embraced his wife, Brittany, and 10-month-old son, Hudson. He donned that silly hat, draped a shirt over his sweat-soaked red and yellow firesuit. He even sat Hudson inside the massive trophy that awaited him — the trophy he worked his whole life for, and now could do what he wanted with.
“I know what second felt like, and I know how much it stinks,” Logano said. “I didn’t know what winning felt like, but it feels really, really good.”
One last thing, and this was odd. Logano looked around onstage, craning his head every which way in search of different people. He wanted to embrace everyone, high-five everyone, give out all the fist bumps and back slaps and hugs that he could. But with so many people onstage, he ended up practically spinning in circles, constantly searching for his next celebratory partner.
And again, a pause. A smile broke out on his face, and the spinning stopped. He focused. He had found the only thing he needed, the only thing he’d ever needed.
The championship trophy, tall and shimmering and the perfect trinket to capture his joy.
And then, like he’d always pictured doing, he hoisted it.