MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. sat on a bench, scrolling through their phones , oblivious to their surroundings and the stakes.
Joey Logano was a room away, mingling in the back of a ballroom, grinning ear-to-ear and totally at ease.
“It’s the Big Three and me,” Logano shrugged. “I might be the underdog in the stats standpoint, but we sure don’t feel like we are.”
Logano is the outcast, statistically and socially, of Sunday’s championship field. He wasn’t picked to advance to the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale but he’s part of the championship party because he used his bumper to move Truex out of his way and win at Martinsville Speedway.
That victory put Logano in the finale, where the so-called Big Three were always supposed to be, and Logano is seemingly just along for the ride.
But he doesn’t view it that way and thinks this championship might be his to lose.
“You have to have that confidence,” Logano said. “I feel like our team is in a great spot. We’re ready to get to Sunday and see what happens.”
NASCAR shipped the four title contenders off to New York City this week for a full day of promotional activities, then brought them together Thursday for the opening of championship weekend. They had lunch together, filmed a segment on the beach for “The Today Show,” then previewed the title race in a posh South Beach hotel.
It hardly made for a tense or dramatic lead-in to what is expected to be the most competitive championship race since this playoff format was launched in 2014. Harvick won the 2014 title, Busch grabbed the crown in 2015 and Truex is the defending series champion. The trio combined to win 20 of 35 points races this season, while Logano has two victories but had the steadiest playoff run.
Asked Thursday if this is the most competitive four-driver finale since the format launched in 2014, it was Harvick who noted it actually isn’t much different than last season when The Big Three raced against Logano teammate Brad Keselowski.
“It’s the same four organizations from last year,” Harvick said.
“It just depends on if Joey is a better driver than Brad,” Truex added.
“They both run into you a lot,” Busch continued.
Logano smartly closed the subject: “It’s best if I keep my mouth shut on this one,” he said.
Indeed, the most interesting thing to emerge from NASCAR’s championship preview day was the confusion on how Logano and Truex plan to race each other Sunday. Truex had vowed not to let Logano win the championship after Logano moved him out of the way last month at Martinsville. Forced to spend the better part of two days together as a group, Logano and Truex at one point apparently discussed the situation.
Their interpretation of that conversation now differs as Truex claims he’d “absolutely” move Logano out of his way to win the championship.
“I have a free pass. He already told me I could. He told me he’s fair game. So here we go,” Truex said.
Logano recalled the talk differently.
“I didn’t tell him that. I said ‘Hey, I expect to get raced the way I race people,'” Logano said. “I’m a hard racer. I expect to get raced hard. I said it before, we didn’t crash each other. I didn’t crash him. Moved him up enough to have a drag race. That’s what I explained to him.”
No matter how it plays out, the four title contenders expect to control the race Sunday in a thrilling push to the winner-take-all Cup championship. Since the elimination format was introduced in 2014, the champion has won Homestead to win the title every year.
“I think there’s about a 99 percent chance that one of these guys is going to win (the race) to win the championship,” Truex said. “That’s what you come down here prepared for as a group, as a team, as a driver, and that’s your goal coming here to win, and then you can guarantee yourself a championship.”