NASCAR driver Joey Logano

NASCAR driver Joey Logano said securing a spot in the Championship 4 means a weight is “lifted off your shoulders.”

The Hollywood Casino 400 marked the beginning of the semifinal Round of 8 for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

And with only two weeks remaining before a new champion is crowned, the once-blurry Cup Series playoff picture began to come into focus thanks to an unlikely winner at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 18.

Joey Logano followed a yellow brick road to victory in Kansas, outracing Kevin Harvick to the line and punching his ticket into the Championship 4 at the first Cup Series finale at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale. 

The other three drivers to qualify for the Championship 4 are Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

And it allowed Logano the luxury to hone in on Avondale with two races, including a rain-delayed Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, before the championship weekend.

“The weight lifted off your shoulders is only part of it,” Logano said following his third win of the season, and his first since winning in March on the track where the championship race will take place Sunday, Nov. 8, at Phoenix Raceway.

“I’ve lived this story once, where you’re not last minute trying to throw together a championship car for Phoenix, because you’re trying to build so many other ones,” Logano said. “It just gives the team time to really start focusing on a car that can put us in the position to win.

“If you only have so much time in the day, you got to prioritize. You’re going to prioritize to get yourself in the Championship 4 first. Now that we did that, we’re going to (give) 100% of our time to Phoenix.”

The Team Penske product put on a championship-caliber performance by holding off a hard-charging Harvick for 45 laps. From the beginning, Logano believed there were essentially two open slots available for the finale in Phoenix, given the dominance of Hamlin and Harvick during the regular season.

With three vacancies up for grabs, Harvick—the 2014 Cup Series Champion—was feeling comfortable with a 41-point lead but was edged out.

“I think everything has been pushed into the pile already,” Harvick said before a failed last-lap pass attempt Nov. 1 knocked him out of the championship. “All these cars are pretty much prepared throughout the next three weeks, with the travel to Phoenix, Texas and back to Martinsville. I feel good about that leading into next week. We ran well at Phoenix. I think we just have to see how the chips fall in the next three races and see where it all ends up.”

While Logano had not won a race since NASCAR’s return from COVID-19 until Kansas, there is good reason for competitors to fear the presence of his No. 22 team at Phoenix.

The Connecticut native owns a series-best 2.7 average finish at flat, 1-mile tracks using the same tires and low-downforce rules package that will be in play at Phoenix in 2020.

And he emerged with a victory in the desert at the FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway’s March race. But despite Logano’s history in Avondale and as a two-time Cup champion, his new crew chief Paul Wolfe isn’t ready to celebrate just yet.

“I definitely think it’s somewhat of an advantage to us,” Wolfe said. “I look at it as, we feel like Team Penske’s short track program is strong. The stats are good there for the short tracks for all our cars. ... There’s nothing about it that’s going to be easy, but we’ll take every little advantage we can. If giving us two extra weeks is it, we’re going to take it.”