TALLADEGA -- “Encumbered: Prevented from making quick progress by having to carry objects or deal with important duties and responsibilities.”
It was the most baffling definition of the 2017 NASCAR season. So vexing, NASCAR went and deleted it from its rule book.
“Encumbered” was the tag hung on Joey Logano’s last victory, like a label reading “Irregular” slapped on a badly sewn shirt.
After a victory at Richmond in the spring of 2017, Logano’s Ford was found to have an illegal rear suspension. He kept the trophy. He learned a new definition. He didn’t get points. Nor did the victory count toward eligibility for NASCAR’s playoffs.
No worries, he figured.
“Your initial reaction is, I am going to go out there next week and show them what’s up,” Logano said. “We came here, crashed. The next couple of weeks, we crashed, lost all our momentum, just got in a slump.”
Things kept crumbling. No more victories. No playoff.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, 364 days after the encumbered win, Logano ended the slump with a victory in the GEICO 500.
“It’s been so long,” he said. “It’s been too long. We’re not going to wait that long again.”
Logano led the final 41 laps, including the yellow-flag period that halted a race on lap 166, the closest thing to a “Big One” accident. It was reasonably tame otherwise, despite rule modifications that threatened to make the race either a wreck-fest or a snooze-fest.
Most of those 41 laps, Kevin Harvick was on his rear bumper, providing drafting assistance once Logano’s Penske teammates, led by Brad Keselowski, were kayoed in the wreck.
That’s the same Harvick who called famously Logano’s father “a Little League dad,” and the same Logano who said Harvick’s wife Delana “wears the firesuit in the family.” Hey, things get unencumbered and drivers can sing “Kumbaya” and get along.
“It shows that you’re able to move past things. You don’t hold grudges forever,” Logano said.
Blame momentum and bad luck for Logano’s 2017 slump. Team owner Roger Penske is even more pragmatic.
“I don’t think we had good enough cars for him last year at some point to help him execute, which didn’t help the situation,” Penske said.
Somehow, though, things didn’t come apart at the seams. Lesser travails have turned other teams dysfunctional. Not here.
“Obviously a lot of people ask that question a million times: What happened?” Logano said. “It’s still the same team. Not much has changed. It’s the same core group that’s made two amazing fights to almost a win a championship. We stuck together for that reason.”
It didn’t hurt that the driver kept things together, too.
“I think the quality young man that he is, obviously it gnaws on you when you’re not in the winner’s circle,” Penske said.
“But at the end of the day, he’s a superior young man.”
So, then came the clean slate with 2018, a year that began with Logano’s wife Brittany giving birth to a son, Hudson, on Jan. 4.
“He’ll probably be a good race car driver because he cries a lot,” Logano said. “He’ll fit right in here.”
The season opened with a fifth at Daytona, the first of eight top 10 finishes in nine starts.
And then on a glorious Sunday afternoon, just a year too late, Joey Logano came speeding unencumbered into Talladega and showed them what’s up.
Mark McCarter is a contributor to The Anniston Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.