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Defending NASCAR champion’s inconsistency leaves him at risk of elimination

NASCAR: Cup Practice & Qualifying
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not like defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano has been bad by any stretch of the imagination this season but a race into the 2023 playoffs and the Team Penske No. 22 is at risk of immediate elimination.

The two-time champion entered the weekend at Kansas just three points above the elimination cutline. This is actually an improvement from where he entered the Round of 16, just one marker above the cutline.

And really, given everything that happened at Darlington in the Southern 500, gaining two points over potential elimination was a moral victory. They were running 11th at the end of the first stage when Bubba Wallace spun into them, bending a chassis component, and costing them a degree of speed.

That the No. 22 still finished 12th set them up to have a chance over the next two weeks at Kansas and Bristol.

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It doesn’t change the fact, however, that they just can’t seem to break through their penchant for scoring top-10s and translate them into more top-5. They’ve won just a single race thus far and that was at Atlanta in March.

Logano is maximizing the cars he is given but they just need more if they are going to have a chance to repeat in two months.

“We’re working really hard,” Logano said. “I can tell you that much. We’re looking at everything and trying to come up with speed somewhere. I’m proud of the effort everyone is making right now. Everyone is working well together to find that speed. Ford in general as well to progress our program. Sometimes you need this little dose of reality and it can push you forward.”

To that end, Logano gives himself a lot of reality pills anytime he is asked about their season to date.

“Mediocre at the moment,” Logano said.

Logano opened the season with a runner-up in the Daytona 500. He was 10th the next week at Fontana, 36th from the pole at Las Vegas, 11th at Phoenix, won Atlanta and was 28th at Austin.

You get the gist. It’s been this way all season, every good result immediately inviting the opposite.

“We’ve had some good moments, missing something in other moments, really rollercoaster like,” Logano said. “We don’t have a lot of consistency built into our season yet.”

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That’s why Logano is living on the cutline, where one more bout of adversity like what happened with Wallace at Darlington, could result in a premature end to their championship run.

Logano will start 11th but was 26th in practice. Has their points position changed their approach in any way?

“It doesn’t change much,” Logano said. “The plan would be the same either way. Maximize the day and score points in the stages and put ourselves further ahead of the cutline and make a little less work cut out for us at Bristol. If we have a solid day and score top5s throughout the stages and race, then we’re sitting pretty.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.