Opinion: With elimination race on deck, NASCAR champ Joey Logano could have his hands full

Of all the things Joey Logano expected could happen in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, not taking the green flag at Dover International Speedway wasn’t one of them.

But two weeks ago, Logano sat in the garage as the green flag dropped thanks to a rear gear and axle issue as laps ticked away — 24 of them — and Logano watched a 24-point cushion in the standings evaporate.

Logano rallied Monday at Talladega Superspeedway as he took a damaged car to an 11th-place finish. With other playoff participants having trouble, he currently holds the last advancing position heading into the second-round elimination race Sunday at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET), where 10 drivers remain mathematically eligible for six remaining spots in the Round of 8.

The defending Cup champion controls his own destiny thanks to his 18-point cushion on Alex Bowman, who sits just below the cutoff line. But a win by a driver currently on the outside would earn that driver an automatic berth and potentially put Logano in a precarious position.

Reigning series champion Joey Logano is clinging to the final spot to advance to the Round of 8 heading into Sunday's elimination race at Kansas Speedway. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)

That might not seem as far-fetched as it sounds. Bowman finished second at Kansas in May and Chase Elliott, currently 22 points below the cutline, won this race a year ago. Clint Bowyer (24 points behind) and William Byron (27) also face virtual must-win situations. Kyle Larson, with his win at Dover, and Ryan Blaney, victorious at Talladega, are the lone drivers to have clinched berths in the third round.

Logano knows something about making daring moves for the win at Kansas. In 2015, he responded to being run to the wall by Matt Kenseth by turning Kenseth with five laps remaining on the way to the playoff victory. That move, which contributed to Kenseth failing to advance in the playoffs while Logano earned another race-winning trophy for his shelf, helped prod Kenseth to wreck Logano two weeks later at Martinsville Speedway.

Fast forward three years again to Martinsville, and Logano banged sheet metal with Martin Truex Jr. en route to the win, a victory that earned him a championship berth and allowed him three weeks to focus on the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Logano won the race to capture his title.

It can be argued that Logano has set the standard of what’s permissible when it comes to playoff racing — just how far drivers are willing to push the limits to win races and advance.

“When the playoffs come around, you’ve got to find another gear in yourself, in your aggression,” he said. “You have to go out there and say, ‘What do I have to do for my race team to win?’ They do their job, I need to do my job, and I need to make sure that I get every bit out of it no matter what.”

Logano makes no apologies for the way he has raced his competitors in the playoffs. His nine playoff wins since NASCAR implemented the elimination format in 2014 rank as the most of any driver.

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Even though dozens of laps down at Dover, he raised the ire of Denny Hamlin by holding him up running his lane, causing Hamlin to lose the lead in Stage 2. Logano felt he couldn’t give up another lap near the end of a stage and could potentially catch one of the slower cars. He never did.

“When the playoffs come around, there’s just less give-and-take on the race track,” Logano said. “I’m not just talking about me. It’s dog eat dog out there.”

But when Logano talks about the proper etiquette of give-and-take, he might have a different view than others.

“Now we’re going to race him extra hard for what? The reason is because he didn’t want to go 26 laps down,” Hamlin said. “Anybody would tell you that’s just not a good choice. No one is going out there maliciously trying to screw over Joey.

“I’m just saying that through these playoffs, you’ve got not to have enemies. You’ve got to have give-and-take. It’s those deposits and withdrawls.”

Logano, who had to battle a perception early in his career of being intimidated, has overcome that image and believes a team will have to win under pressure at Homestead to win the title — so any preparation for that can help.

“I’d rather not be in that fight,” Logano said prior to Talladega. “But the facts are that we are and we need to overcome it. When your back is against the wall and you succeed, it’s a way better feeling. It’s a confidence builder. It can be a momentum builder that can propel you into maybe finishing higher in points than you expect."

Bob Pockrass is a FOX Sports NASCAR reporter. Follow him @bobpockrass.

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