By Dustin Albino

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Since the inception of the NASCAR Playoffs in 2014, never has the defending champion missed the Round of 12.

Until 2023.

After qualifying 28th for Saturday’s elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Joey Logano knew he was going to have to overcome a speed deficiency throughout the race He entered the 500-lap event with a 12-point buffer.

When a caution flew midway through the opening stage, Paul Wolfe was one of six crew chiefs to have their drivers stay out to gain track position. Until the next caution flew on lap 105 for percipitation, the No. 22 Ford remained a mainstay inside the top 10. On the next restart, however, he sunk through the field, rapidly.

Logano finished the opening stage in 24th. Wolfe gave the two-time champion a pep-talk, telling his driver that the team’s strategy didn’t work and they were back where they began.

When the second stage began, Logano’s troubles got worse. On lap 169, he was the first playoff car to drop off the lead lap. When the raced reached its halfway point, the No. 22 car had dropped to 31st.

The biggest blow to Logano’s chance at advancing into the Round of 12 came on lap 260 when Corey LaJoie got loose while battling with Erik Jones and turned into the inside wall. LaJoie ricocheted off the backstretch wall into the field and tagged the left-rear wheel of Logano. Ryan Newman, Justin Haley, Ty Dillon and Kevin Harvick were also involved.

“I saw the smoke,” Logano said of the wreck. “I saw [LaJoie] spinning. Coleman was saying, ‘He‘s coming up. He‘s coming up.‘ As I was on the brakes to try to pull onto the bottom.  I think it was Newman behind me, but I think someone hit him behind him and it was just kind of a chain reaction into it. Once I got hit I was like, ‘Shoot, I‘ve got to go up now‘ because I couldn‘t make the bottom, so I committed to that and the hole closed up.”

Logano drove his car to pit road and the team assessed the damage. Wolfe knew immediately that their race was over. Logano would finish 34th.

“I knew my situation and what I needed to do, but it‘s Bristol and there‘s not really many things you do differently depending on your scenario,” Logano said. “There‘s nothing I could have done there in that wreck. It‘s just a product of being back there and the way we raced or anything like that didn‘t affect that.”

With Logano ruled out, his attention shifted to see if any other playoff drivers would have issues throughout the race. Harvick finished five laps down in 29th and six other playoff drivers were 15th or worse in the final rundown. But Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace were both able to jump over Logano in the standings, and he missed the Round of 12 by four points.

This is the first time Logano has ever missed the second round of the postseason.

“It‘s a real bummer,” You get out of the race like that and you‘re behind the wall and you‘re in denial for a minute. You don‘t want to believe that it happened and you want to think that it‘s fixable, but the car was tore up too bad.”

Speed has lacked Logano — and Team Penske — throughout the summer months. His lone win came on a drafting track at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March, making a last-lap move around Brad Keselowski.

The 15.3 average finishing position for the No. 22 team is on pace to be the worst in Logano’s 11-year tenure at Team Penske (previous low was 15.2 in 2017 when he missed the playoffs entirely). Instead of scoring stage points, Wolfe has had to strategize the team to finish races well. Still, it’s been an adjustment for Logano.

“It takes something different out of a driver to drive a car in 15th and tonight we weren‘t even that,” Logano said. “It‘s a little uncharacteristic for us right now and we just have to go to work and keep our heads down and stay faithful in each other, keep trusting each other that we can figure it out. It‘s still the same team that won the championship last year.

“We‘re a little lost at the moment, but we‘ll keep fighting and try to figure some things out.”

Team Penske’s lone entry to advance out of the Round of 16 is Ryan Blaney.

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