Once upon a time, Joey Logano seemed easy money to make the NASCAR Cup playoffs.
Look at the steady and smooth progression. He finished eighth in 2013 and has since wound up fourth, sixth and second. But the 27-year-old is 13th in points this season and on a slippery slope.
He is "kinda" winless with five races to go — Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond — before the 16-driver cut to determine the playoff participants. Logano did win at Richmond International Raceway in April, which looked like a nice setup in a bid for his first championship.
But not quite. NASCAR determined that Logano's victory was "encumbered" and will not count toward qualifying him for a playoff spot. Logano's No. 22 team was popped for a rear-suspension violation discovered during teardown at the R&D Center in Concord, N.C.
With five other drivers in the mix who are behind on points but have a win that would squeeze Logano out of a playoff spot based on the qualification format, you can see why Logano is in such a proverbial pickle.
And then there are non-race winners who are ahead of Logano based on points. Those would be veterans Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer.
Simply put, Logano is a daunting 69 points outside of the playoffs, so he needs a victory to merit a postseason position and also to hope there are no more than two other new winners.
"They are working themselves into a must-win situation," NBC racing analyst Jeff Burton said after Logano's team struggled again in Pocono. "With the number of races left, they are really putting themselves in a bad situation. They are going to have to win a race to make the playoffs."
There were more self-inflicted bumps and bruises at Pocono last weekend when he finished 27th but could have finished much higher. He was in the mix for a top-10 finish with 35 laps left when he committed a pit-road speeding penalty.
It then got worse. The team violated a rule that bars pit work while serving penalties when crew chief Todd Gordon made the call to change tires on Logano's car.
That's not all on Logano. For a detail-oriented owner such as Roger Penske, Gordon's technical hiccups should be unacceptable.
"We've got five race tracks we've been very successful at," Gordon said. "We just have to continue to do what we've done."
Logano obviously hasn't been bad. He has eight top-5 finishes. But that simply isn't good enough. And he knows it.
"This isn't what you expect when you start the season," Logano said last month in New Hampshire. "You go out there expecting to win the championship, and the playoffs you just assume you would be there. I still assume we are going to be there. We just have to work hard to get there."
And not make mistakes that are inexcusable for a veteran driver and team.
Kenseth looks ahead
So what now, Matt Kenseth?
Kenseth, as you probably know, is out of a ride in 2018 after he completes the season at Joe Gibbs Racing. Reason to worry? Nah.
"I am not concerned at all about 2018 at the moment," Kenseth said during NBCSN's pre-race coverage at Pocono. "I'm really concerned about 2017 — winning races, being successful and trying to race for a championship.
"I am in a great place mentally. Things will line up and things will go how they are meant to go. Whatever that is, I really do not know 100%. But I know it is all going to work out."
With Hendrick Motorsports filling the No. 88 ride with Alex Bowman, Kenseth is running out of options to hitch a ride with a veteran team. So maybe there really is a reason to worry.
The good news is that Kenseth, with 594 points, is provisionally in the playoffs.
Blink and you might have missed it, but Danica Patrick is on fire! OK, maybe just slightly "En Fuego," having finished no lower than in the top 15 in her last four races.
For a driver whose NASCAR future is in doubt beyond this season, that's a nice uptick.
"You cannot go from running 20th to winning races," Burton said. "You have to crawl and work your way up. Her crew chief was very complimentary about everything she has been doing this year to be a better race car driver."
Despite the incremental progress, Patrick is 28th in the Monster Energy Cup standings.