DAYTONA BEACH — Joey Logano is always smiling.
Whether the 27-year-old Penske veteran is in the midst of his best season — he won six times in 2016 — or his worst — his only win last season didn’t count — good luck wiping that smile off Logano's face.
No matter how hard you try.
“Joey is one of those guys that I feel like you could kick in the (groin) and he’d walk away smiling,” said Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, later adding that he’d never actually tested that theory out.
“Well, when I don’t have a helmet on, yes,” responded Logano. “There are two Joeys. Joey with a helmet, and Joey without a helmet. I think every driver would tell you there is a big difference.”
Logano’s 2017 season can be summed up with one word: encumbered.
He won at Richmond in the spring to punch his playoff ticket, but was penalized two days later when NASCAR discovered an unapproved rear suspension in the car. The win was immediately encumbered, meaning it stayed in the record books, but didn’t count toward postseason eligibility.
While that term has since been discontinued by NASCAR, its ramifications were still felt by Logano and the No. 22 team all season as he missed the playoffs after making the Championship Four at Homestead two of the previous three years.
“Last year was more of a struggle than any of us expected, for sure,” said Logano, who posted 10 top-5s and 17 top-10s last season, both his lowest marks since 2012. “We will get through it, though. We are strong enough. You have to be mentally strong enough to stay confident in yourself and your race team to fight through it and know that you are a championship caliber team. We just have to fight through the rough patch. I guess you have to stay positive and enjoy the opportunity you have.
"Even in the toughest year, it is still an opportunity people would kill to have.”
While Logano remained positive during his down season, the same can’t be said for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, whose frustrations boiled over well into the offseason.
Johnson, the reigning champion, won three races in 2017, but was largely noncompetitive throughout the second half of the season and into the playoffs. During the end-of-season NASCAR awards ceremony in Las Vegas, the Hendrick Motorsports veteran was forced to relive what he’s called one of the most frustrating seasons of his career.
“Yeah, I left there pissed off,” said Johnson, who posted just four top-5s last year. “That sucked. I knew after we got eliminated from the Round of 8, I knew our championship hopes were closed. To relive the highlight reels, all of that, it's like, ‘Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back and be that guy.'
"That was a huge shot in the arm of adrenaline to get to work. I literally started wearing (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) out on the phone. ‘What do we need to do? Where do we need to start?’”
A good place to begin is with the car, and Chevy has certainly done their part to help Johnson with the brand new Camaro ZL1 — the first body change for the manufacturer since 2013.
While Johnson said that he wouldn’t be able to truly judge the new car until after next month’s West Coast swing, he admitted that the change, along with the new-look Hendrick stable that includes Alex Bowman and William Byron, has him more focused than ever on the 2018 season.
“It’s a big year for the company,” he added. “The '17 season was so hard on us the second half of the year, I literally came back from the banquet and it was time to dig in, work on any and all areas. There was much more work done this offseason due to the circumstances of where we finished. Then, obviously, a lot of change from rules, to the new Camaro, to the internal restructuring that's going on at Hendrick. You add that to the driver lineup, and this is the most change I've ever seen at Hendrick Motorsports in my 16 seasons competing there.”