It could be Joey Logano, not Kyle Busch, wearing the proverbial black hat for the remainder of the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs.
Long before I discovered NASCAR, I was a pro wrestling fan. For better or worse, that’s resulted in a tendency to view many things through a wrestling lens, especially when it comes to the perception of certain athletes. In wrestling parlance, a face is a performer that fans are expected to cheer, a “good guy,” while a heel is someone they would rather boo — and we might just have witnessed Joey Logano go from the former to the latter Sunday at Martinsville.
A heel turn is when a wrestler does something despicable or turns his back on following the rules, and it’s most effective when people aren’t expecting it. Those criteria fit Logano, who entered the Round of 8 of the NASCAR Playoffs as an underdog, someone who wasn’t expected to be able to cope with the power of the Big 3. He was the only Team Penske driver still in the hunt, the only Ford driver who wasn’t with Stewart-Haas Racing and had won only one regular season race. Logano isn’t everyone’s favorite, but for fans tired of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. winning so often, he should have been the kind of driver people rallied behind.
The boos cascading from the stands at Martinsville Speedway suggest that Logano is suddenly the villain in a lot of peoples’ eyes. His move to win the First Data 500, when he knocked Truex out of the way on the final lap, could be considered just hard racing and doing whatever it takes to win when the stakes are high. That’s how Logano explained it in his post-race interview.
Here’s the thing, though: Great wrestling heels come in several varieties, and one of those is the kind of bad guy who always has a justification for what they’ve done. They give off an air of innocence while actually committing obviously underhanded deeds, and fans boo them because they don’t take them at their word.
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A lot of the people on hand at Martinsville didn’t seem to accept Logano’s take that he simply gave right back to Truex what he was getting. Truex absolutely did not, defiantly claiming that Logano would not “win the damn war.” The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion has his share of supporters, but he never felt like the most popular driver as he’s a pretty focused driver’s driver type. It was hard to imagine him rallying a ton of neutral fans to his side as he attempts to repeat.
But Truex now has some underdog qualities of his own. His team, Furniture Row Racing, is shutting down at the end of the season. He’s now been done dirty by Logano, at least in many eyes. The face-heel dynamic has worked so well in wrestling for years because the payoff when the face gets his revenge on the heel is like nothing else when it’s done correctly.
It’s hard to imagine that many fans won’t be hoping that happens at Homestead now. Truex isn’t guaranteed to make the Championship 4, but thanks to his regular season success, he’s got a good chance. Two other drivers (likely Kyle Busch and Harvick, but who knows the way these playoffs are going?) will be in the mix too, so it’s not like it will be mano e mano between Truex and Logano for the title.
Still, there appears to be little doubt that most fans will be cheering Truex and booing Logano in Miami, and that might not have been the case before Martinsville. That’s the power of a good heel turn in a nutshell.