Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday September 7, 2012
On Tuesday of this week, NASCAR’s Silly Season came to a head with Matt Kenseth’s long-awaited announcement that he would move to the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing. Just a few hours later, the current driver running that Toyota, Joey Logano, announced his move to Penske Racing and the No. 22. On the surface, Kenseth’s and Logano’s choices look similar, basically lateral moves from one high-profile ride to another.
But look underneath, and they couldn’t be more different.
For Kenseth, the move is an opportunity to race for another elite team, but this time with sponsorship more fitting of a Cup Series champion. The last couple of years haven’t been stable ones for Kenseth in the sponsorship department. Whether you attribute that to age (he just turned 40), personality (many folks categorize Kenseth as “vanilla”), or to Roush Fenway Racing either demanding amounts that scare sponsors off or funneling the sponsors elsewhere within the organization, the money has been a constant buzz in the background. Now, Kenseth moves to a car with either Home Depot or Dollar General on the hood all year. For this former Cup champ, the challenge will be to return the team to the level it was at with Tony Stewart behind the wheel for a pair of titles. And that doesn’t have to happen overnight; JGR no doubt understands that rebuilding is a process, choosing Kenseth and his experience for that very reason alone.
For Logano, though, 2013 doesn’t afford him that luxury. It’s a season that, for all intents and purposes could be do or die.
Logano has a lot going for him. He’s obviously not a bad driver; his Nationwide record this year is stellar, leading 190 circuits while completing 97% of laps through 25 races. If consistency is one key to improvement, then that number is an important one, and Logano has completed more laps in Cup races than Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart. The problem is that Logano hasn’t led very many of them. He’s in position to finish well each week, but not to win.
What a surprise for a driver who came into the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread,” as in the best thing since. Perhaps the title put too high of an expectation on Logano, who won five of 13 races en route to the 2007 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title at the age of 17. The following year, Logano had to wait until May to make his Nationwide Series debut because he didn’t turn 18 — the minimum age — until May. Nine months later, Logano was a full-time Cup competitor. That’s not much time for a driver to develop for the sport’s top series, no matter how much talent he or she may have and sometimes, that means it takes longer. A little perspective here: Logano was in his fourth full season in the Cup Series before he was old enough to participate in the pole draw for the Budweiser Shootout. He didn’t have even a single full season of the Nationwide Series under his narrow belt before being thrust into the Cup hunt.
That kind of fast track driver development can be a recipe for disaster. Does anyone remember Casey Atwood?
For Logano, then, there is considerable pressure. That he landed with the Penske organization could be good; owner Roger Penske rushed IndyCar star Sam Hornish, Jr. into a Cup machine and later realized he hadn’t given Hornish time to develop, hurting the former IndyCar champ’s effort considerably. Consequently, Penske moved Hornish back to a part-time Nationwide schedule last year, a decision that worked wonders. Suddenly, a driver who took his first NASCAR win at Phoenix last fall is currently third in series points, in serious title contention while filling the seat of the No. 22 Cup car on an interim basis. What a difference those two years have made. Hornish has gone from a driver whose inexperience led to some big incidents to one who is confident and able to drive at the top without driving over his head.
If Penske will be equally patient with Logano, the young driver could develop into a weekly threat in a couple of years. However, whether sponsor Shell-Pennzoil will maintain the same philosophy is a bit of a concern. The company has endured two years of controversy and subpar performance, first from Kurt Busch and then from AJ Allmendinger. Hornish has brought stability in that he doesn’t curse like a sailor at his crew or the media, nor does he fail his drug tests, but he hasn’t turned the team into a weekly threat to win, either. Whether the sponsor will allow Logano the luxury of a building year is questionable.
Plus, fair or not, how long will it be until Logano is considered damaged goods? He hasn’t performed in a Cup car the way he did in the East Series or Nationwide. Perhaps the slightly heavier, more powerful cars are still too much for him; some drivers do take to one and struggle in the other. It’s also a possibility that Logano was overlooked at JGR. Not that he was an R&D driver, but there were times when he was expected to help his teammates on the plate tracks to his own detriment. Perhaps Logano, who is still young and who is quite respectful, wasn’t comfortable speaking up as he should have about what was needed. His JGR teammates are both large personalities, meaning one can see how Logano would have to be quite vocal to be heard over them. But whatever the reason, Logano hasn’t taken the Cup world by storm… and after enough storm warnings without any thunder, we tend to stop believing the forecast.
Another threat to Logano’s long-term security comes from Hornish. Penske has promised Hornish a ride with Penske in 2013, and that will likely be in the Nationwide Series unless a sponsor is found in the eleventh hour for a third Cup team. If Hornish contends for or wins that title, he’s likely to run out of patience waiting, and if Logano underperforms while Hornish shines, the Ohio native, one of Penske’s longest-term employees is going to look awfully attractive to both the owner and to sponsors. And if he doesn’t, there are plenty of other drivers who would like a crack at the No. 22.
Brad Keselowski should prove an excellent teammate for Logano; Keselowski is genuinely invested in the success of Penske Racing as a whole and wants someone he can work with. Kesleowski is a smart, thinking driver, and could prove an excellent mentor. On the other hand, that’s another in-house employee who isn’t going to wait for Logano to catch up. The No. 2 driver and team are going to work to maintain title contention… and if that happens, while the No. 22 lags behind they will be out of the spotlight. That might be good for Logano, but not for the sponsor.
So, for Joey Logano, the move to Penske Racing is a make-or-break. One side says it could be exactly what the 22-year-old needs. If Roger Penske is as patient with Logano has he has been with Hornish, and if Logano is as open as Hornish to the possibility of stepping back in the future to build his career forward, he could flourish. With an understanding sponsor and the guidance of a great mentor, whether that’s Keselowski, Roger Penske, or even Hornish, who has been in Logano’s shoes, Logano could flourish into a talent like Kyle Busch with a genuine smile.
However, it could prove to be a make or break year. If something doesn’t click, Shell-Pennzoil may well get restless after a third fruitless season. And if Logano doesn’t show the brilliance that he has shown the potential for, there may not be another chance after Penske. He could be another Kyle Busch, but he could also be another Casey Atwood… and 2013 is the year we find out which one it will be.
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