Nick Bromberg · Tuesday September 28, 2010
Every year during the Chase, it seems that a non-Chaser is anointed as the sleeper pick for the following year based on his performance in the last ten races. After all, only seven of this year’s 12 playoff participants made it in 2009, some serious turnover that’s happened just about every year under this format.
So who’s the best candidate to play waste-to-Chase next year? After his third-place finish at Dover on Sunday, there’s a very good chance that driver could be Joey Logano.
It wasn’t even his best performance on paper this season – the sophomore was second at Martinsville in March – but this race might have capped the best professional weekend of Logano’s career. He finished second to teammate Kyle Busch in Saturday’s Nationwide race, then spent most of Sunday in the top 10. (While Logano’s Sprint Cup win at New Hampshire last year is his biggest moment, let’s face it: that was all crew chief Greg Zipadelli. Strategy wins count just the same as any other, but there’s a difference between that and a butt-kicking.) Speaking of butt-kicking, let’s not forget the Monster Mile marked the year anniversary of his ugliest crash in stock car racing, a devastating, end-over-end flip there that literally scared the bejesus out of him inside the cockpit. To recover from that adversity, come out and score a top 5 at the same track where those memories remain fresh in his mind … that’s impressive.
Dover was the second top 5 for Logano in the last three races. He finished fourth at Richmond, but crashed out at New Hampshire while running solidly on the lead lap. That’s been the story of their season – inconsistency – a problem that consistently derailed any effort to make the top 12. Even Logano admitted after this race that it’s definitely a roller coaster of which he wants to get off.
“We’re close,” Logano said. “We just need to find some consistency, man. We wrecked last week. We’re third this week. We were fourth in Richmond. We really need to figure out how we can be up here every week, then we can challenge for wins.”
That hasn’t been a problem in the Nationwide Series, where Logano has been a threat every time he’s gotten behind the wheel. But it’s been a different story in the Cup Series. That’s to be expected. The kid’s still only 20, and he’s almost five years younger than David Ragan, the second-youngest full-timer competing there. Still, a nickname like “Sliced Bread” and a label as the next big superstar is bound to create expectations, no matter how inaccurate they are.
At least Joe Gibbs Racing’s success has allowed Logano time to develop. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin’s wins and outspokenness mean that while the spotlight is on the JGR shop, it’s not pointing at the No. 20 team.
However, it soon could be. Logano has recorded 11 top-10 finishes in 28 races this year, four more than he had in all of 2009. The success of the No. 20 team, Hamlin said, is important to the No. 11, especially as he leads the points standings.
“We need all of our cars running competitively for that information exchange to work right,” Hamlin said. “So the better that No. 20 runs — and hopefully if he keeps that momentum up, keeps running good — then he’s going to be a guy that’s hopefully in between us Chasers when I need him for a point or two. I think that’s going to be important.”
The consistency Logano pointed out is important, too. Even with the eleven top-10 finishes, Logano has only finished on the lead lap 16 times in 2010.
But it’d be a different story if Logano had that consistency while hovering around 25th place every week. Instead, the top 5s and top 10s are flashes of what people are expecting from him five years down the road, and the second they come in bunches he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. All the other intangibles are there.
So if those top 5s start to accumulate throughout the final eight races of 2010, the Chase could suddenly become a realistic expectation for this program next year.
And you know what? It wouldn’t seem that farfetched.
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