Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: Joey Logano makes his long-anticipated debut in the Nationwide Series this weekend, just one week after he turned 18. Is he being brought up too fast, too soon, or is this kid being rewarded for his unprecedented success in the lower ranks – with the knowledge he can handle the pressure?
Too Many Expectations For Logano At This Stage In The Game
This weekend, the collective eyes of stock car racing will be on 18-year-old Logano, who will make his much-anticipated debut in the Nationwide Series during Saturday’s Heluva! Good 200 at Dover International Speedway. Logano has been thrust into the consciousness of race fans for the last three years, since Mark Martin proclaimed that the then 15-year-old would eventually set the world on fire in NASCAR. Since then, Logano has made good on Martin’s prediction, running and winning races in the Hooters Pro Cup Series and the Camping World East Series while honing his skills. Last year, he won the championship in Camping World East at just 17 years old.
But the emphasis on child wunderkind drivers – of which Logano proves the latest example – is nothing new in NASCAR. There have been multiple drivers in the last 10 years that have entered the top touring series with a whole lot of fanfare – and at a really young age. Examples of these drivers are Kyle Busch, Casey Atwood, Reed Sorenson, Jason Leffler, Kasey Kahne and so on. But only a couple of these drivers have turned into threats to win in the Cup Series; the others have either become mid-pack performers, or simply petered out of the series altogether. The pressure, the expectations, or both led to a permanent setback from which a few have never recovered.
Atwood is one of the more notable examples of a really young driver thrust into the spotlight too soon. In his case, you have a driver that was moved up to the Cup Series at far too early an age – with an unrealistic set of expectations tagged along with him. Atwood was initially on the fast track to stardom; he made his truck debut at Nashville in August, 1996 a week and a half after turning 16. 17 months later (in March, 1998), he won the pole and finished second in the Busch race at Nashville Speedway. By the end of that season, Atwood was running full-time in the series, attracting interest from NASCAR’s top teams; by age 20, he was a rookie in Cup, driving the No. 19 for Evernham Motorsports.
I’m honestly still trying to figure out why Evernham farmed Atwood out to the No. 7 (the Ultra-Evernham team) for 2002, especially when he was really improving at the end of 2001. Maybe it was Evernham’s idea, or Dodge’s, or the UAW. But whatever the reason for that move was, it’s true that Atwood didn’t live up to the goals set in place for him; ending the year 26th in points, he lost out on the Rookie of the Year Award to Kevin Harvick, and failed to impress the powers that be enough to keep his ride a second year. His demotion to Ultra caused Atwood to fall apart in 2002, and immaturity set in; accused of “mailing it in” for several races, disappointing performances ultimately led to his dismissal from the No. 7 right before the Homestead event that November. In the meantime, Atwood’s replacement in the No. 19, Jeremy Mayfield, essentially replicated the rookie’s performance from 2001 in the car, so it cannot be assumed that the move benefited EMS all that much. But regardless, the damage was done due to expectations set way too high, and Atwood never again got back in position to race full-time in Cup. Today, at 27, he’s without a ride in any of NASCAR’s top-three series.
In the modern stock car world, sponsors have a lot more influence on who drives than ever before. Logano may be talented, but he still needed the nod of approval from people willing to back him financially; luckily, he’s gotten that without a problem, at least for now. Logano has sponsorship for his Nationwide Series schedule from Farm Bureau Insurance, as well as GameStop, North America’s largest chain of video game stores. GameStop, in particular, likely would want a younger driver to help sell their products – and Logano is a perfect fit. But sponsor preference can sometimes become a detrimental thing. At some teams, sponsors have veto power over prospective drivers (this scenario led to Casey Mears getting the No. 41 seat in 2003 when Ganassi reportedly wanted the late Bobby Hamilton). At others, sponsors can force teams to fire drivers they don’t like. This is how Johnny Sauter lost his ride with Phoenix Racing in the Nationwide Series earlier this season. There are even package deals where a driver comes with a sponsor (Ex: Hut Stricklin leaving the No. 90 in late 2001 and going to Bill Davis Racing).
As corporate financial support becomes an integral part of how teams survive, the main fear I have under these circumstances is that young drivers who have the potential to be really good can have their careers prematurely and permanently curtailed because of sponsor and/or team expectations. When those goals include believing that the young ‘uns will win right out of the box – as many appear to believe with Logano – they fail to see the short-term growing pains these drivers often go through to become seasoned. This was not the case 20 years ago; but now, we have high-pressure, do-or-die scenarios that lead to the fate that befell Atwood. And today, he’s basically on the outside looking in on a ride.
Hopefully, Logano will not suffer this unfortunate fate; but all it could take is a few bad runs early for positive publicity to turn into a rather public nightmare. Based on everything we’ve been told, he should be able to handle the pressure; but history is littered with drivers that crippled under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Right now, Logano has a clean slate in the Nationwide Series – nothing more, nothing less – and we just don’t know yet whether potential will turn into reality. But the pundits are already looking for immediate success; and at 18, that’s just not a guarantee.
Yes, Joey Logano is talented; but it’s not out of the question Gibbs could be putting him in a bad spot far too early. – Phil Allaway
Logano Not Likely to Falter in Gibbs Ride
On Saturday, a new era in NASCAR history begins as Logano makes his much anticipated debut in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. With the kind of pressure and fanfare that Logano faces, he has a tall order to fill; but unlike some past up-and-comers, he’ll be exactly what he is prescribed to be.
Ever since beginning his racing career in go karts at the age of four in Middletown, Conn., Logano has been nothing less than a child prodigy. Immediate and continued success has lofted him through the various levels of racing; and now, he sits on the cusp of superstardom.
After rising through the smaller open-wheel cars – like go karts and quarter midgets – Logano started racing the summer series in Bandoleros and Legends cars, including winning 14 consecutive races at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Legends. He won the championship that year at age 12, the youngest driver ever to do so.
In 2005, at the tender age of 15, he signed a contract with JGR to become their youngest developmental driver in history. Logano’s next step was the USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series, where he won in just his second start. The youngster would go on to win two more races during 2006, setting the stage for him to explode on the regional scene. And by the end of 2007, he’d done just that, capturing the Camping World East Series championship, visiting the winner’s circle several times, winning the Toyota All-Star Showdown and announcing that he was making his Nationwide Series debut as soon as he turned 18.
If these stats are not enough to convince you that Logano is the “real deal,” then Martin’s opinion might. He has an eye for talent, and Logano raced against his son in the late 1990s. When Logano was just 15, Martin said that he thought the kid had at least as much talent as some people he regularly competes with. This praise comes from a well-respected driver who has nearly captured several Cup championships and won over 30 times in the series; that should mean something.
Having met Logano, I must say that he also seems to have the charisma and the level-headedness that being a star driver takes. He has a million-dollar smile, a humble attitude, and is surrounded by the right people. His dad closely manages his race career, and car owner Joe Gibbs is a championship-winning coach in both the NFL and NASCAR, a man who knows how to get the best out of his drivers. Sounds like a scenario for another used-to-be unknown named Jeff Gordon, huh?
Logano also is on the same team as Kyle Busch, who has been in a similar situation as a racing prodigy. After making six starts in the Craftsman Truck Series, Busch had to wait until he was 18 to race again in NASCAR, and drove for Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series as early as age 19. Though Busch has questionable personality traits, he can offer Logano the guidance of how a teen is to manage the demands of high-dollar sponsors, the fans, the media, and everyone else. Logano has said that Busch already is helping him… and now, that aid will only increase.
Of course, Logano is already feeling the pressure. Whooping the entire ARCA field at Rockingham a couple of weeks ago only added to the fanfare that he receives. With the Tony Stewart contract storm blowing on the horizon, many are already saying he is the heir apparent to the No. 20 car. Indeed, the only way that the Logano story will end poorly is if he is pushed into the Cup Series too fast, with expectations that are far beyond his reach.
If Logano does end up in the Cup Series, with only a handful of starts, driving for a disrupted No. 20 team with no Home Depot, it’s a worst case scenario – clearly, his story could end badly. But even then, with his talent, Logano should be able to overcome the adversity. Look at David Ragan; he stepped into Martin’s No. 6 car prematurely (after only a few truck starts), and almost drove himself out of the series after one year. Now, he is running consistently in the top 15 and contending for the Chase. Logano likely has more raw talent than Ragan, and could make even more out of a worse situation.
Joey Logano may not lap the entire field or even drive to victory on Saturday. Heck, he may even puke a motor and finish behind DJ Kennington and Brett Rowe. But regardless of Saturday’s result, Logano will be impressive, and will soon find himself in the upper crust of the sport. Give him time, and he will easily live up to the hype. – Doug Turnbull