With Monday’s announcement that Joey Logano will replace Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyotas fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, the biggest piece of the Silly Season puzzle was put into place. Although the announcement was an all but foregone conclusion after Stewart’s plans were confirmed a few weeks ago, it does give rise to some questions. After all, Logano is replacing a two-time NASCAR Cup champion, a driver many would argue is this generation’s AJ Foyt. Stewart is also one of the more popular and controversial figures to boot – not an easy driver to replace on many different levels.
Selecting Logano as his replacement was a natural, if not logical, choice; he stands to accomplish as much, if not more, in this car than Stewart has. At just 18 years of age and with limited experience, Logano is still head and shoulders above just about every driver that was still available to fill the seat, seasoned veterans included, which is why Gibbs signed him to a five-year agreement.
Without question, Logano’s ascension to the Sprint Cup ranks is the most eagerly anticipated arrival since Jeff Gordon joined in 1992 as the newest extension of the Hendrick Motorsports franchise. Like most aspiring Cup drivers of his generation, Logano has been driving a racecar since before he could do long division. In 2005, Mark Martin stated that if he had his choice of any driver to replace him (the first time he tried to back away from racing), it would be Logano – mind you, Logano was just 15 years old. Many chuckled, thinking Martin was making light of the fact that Logano was so promising at such a young age, and waited for him to join in the light-hearted laughter, but he was stone-faced serious. Martin went on to lament NASCAR’s age restrictions, all but implying that they were silly for someone of Logano’s talent. Despite Martin’s best efforts to get Logano in the Roush development program at the time, others within the organization at the time were not sold, so Roush passed on him.
Enter Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano was fast-tracked to the big time, running in the junior touring series of NASCAR along with Hooters Pro Cup events. He won this year’s ARCA race at Rockingham in dramatic fashion, using new tires to chase down and pass Ken Schrader for the lead with 10 laps to go – restarting fourth in the process, in just one lap. When he made the jump to the Nationwide Series just after his 18th birthday, it only took three races for him to win. With such success so early, it begs the question, just how much more polishing does this kid need anyway?
Personally, I believe quite a lot.
That is not a knock against Logano in any way. The simple fact remains that he is all of 18-years old. Remember back to when you were 18 years old? Obviously, you had the answers to all of life’s questions and could do no wrong. For a racecar driver, it’s a similar situation, and even then some. Imagine being that age and driving one of the iconic cars in the field, going up against the likes of Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth… and knowing you’re just as good, if not better than, them. That is a legitimate excuse for an ego trip – a prescription for a big head and the air of superiority that comes with it.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at his teammate Kyle Busch. So far this year he has set a modern-era NASCAR record by posting a total of 17 wins to date, with eight in Sprint Cup, six in Nationwide and three in the Craftsman Truck Series. He often has the cocky label hung on him, but to quote Kid Rock, “it ain’t braggin’ (sic) if you back it up.”
To be sure, there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance as a driver. It is not unlike a scene out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, walking across a rickety rope bridge as it’s falling apart, refusing to look down to see everything around you crumbling and plummeting into the abyss below. Self-confidence and a bit of ego are needed to compete and succeed at this level. But if left unchecked, the consequences can be devastating.
It sometimes comes off as clichéd with Gibbs operation, calling owner Joe Gibbs “coach” and naturally assuming that since he could handle players with divergent personalities, he could do the same with racecar drivers. The funny thing is, he can and has. One only need look to the driver that Logano is replacing in Stewart. In the midst of a championship run in 2002, Stewart came very close to losing both Home Depot as a sponsor, and JGR as an employer. A series of incidents – confrontations with NASCAR officials, slapping recorders out of reporters’ hands and just generally being a twit – had rubbed the sponsor and owner the wrong way. While Stewart clearly never became a media stooge with canned answers and phony antics, he was able to channel his innate aggression and natural crankiness in a positive manner, becoming one of the most endearing and entertaining personalities the sport has known.
That is not to say that, even early on in his career, Logano does not possess some of the same confidence that made Stewart such a success.
“Who said ‘show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser’? – I try to live by that,” said Logano during his introduction on Monday. While some may bristle at his age and lack of experience or maturity, Logano is as ready for the scrutiny as he is the competition level of things.
“I’m all about the pressure,” he said. “I’m cool with pressure. Moving up to this car now, it’s more pressure, but I can handle it. I think it’s cool. When Tony left and they brought my name up, it was really exciting for me, especially as an 18-year-old kid. It’s cool even to have your name brought up, but then for it all to happen and if we all work good then it’s going to be really exciting.”
While you would expect any driver worth his salt to say the same thing, it does not take long before comparisons to other drives of his caliber and age are drawn – particularly one named Casey Atwood. He was racing’s “next big thing” about 10 years ago. However after being pulled from Ray Evernham’s operation after the 2001 season, his career went into a tailspin from which he was unable to fully recover. Once the most promising young driver in the garage area, Atwood now appeared to be a carrier of the plague and leprosy. I don’t foresee such a tragedy taking place with Logano. From top to bottom, everyone in the sport who has worked with him to date has nothing but positive things to say about Logano, stating he is mature beyond his years.
JGR also has a proven history of taking drivers in the rough who need a little polishing and producing diamonds.
The honeymoon period of Logano’s career may already be coming to a close, and the expectations for him to perform and put up numbers will be lofty and in no short supply come the 2009 season. As quickly as he has been able to get up to speed in the Nationwide Series, and every other car has driven to date, the question may change from “Is Joey Logano Ready for NASCAR?” to “Is NASCAR ready for Joey Logano.” As much of a coup as it was obtaining Busch from HMS last year, JGR stands to outdo themselves with Logano in the No. 20 Home Depot Camry.