After another long offseason, NASCAR is set to return to our lives with the 31st Annual Bud Shootout in less than two weeks! That means it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of our sport. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR this year; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November…
Today’s Season Preview Topic: Some observers have already anointed 18-year-old Joey Logano as the next great driver on the NASCAR circuit. But last season, he struggled mightily in a handful of Cup starts for Hall of Fame Racing. Is this kid capable of taking the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota back to the front… or is he the second coming of Casey Atwood?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
I have to admit, when it comes to Logano I’m just a little bit biased. You see, it’s not often my home state gets some love for anything other than casinos and ESPN, so underneath that whole objectivity thing there’s a whole fan club in my heart hoping the next best thing in NASCAR grew up just 25 minutes away from where I dreamed of racing as a kid.
But along with hope comes a whole lot of hellish worrying about too much, too soon for this teenage prodigy. Logano’s time with Hall of Fame Racing last season sticks out like a sore thumb; by all accounts, he whined during his tenure with the No. 96 car, refusing to make the best of second-rate equipment people of his talent level used to drive for a decade before they’d get their shot at the big time. It was a classic case of failing for the first time and having no idea quite how to handle it; of course, that’s a tragic mistake made all too often by kids pumped up to be larger than life before they even have a chance to make a life of their own. But no amount of psychological analysis erases the pitiful zero top-30 finishes Logano accomplished in just three 2008 starts at the Cup level.
So, what does all this mean for his future? The key to Logano is – get this – how well he’s managed by both Greg Zipadelli (crew chief) and JD Gibbs. They’ll be the role models, and they’ll be the ones dealing with all the rookie mistakes… like that whole Toyota Showdown disqualification over the weekend. If they allow their driver to run buckwild, they may end up with too many wrecks, too much ego and too little success to win Rookie of the Year. But if they’re willing to give Logano some serious reality checks at just the right time, well… rookie records were made to be broken, weren’t they? My heart says that’s what will happen, but my head… my head thinks Logano may just flat out break. We’ll have to see who wins.
Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)
If Logano had been given sufficient time to learn and grow in NASCAR’s lower series, maybe he’ll be successful. Even if he’s still given the patience and time to learn and grow in the Cup Series (like two years, at least), there’s a chance. But if people expect Logano to win tomorrow and put that kind of pressure on him – that’s a Atwood formula which just won’t work.
Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Very, very few drivers in any racing series possess the talent that Tony Stewart does; but Logano is no slouch in a racecar, and he’s got years ahead of him to develop into a championship-caliber driver. Given enough time and patience, Logano will easily win races at this level. But if anyone is foolish enough to expect that of him this year, they will likely be disappointed. Hopefully, Logano can learn driving from teammate Kyle Busch without adopting Busch’s attitude. If so, he can certainly make the Chase – and if he does, anything can happen. It’s just wrong to expect that going into the season. And as long as he doesn’t get screwed over by ownership the way Atwood was, he will develop into a fine driver for years to come.
Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
The ingredients are there for him to be the new Atwood; lots of pressure, limited experience, and high expectations. It’s unfortunate that Logano was thrust into such a high-profile ride so early; and while he was good in the Nationwide Series, he really fell off in his limited Cup starts. I think the answer lies in Zipadelli: does he have it in him to harness this young talent and make it grow?
Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor: (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Sure, he’s capable; but like any rookie, Logano must use his first year as a foundation for future success. No, he’s no Atwood (Joe Gibbs isn’t one to pull the trigger on a driver like Ray Evernham was) and he’ll find his way. But Zipadelli has a huge task ahead of him this season, and like Cami said above, the way he shepherds the young driver will go a long way in ensuring Logano’s rise through the ranks in the Cup Series.
Bryan Davis Keith, Assistant Editor: (Sundays/Nationwide Breakdown)
Logano is not destined to be the next Atwood, if simply for the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing has proven willing to stick with their young talents. Just look at JJ Yeley’s extended Nationwide Series campaigns, or the welcoming of Brad Coleman back into the fold after his disastrous 2008 campaign with Baker-Curb Motorsports. But, JGR has also tended towards rushing youngsters to Cup – and this is no exception. Logano, unlike Denny Hamlin, did not prove to be a quick-study in Cup cars, and no matter how good the No. 20 ride is, don’t expect to see it in the Chase this year… or victory lane, for that matter.
Mike Lovecchio, Assistant Editor: (Mondays/10 Points To Ponder)
Logano is good, but let’s face it – he was a PR creation. Will he ever contend for a championship? Maybe. But he’ll never live up to the expectations created for him before he even made his first start.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)
My short answer is “none of the above.” Unfortunately, Logano has been hyped to a level that Billy Mays would run blushing from the set of his latest infomercial and hide in a closet. (Order your Joey Logano 2009 Cup Championship poster now, and receive absolutely free a “Whatever you’re smoking, I’d like a few tokes” t-shirt and a 55-gallon drum of Oxy-Clean.) Most longtime fans aren’t buying into the hype, but unfortunately, at least one person seems convinced the hype is true… Logano. That’s fine; this sport has a way of humbling brash young men. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who totaled enough Cup cars in his first season it’s a wonder Rick Hendrick wasn’t reduced to selling apples on street corners to raise funds.
But Logano has talent, so eventually, he may be all right. Recall that when Stewart entered the Cup circuit, he really hadn’t done much in the Busch Series other than pissing Dale Earnhardt Jr. off enough to punch him right in the yap inside the NASCAR trailer.
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)
“…he struggled mightily in a handful of Cup starts for HoF Racing.” Well, no freaking kidding! Who wouldn’t struggle racing in HoF cars!? Their “alliance” with Joe Gibbs Racing was simply a means for HoF to stay afloat for the season AND to have a driver in the car – nothing more. You couldn’t have Tony’s replacement in the same equipment as Tony now, could you? For starters, Tony’s ego wouldn’t have allowed it… not to mention there was no Gibbs car available.
As for “the second coming of Atwood…” who thinks this stuff up!? Let’s see what the kid can do in top notch equipment before we start calling him names. Fair enough, Einstein?
Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
HoF Racing is no JGR and Logano is no Atwood. The kid is a thoroughbred – raised to race – and he’ll be highly successful at racing’s top level. After all, no one evaluates talent better than Joe Gibbs – on the field or on the track. I admit there will be a learning curve now that the youngster has reached the pinnacle of “big time racing.” But give Logano a year, and the new question will be whether he’ll win the 2010 Sprint Cup championship or not.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert: (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)
Logano definitely has talent, but to have already said he will be the next great driver on the NASCAR circuit is a little much. Even with a win in the Nationwide Series in 2008, he still has a long road ahead of him. Remember, quite a few people crowned Busch the champion before the Chase even started. Anything can happen each week on the track, and what the new driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be able to accomplish is still very much up in the air.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito)
Logano will most certainly get the job done in the No. 20. If you want a benchmark for him, let’s take David Ragan as an example. He had limited experience in the Truck Series, no Nationwide Series experience, and got installed in one of the most coveted rides in motorsports – the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford that was the flagship of Roush Racing since its inception in 1988.
Logano has some big shoes (and a wide seat) to fill in what was Stewart’s No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. That being said, nobody would ever confuse the performance and capability of a car that has become a modern legend in racing with that of a car that was little more than a field-filler the last couple of years. Logano may not win in his third start as he did in the Nationwide Series, but a win during 2009 in his Sprint Cup Series rookie year is not out of the question.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert: (Mondays/Rookie Report)
The second coming of Atwood is probably a little harsh, but I don’t expect the sequel to Gordon, either. The kid absolutely has potential – but, he was robbed of much-needed experience once Stewart abruptly departed. The No. 20 team will still remain one of the best in on the circuit, but know that the car alone can only do so much. In fact, that very scenario may even make Zipadelli’s job that much more challenging, as he will spend much of his time on Sunday afternoon preaching patience to a driver who will be behind the wheel of the best equipment he has ever raced. I think a victory might be a stretch, but a dozen or so solid top 10s is not out of the question for Logano.
Danny Peters, Senior Writer: (Tuesdays/Yellow Stripe)
The kid is for real. Having Joe and JD Gibbs to shepherd his progress will be invaluable, but the veteran savvy of Zipadelli might just be the most important factor of all in Logano’s development. I don’t think he’s going to race his way into the Chase as a rookie… but I don’t think he’ll disappoint, either.
Kurt Smith, Senior Writer: (Fridays/Happy Hour)
Not to worry about Logano… he will do just fine, and should easily win the Rookie of the Year honors before he has to even shave. He didn’t do well in the No. 96… but who did? And regarding his starts in the No. 02, Logano didn’t have many, and they were the first time he’s had to drive the winged snowplow – which has been an adjustment for everyone, except for lunatic racers who don’t care how often they get sideways. Once he has a few races to adjust… look out.
I expect Logano may have been instructed in his 2008 runs to get the feel of the car, don’t wreck trying to pass people, keep the car in one piece, and get as many laps in as possible. His runs in 2008 remind me of another phenom’s few runs before his rookie season: Busch. And Atwood drove for a team that would not take up for him the way Gibbs will.
S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist: (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)
Logano got pushed to the top way too fast. While he dominated the Camping World East Series two years ago, last year he struggled to understand how to make his machine better after moving up to play with the Big Boys. He needs a year or two in the Trucks to learn how to troubleshoot his ride.
Phil Allaway, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)
Part of the reason that Logano struggled in his Sprint Cup races last year was that he wasn’t in top-rate equipment. The No. 96 car was fairly weak, and the No. 02 he drove was about equal to the No. 84 CARQUEST Chevrolet that Busch drove part-time before he replaced Terry Labonte in the No. 5 four years ago. Busch struggled to run competitively in that car, even DNQ’ing for three races before bouncing back as a rookie.
However, Logano is definitely being rushed to the Sprint Cup Series because of Stewart’s departure. He really needs a full season in the Nationwide Series. So far, he has shown about equal competence in that division as Atwood did in the Castrol No. 27… which is good, but not great. I think he can go to the front, but Zipadelli, Hamlin and Busch have to lend a helping hand.
Doug Turnbull, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not)
Logano is certainly capable. The Cup races he drove last year – except for the one or two with Gibbs – were in inferior equipment. Logano has dominated almost every division he has been a part of, and had quick success in the Nationwide Series. He did show vulnerability through some Nationwide events and in all his Cup starts. But Gibbs would not have placed Logano in the No. 20 if he had not already proven that he could handle a Cup car, like he had in previous tests. Logano may struggle initially, but once he gains experience and forms chemistry with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, he will be a force to be reckoned with. Remember, both Gordon and Stewart tore up a lot of equipment in their early years.
John Potts, Website Contributor: (Fridays/Driven To The Past)
After watching the Irwindale race, I think he’s the second coming of Atwood. The kid is also the epitome of today’s articulate, press-conscious driver that NASCAR wants. He even came across as a professional in his interview after wrecking the leader at Irwindale.
Mike Ravesi, Website Contributor: (Mondays/Bubble Breakdown)
I believe JGR cut Logano’s HoF Racing schedule back because he struggled so badly, and they didn’t want to scare off potential sponsors. Yes, he won in the Busch (oops, Nationwide Series) in 2008… but it looks like a monkey could have put that car in Victory Lane. Logano may not be the second coming of Atwood, but he’s certainly no Messiah, either.