NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Joey Logano Bit Off More Than He Could Chew – And Now He’s Chewing It

Possibly the worst thing that can happen to a young athlete is high expectations. More often than not, the “can’t-miss” prospect at the top level of any sport ends up missing.

Most Philadelphia area sports fans remember back in the late 1990s when up-and-coming “can’t-miss” prospect JD Drew refused to sign with the Phillies for anything less than $11 million before ever seeing a major-league pitch. Fans, reporters and the Phillies were rightly appalled. Yet the Phillies did everything they could to work out a deal to get Drew on the team, believing he was the next Ken Griffey Jr., before he finally signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.

If you aren’t from the Philadelphia area, you would probably have had to look back at the beginning of the last paragraph to see what that prospect’s name was again. Drew is still playing in the major leagues, but a future Hall of Famer or even a superstar, he is not. He is a good player, nothing more.

No matter how good athletes are in a sport’s lesser series, you never know how they will perform against the best of the best.

Joey Logano was surrounded by more than considerable hype before making the jump to NASCAR. And no doubt Jeff Gordon was smiling at the thought of yet another coming rookie being pronounced the next Jeff Gordon. Gordon had to be thinking, wait until he’s out there racing against the guys I race against.

When I was 18, I was living at home practicing my air guitar. Imagine what you were doing when you were 18. At an age when most of us spend hours convincing our friends that our favorite rock band is the greatest ever, Logano was being cast as someone who may become one of the greatest racecar drivers of all time, and was already popularly known as “Sliced Bread” before he even stepped into a Nationwide car. Logano became probably the youngest Cup driver to star in his own commercial, with Home Depot piling in on the buildup. Much of this was courtesy of Mark Martin, who risked some credibility with his outspoken confidence in the young lad. I’m willing to bet that that is far greater pressure than wondering what college is going to be like.

Joey stepped up to the plate in the Nationwide Series, winning in just his third start in Kentucky. He did win it in the No. 20 car, a car that Clint Bowyer once said could be driven by a monkey to victory lane. But even with the best car in the field, you can’t do any better than win. It seemed like the hype was justified, and then came his Cup starts.

Logano was rushed to Cup before he was ready, without question. He was also caught in a perfect storm of circumstances that are usually devastating for a rookie. He started two races in a No. 96 car that was usually lucky to score a top 25. He was replacing a two-time champion with legendary numbers, as if there wasn’t already enough pressure without having shoes to fill of that stature. And then NASCAR ruled that there would be no testing in 2009.

Eight races and just one top-20 finish later, Home Depot had to be wondering if they would ever have anything for the Lowe’s car again. As the other Gibbs cars challenged for wins, Logano consistently was found in the rear of the field, often getting lapped early. The world of NASCAR began to wonder if maybe he wasn’t that good after all, or if maybe he had just benefited from great equipment since childhood, an argument seemingly bolstered by the quality of his Nationwide cars. The name Casey Atwood was temporarily rejuvenated, as predictions sprouted of another once-promising career cut short by unmet expectations and an impatient owner.

Since then Logano has three ninth-place finishes in four races, one of them at Darlington, the most difficult track on the circuit. The Gibbs cars were all strong at Charlotte, and Logano may have even fared better than ninth had the rain cleared. He isn’t a star yet, but he’s getting there fast.

It turns out all the kid needed was tutors. Denny Hamlin taught him bump-drafting at Talladega, making the conditions so true to life for him that NASCAR got upset with Hamlin for aggressive driving in practice. Then Cale Yarborough took him under his considerably prestigious wing at Darlington, after which Logano handled his first trip to the Lady in Black like a seasoned veteran.

Just 15 races into his Cup career, driving a car that is very different from anything else he’s raced in his life and with no testing to get the feel of it, Logano has started to rack up consistent top-10 finishes. If Sliced Bread learns this quickly, Martin could end up being completely right in his “100%” assessment. If the veterans aren’t looking over their shoulders at the new big orange, they will be soon. Even with all of the poor finishes, and after almost falling out of the Top 35, Logano is now 25th in the standings, only 80 points away from 19th… you guessed it, that’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Logano isn’t likely to make the Chase in his rookie year. Almost halfway through the regular season, Logano is 283 points and 13 positions out of 12th. But if he climbs into the top 15 by the end of the year, it would be a phenomenal turnaround given the results early in this season – a midseason turnaround rarely seen with drivers no matter how many years they’ve been in the game. Forget the hype. If anything, he would deserve kudos for overcoming his early woes and the idea that it wasn’t anything BUT hype. There are other drivers that performed better in their rookie year, but Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne didn’t have to switch to a totally different car from a lesser series with no testing. If Logano consistently ran in the 20s this year, it would be understandable.

And it’s hard to dislike Joey’s demeanor. A perpetual smile on his face, confident and not cocky. His mother taught him very well. If he keeps improving, he’ll have a lot of fans in a hurry.

As the great Philadelphian Pat Croce has said, persistence is biting off more than you can chew and then chewing it. (He would know.) Joey Logano has had his baptism of fire, and he’s already emerging unscathed and unfazed.

It’s going to be fun watching Sliced Bread slice through the fields.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Count me finally on the bandwagon: the No. 88 team needed a change. Their run at Lowe’s was so bad that something had to be done. I expect it could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy; people had been questioning Eury’s competence for so long that he may have started to question it himself. And you can’t be the crew chief for the sport’s biggest star if you’re second-guessing.
  • NASCAR may be sincere in trying to improve things with their “town hall” meeting, but it smacks of a company that achieves greatness and then forgets how. Why not just think like a customer and ask yourself what the customer wants? That is a sure-fire successful business model almost every time. I know it’s hard to deal with angry fans, but as they say, the customer is always right. Just my opinion, but I doubt much is going to be gained by NASCAR meeting with people they already see every week.
  • I got some grief about my Top 10 Other Things To Do In Delaware list a few days ago, as seen in the comments. That bothered me some, because I was just being goofy, but I also received an email from a woman named Katie Grasso at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. Katie was so nice to me in her message, even inviting me to their hospitality tent, that I felt guilty poking fun at the perceived dearth of tourist attractions in the First State. So to pass along the amazing graciousness to all of you proud Delaware folk out there, no offense was intended. Delaware does have great beaches and Dover is one of my favorite tracks. And I’m well aware my own state of New Jersey is a far easier target for ridicule, the delicious corn and tomatoes notwithstanding. If my corn salsa wasn’t so good, I’d probably have moved to Delaware by now.

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