If it appears that the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota driven by rookie Joey Logano has become increasingly more visible in recent weeks, it is because he’s begun to emerge from the back of the pack and become more of a weekly contender. Perhaps no driver entered the country’s top stock car series with higher expectations heaped on him than the young Middletown, Connecticut native. However, at this point in the season Logano is not disappointing those that had faith in his much heralded, but unproven abilities entering 2009.
Chief among Logano’s supporters were his employers at Joe Gibbs Racing – JD Gibbs and his father, Joe. Neither wished to put their now 19-year-old driver in the “hot seat,” and had a nice little plan in place to develop the promising prospect and ease him into the Sprint Cup Series… in time. However, that schedule changed abruptly for Logano when in July of last year JGR’s veteran and two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart announced that he would be leaving the organization at year’s end.
Forced to decide between gambling that Logano would progress quickly and become a viable driver in the series or replacing Stewart with a tried and true veteran while Logano continued his apprenticeship, the Gibbs organization chose to gamble on the youngster, a decision that was not altogether popular and one that it is believed longtime sponsor of the No. 20, Home Depot, had more than a few qualms about. Gibbs nonetheless stood by the largely untested talent, and worked feverishly behind the scenes to calm any and all reservations that the lucrative sponsor expressed to them.
In the end, though, Home Depot trusted in Gibbs’s proven track record of recognizing talent and, though skeptical and concerned, jumped on board the Logano bandwagon. Remember, it is the keen eye of this former NFL head coach that allowed him to win three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks… Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien, despite none of the three yet considered talented enough for induction into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Yet Joe Gibbs’s eye for successful athletes extends past the gridiron, as he has proven to possess an equally uncanny ability to identify talent behind the wheel of a stock car as well. In 1992, in what was JGR’s first year of Sprint Cup competition, the new NASCAR owner tagged Dale Jarrett, then with only one win to his credit and having never finished better than 17th in the final Cup standings, to be his driver. By the second year, the combination of Gibbs and Jarrett had taken the sophomore team to a season-ending fourth-place ranking in points, as well as a win in that year’s Daytona 500. Jarrett left JGR in 1995 and went on to win a total of 32 times in his career, eventually becoming the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion in 1999.
Following Jarrett’s departure, Gibbs signed former Nationwide champion Bobby Labonte to drive for the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet team. Upon his arrival, Labonte had no wins and only one top-five finish in two seasons with Bill Davis Racing. Additionally, he had not finished better than 19th in driver points in his two years in Cup, a potential talent obscured by less than perfect results. However, Labonte would wind up staying with JGR for 11 years, winning 21 times and posting 111 top fives as well as 184 top 10s. Topping off Labonte’s tenure with JGR was the 2000 Cup championship.
It is that same penchant for finding those diamonds in the rough that led to the signing of open-wheel standout Stewart. Stewart was afforded 36 races in the Nationwide Series before being promoted, with no previous experience in Cup competition, to a full-time ride in 1999. Yet things worked out well for JGR and Stewart, it seems, with the partnership resulting in 33 wins and two championships.
Logano’s two stablemates at JGR, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, also stand as testaments to the sound judgment in appraising personnel that is Joe Gibbs’s trademark. Hamlin, plucked from virtual obscurity in the short tracks of Virginia, has been a fixture in the Chase for the Sprint Cup since his rookie season of 2006. He had just one season of Nationwide experience to draw from before being promoted to the Sprint Cup Series, but appears again this season to be headed for a berth in the 10-race, 12-driver season-ending championship run.
And if any driver in recent history equaled Logano in hype prior to ever strapping into the seat of a Sprint Cup racecar, it would probably be Busch. However, Busch’s entry into the series was not without its difficulties. After a respectable showing in 41 starts in the Nationwide Series for Hendrick Motorsports, Busch graduated to full-time Sprint Cup action in 2005. However, after three years and four wins, HMS opted to not re-sign the younger brother of 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch. It is widely believed that not only was Busch’s on-track performance not up to HMS standards, but that his fiery personality did not mesh well with the organization that featured two multiple Sprint Cup champions in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Busch, like Logano, had been anointed as a phenom as a teenager, and his entry into the Sprint Cup Series had been long anticipated. Considering his rocky years at HMS, it would have been easy for Gibbs to overlook it and write him off as another “flash in the pan.” But he didn’t, and Busch has rewarded that gesture with 11 Sprint Cup Series wins and another 15 Nationwide Series victories since February of last year.
So at this point, it’s safe to say getting the nod of approval from Joe Gibbs is almost money in the bank. Of course, not every single driver or football player he has ever selected (out of hundreds) to be part of his team has panned out. Nonetheless, his track record for picking winners is impressive, and Joey Logano seems poised to once again prove him right.
Despite all the predictions of greatness heaped on the young “hot shoe” dating back to his early adolescence, until Logano performed in Sprint Cup and performed well, there was bound to be uncertainty as to whether he could really compete with the best drivers in the country. And it would not have been the first time that a promising young driver, replete with an impressive history of wins and championships in lower divisions and disciplines of auto racing, flopped miserably at the Sprint Cup Series level (see: Casey Atwood as the most recent example).
But what has become clear in the last eight or 10 races is that Logano is not going to flop. After a shaky start to the season that began with finishes of 26th or worse in six of his first seven races, the improvement has been steady – and the race results are proof of it. In the next six races the rookie, nicknamed “Sliced Bread,” recorded three top-10 finishes and had no finish worse than 21st. Now, coming off his seventh-place run at Michigan last weekend, Logano has only finished out of the top 20 once (27th at Pocono) in his last eight races. Couched nicely within his latest streak, too, is a victory in the rain-shortened Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon, New Hampshire that immeasurably bolstered his confidence. The win established Logano as the youngest winner of a Sprint Cup Series event; ironically, it was a distinction previously held by teammate and fellow Gibbs selection Busch.
As his rookie season heads towards the homestretch, Logano continues to only improve behind the wheel. His performance at Michigan, where he qualified eighth and finished seventh while battling within the top 10 most of the day, is the latest evidence that all he needed earlier this year is time to adjust to both a new car and level of competition. Logano acknowledges that he has become increasingly more comfortable on the track, especially as he visits Sprint Cup race venues like Michigan for a second time. That means from here on out, it should become a common sight to see the orange No. 20 near the front and fighting for top five finishes and wins – a sight that fans grew accustomed to after years of Stewart piloting the orange No. 20 JGR entry.
So after a questionable start, the future is bright for this young rookie: Joey Logano has arrived! In hindsight, though, perhaps there never should have been any doubt… after all, Joe Gibbs selected him!
And that’s my view from turn 5.