Heading into this weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the focus is primarily on the battle for the 2010 championship title, and rightfully so. However, one driver looking to continue his impressive late-season surge and steal a bit of the spotlight is sophomore sensation Joey Logano.
Over the past 10 races, the 20-year-old has earned five top-five and seven top-10 finishes, leading 40 laps in the process. Even more impressive, the kid nicknamed “Sliced Bread” has run seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and third in the last five events.
The solid performances as of late have not only boosted his confidence, it has also virtually guaranteed a career-best result in the point standings. 22nd once this streak began, he’s now a serious contender for a top-15 finish at the end of the season.
“The last races have been such a momentum builder for this team,” Logano explained. “I said it when I got out of the car at Phoenix, to finish seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and third over the past five races is amazing. We really want to finish 15th in points and to be honest, not too long ago it didn’t really look like we’d be able to do it. Now, we are just 17 points behind [Ryan] Newman in that 15th position.”
Not only that, but Logano is also only 86 marks behind Jamie McMurray in 14th and 110 out of 13th, held by Mark Martin. While finishing 13th in the standings is a long shot for Logano, if his current trend continues, the young driver could easily be sitting 14th or 15th, completing a shocking surge after the checkered flag falls Sunday in Homestead.
One of the biggest things that have helped this team turn the corner in their second year is going to racetracks with a series of notes in their reserve, paired along with improved communication. In their first year together, Logano and veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli were learning to work with each other and developing feedback throughout the race weekend. This year, they have capitalized on their ever-growing relationship to get better.
While the two are more different than they are alike, the combination has started producing the results many expected would show immediately. Leading Tony Stewart to two Sprint Cup championships, Zipadelli’s role at Joe Gibbs Racing shifted with the addition of Logano. Not only would the veteran have to make the right calls at the shop and at the racetrack, he would also have to help his young driver with the transition to big-time stock car racing.
Now, it looks like he’s ready to help his driver take the next step. Ending the year on a positive note, Logano and Zipadelli are positioning themselves to become a serious contender once the 2011 season rolls around in just a few months.
“I’m really proud of the way The Home Depot team has been working together, and we’re communicating so well, and that’s translated on the racetrack,” Logano added. “I can tell you this, it is a lot more fun running up front and running with the guys in the Chase. It’s a confidence booster for me and I think for the entire team. Running as well as we are already has me looking forward to next season.”
Looking at the numbers, Logano has a reason to be optimistic looking ahead to February and beyond. While he was able to score his first career Sprint Cup Series win last season, Logano also struggled, finishing 20th or worse in 17 events. This season, he has cut that down to only 12 races. In addition, he has more than doubled his number of top-fives (up from three to seven), as well as his top-10s (from seven last year to 16 this season).
Not only have the numbers improved, so too has Logano’s attitude both on and off the track. A bit unsure his rookie season, Logano was much more at ease throughout the garage and in interviews this year. On-track, the youngest full-time competitor has shown more than once he will not back down from confrontation, even when it comes to some of NASCAR’s biggest and baddest.
Earlier this summer, he and Kevin Harvick got together in the closing laps of the June Pocono race battling for fifth, which ended with Logano getting turned in the final corner on the last lap. Following the event, Logano “manned up” and pulled beside Harvick’s car to confront him about what took place on the track. A shoving match ensued, and Logano showed a side few had ever seen in staying aggressive, not backing down in the face of a fight. He even went as far as calling out Harvick’s wife, DeLana, in the incident with the infamous “firesuit” comment heard ’round NASCAR nation.
Later in the year, Logano tangled with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Newman following the August race in Michigan. In that incident, Newman refused to let his younger counterpart past, despite Logano having a faster car, and raced him hard for a number of laps. In the process, Logano bobbled and drove into Newman’s car, sending him into the wall. The two confronted each other in the garage area, getting into a heated discussion where this time, it ended with Newman pushing Logano away.
Throughout his ordeals this year, Logano has been able to show he has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the series both on and off the track. In the process, with the help of a bit of hefty criticism, Logano has also been able to shrug off the overbearing presence of his father, Tom.
While this move may be a small development in Logano’s career, it could have large implications down the road. Away from his father’s shadow, publicly at least, the 20-year-old no longer looks like the kid trying to race among the big boys. Instead, by standing up for himself and doing things on his own, Logano is developing his own persona and respect at the same time.
Being successful in the Cup Series is something that takes time, patience, and the willingness to learn. Many pegged Logano as the best thing to hit the series since Jeff Gordon, but his first season left many wondering if that assumption would reveal itself to be true.
Now? It looks like there’s a much better chance of long-term success for the young driver. By realizing success would not come overnight and working closely with Zipadelli, Logano has put himself in position to make that next step in his Cup career. With his performance improving at a greater rate over the final weeks of the year, Logano will carry momentum with him into the offseason.
In addition, if teammate Denny Hamlin can hold onto his lead in the Chase and bring home the Sprint Cup trophy to JGR, the attitude of the entire shop will benefit from the surge of success over this season. Together, the three-car organization has compiled 11 wins, 31 top fives and 52 top 10s before the season finale this weekend – the best record of any three-car team.
After years of Hendrick dominance, the Gibbs organization has stepped up to the plate as one of the teams eager to do battle for the title each year, and Logano is starting to become a factor in that equation. While championship contender may be a bit far-fetched for him in 2011, a Chase berth is certainly a realistic goal and something his competitors should be wary of.