It’s hard to know what to make of Joey Logano these days. In his third full year of Sprint Cup competition, he has gone from being the next big thing to at times looking like the next Casey Atwood. As recently as two weeks ago, it looked like he was on a full track towards the Atwood path, with Joe Gibbs Racing in hot pursuit of Carl Edwards. Such a signing would likely would have resulted in a demotion for Logano.
Though all of a sudden, he is starting to look like he can run with the big boys. His fifth place finish at Watkins Glen along with a near win at Pocono the week before has him quieting skeptics for the time being. Since day one in his NASCAR debut a little over three years ago, Logano’s short career has already left us with many questions and not enough answers.
Just days after his 18th birthday, Logano entered his first career NASCAR race, a Nationwide event at Dover. It was the most anticipated debut of any driver since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1996. He had already earned the praise of respected veteran Mark Martin, and had developed the nickname “Sliced Bread”; he was expected to the greatest thing since. After a solid debut at Dover where he finished sixth, Logano would go on to win his first race at Kentucky just weeks later. In doing so, he became the youngest driver to ever win a Nationwide race. It was his only win in 19 events that year, but he was very strong overall, posting a total of 14 top 10s. Indeed, he looked like the real deal.
With Tony Stewart opting to leave Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of 2008, Gibbs made the decision to move Logano up to Cup to take over Stewart’s vacated seat. It was a questionable move, as many believed he still needed another year in Nationwide to develop. Once his rookie year concluded, the questions remained. Some called it a disappointing rookie campaign, with just seven top 10s and a 20th place points finish, easily the worst finish for the number 20 car in its 11 seasons of existence. Others said it was respectable, given that he was rushed into it a year early and did manage to win rookie of the year. He also became the youngest winner in Sprint Cup history by taking the checkered flag at Loudon, albeit a rain shortened race.
Truth is, if Logano wasn’t filling such big shoes with Stewart’s departure, and didn’t have ridiculously high expectations to meet, it would be easier for everyone to say his first year in Sprint Cup was a success.
There was no sophomore slump for Logano. He was able to better his points finish from his rookie year and place a reasonable 16th in the standings with 16 top 10s, doubling his total from 2009. The problem was he failed to score a victory, the lone JGR driver to miss the Chase. JGR has arguably been the second best team in Cup racing over the past decade, so a winless, non-Chase season in the Gibbs stable won’t be due to poor equipment. Still, in what was supposed to have been his rookie season, Logano had a good outing. He ended 2010 very strong and looked to build on that momentum for 2011.
Unfortunately, whatever momentum he had disappeared during the off season and 2011 got off to a horrendous start. As a matter of fact, it was so bad the first five races that he was one poor finish away from potentially being outside the top 35 in owners points. A 13th place result at Martinsville the next race prevented that from ever happening, but that would be his only top 15 in the first seven weeks. By the time the circuit left Dover one month later, Logano was sitting 27th in the standings with his lone top 10 coming at Talladega a few weeks earlier. The performance had been so poor that there were rumors of Gibbs swapping crew chiefs within the organization that would have moved Denny Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford over to Logano’s team.
There was no switch, however, and he immediately started showing signs of life, recording a season high third place finish in the Coke 600. This would carry over into the summer months, which have seen him win two poles along with three more top 5 efforts. He now is up to 17th in the standings, the highest he has been all year. Chances for a Chase berth are slim to none for 2011, but it looks like he will have the opportunity to try again next year, an opportunity that was in doubt just a few weeks ago.
So will Logano ever live up to his nickname Sliced Bread? Clearly he hasn’t, but that is part of the problem. As already mentioned, he has faced higher expectations than any other up and coming driver in quite some time. More time to develop in the Nationwide Series would have helped his cause, but he can’t go back now. He has shown in NASCAR’s second tier series that he can drive. There are the doubters who say that JGR has the best equipment and anyone can win in one of those cars, but that is a ridiculous argument (Hey Brian Scott, how are you doing?). Regardless of the equipment, it still requires skill to navigate one of those machines and bring them home in one piece.
Sure, Logano is no Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, but it’s time to end the comparisons to others and stop with the expectations. Through all the scrutiny, he hasn’t been terrible. Since the start of his rookie season in ’09, he has accrued more top 10 finishes than the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, and Jamie McMurray to name a few. Putting the expectations aside, he has done just fine.
Of course, that will only get you so far. So, despite showing recent signs of strength, 2012 will be the year that makes or breaks him. And the point that the mystery of Joey Logano will be solved.
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