In the 1996 NBA draft, the Portland Trail Blazers took a chance on a 6-foot-11 center straight out of high school named Jermaine O’Neal. Although young and raw, O’Neal showed enormous potential, enough so that Portland rewarded the bench player with an absurd four-year, $24 million contract.
It was the finest money ever thrown towards a trash can, O’Neal acting like a first-class bust from the start instead of a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Heavily criticized for gameplay that at times wouldn’t hold up in your gym, once the contract expired, the Trail Blazers gladly waved the white flag. Determined to cut their losses, they landed a deal with Indiana for former All-Star (and aging) center Dale Davis.
Turns out their impatience for potential came with a different price: embarrassment. In four years with Portland, O’Neal combined for 817 points and 153 blocks, numbers that simply weren’t going to cut it in the NBA at either the center or power forward positions. In his first season with the Pacers in 2000-01, O’Neal posted 1,041 points and 228 blocks.
Whoops. It’s every general manager’s nightmare to groom a young, talented athlete for years only to watch him finally reach superstardom somewhere else. In the “what have you done for me lately?” world of sports, future success means more than past failures.
The NASCAR version of this story may be playing out before us right now.
With the acquisition of Matt Kenseth from Roush Fenway Racing, Joey Logano — yeah, “Sliced Bread” — was shown the door. Much like Davis was then, Kenseth would make NASCAR’s All-Star team if there was such a thing, the “sure bet” in an era where anything less puts your team on sponsorship life support. Logano, like O’Neal, is the young, unproven talent left behind. He looks like the second coming of Richard Petty in a Nationwide car… who devolves into the second coming of Ricky Craven in Sprint Cup.
In four full seasons at Gibbs, Logano has two wins and point finishes of 20th, 16th, 24th and 17th. Yet, he is only 22 years old. That’s the same age O’Neal was when he finally broke through with Indiana and the same age Kyle Busch was when he finally broke through at Gibbs in 2008 with eight wins.
However, if the O’Neal-Logano correlation didn’t work for you, let’s take a look at Busch’s early years. Busch spent three years with the sport’s top organization: Hendrick Motorsports. For reasons unknown, one of the most talented drivers in the sport paired with the top team just didn’t work. Busch won four races in three years and had point finishes of 20th, 10th and fifth. He won double his previous career total in his first year at JGR.
Why? That’s hard to say. But the bottom line is Busch and Gibbs worked, while Busch and Hendrick didn’t. Hendrick was the one taking home most of the titles at the time; the top people, top technology. It didn’t matter how much potential existed in Busch, there just weren’t any results.
To bring the sport’s biggest bag of money into the fold in the form of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Hendrick let Busch leave and retained Casey Mears. This decision, in hindsight would be like if the Oklahoma City Thunder let Kevin Durant walk in order to keep Nick Collison.
So when Roger Penske found out a 22-year-old Logano, a driver he negotiated to get last offseason, was going to be available, he wasted little time getting Joey to sign on the dotted line.
Will history repeat itself? Moving from Gibbs to Penske seems to be a lateral one at best… maybe even a step back. Gibbs has three titles compared to Penske’s one (although the one was last year) and Gibbs is consistently fighting for wins and titles. The No. 20 car won a pair of championships with Tony Stewart, and was known in the garage to have top-notch equipment for years. In comparison, bad press has shelled the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, resulting in little of an on-track identity for the team outside of its driver antics (see: Kurt Busch temper tantrums, AJ Allmendinger alleged drug use.)
It’s impossible to dismiss the similarities between Busch’s and Logano’s respective journeys; like Gibbs, Penske has the equipment capable of turning a sob story into a superstar. It’s easy to label Logano as the next Kyle Busch resurgence, just five years later, but he just as well could be the Casey Mears story.
After the 2008 season, Hendrick looked foolish when he let Mears walk (the
guy he kept instead of Busch) after continued subpar performances, this time with Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Mears, like Logano and Busch, got a second chance with an elite team, Richard Childress Racing. But Mears didn’t stand out there, either, and sponsorship money dried up to the point his next ride was with sparsely funded Keyed Up Motorsports. His current one with Germain Racing, who start-and-parks in some events, is the best employment he has landed since.
Last season, Joe Gibbs had a decision to make: Is Logano more Mears or Busch? He decided, with Kenseth available the answer was Mears. One year after failing to land Carl Edwards and giving Logano one last opportunity, he decided that the driver who responded to that with nine Nationwide victories just didn’t do enough. In all, Logano’s 18 wins in 110 career starts in the lower series failed to convince a Super Bowl-winning coach he would ever slice up the competition in Cup.
So is Logano nothing more than Randy LaJoie, Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague, Ron Hornaday, Kenny Wallace, Scott Wimmer, J.J. Yeley, etc.? The list could go on forever of “B” level guys who dominated Trucks or Nationwide, but couldn’t crack it in Cup. Gibbs very well may be a genius in saving precious time and money to build his program elsewhere.
So who is Joey Logano going to be? At 22, is he finally ready to start writing his legacy?
This year should give us those answers, as if he’s the O’Neal of his generation or simply O-ver-ra-ted. And if Logano breaks out? For the consequences, I turn to _Breaking Bad._ (I’m hooked.) For those who haven’t seen the show, Jesse Pinkman’s parents kicked him out of the house, a moment which was supposed to be Pinkman’s ticket to self-destruction. Except… spoiler alert. In season 3, Pinkman uses the drug money he earned to buy the family home, a house his parents could no longer afford. That stunned look they had on their faces as they packed up the car, while Jesse used his key to open the front door, pretty much sums up how the Portland front office felt for the next five years after trading O’Neal.
Will Joe Gibbs have the same look on his face as Jesse Pinkman’s parents did when Logano takes the podium this December in Las Vegas?
My guess is yes.