There’s been a question mark hanging over Joey Logano’s head since the then-18-year-old filled Tony Stewart’s seat at Joe Gibbs Racing at the start of the 2009 season. The question was simple: could this driver who had developed more buzz than probably any talent that had come before him deliver at the highest level?
For a long time, the answer was a definitive no, at least at the Sprint Cup level. Logano flat-out underperformed with one of the top teams in the sport, something further emphasized by Matt Kenseth’s incredible 2013 season in the No. 20 car that saw him finish second in the championship. In Logano’s four years in the same car, he recorded points finishes of 20th, 16th, 24th and 17th. The kid nicknamed Sliced Bread seemed a bit stale.
It turned out a young Logano was just fermenting; at 23, Sliced Bread is here and ready to be served. After winning a race and making his first Chase appearance in his first season with Penske Racing last year, Logano has taken his performance to another level in 2014. Dare one mention him as a championship contender? The season is only six races old, but there’s enough data to show it isn’t a fluke.
Logano, who’s third in laps led, has led in five out of the first six races, including 39 total laps at Martinsville. He has qualified in the top four in four races, and has three top-5 finishes at three very different tracks (Phoenix, Las Vegas and Martinsville). Had he not had mechanical issues at Auto Club (broken rear end) and Bristol (power steering), we could be talking about five top 5s.
Even if you take away the stats, Logano passes the eye test. I’m not talking about the lack of metal in his eye, either. The eye test is a term popular during NCAA tournament time. It’s often used for teams that might not have the resume or record to put near the top, but through watching them you can tell that’s where they belong.
Logano belongs there, because quite simply, he’s been really, really fast everywhere. He isn’t one of the six winners this season, but he’s going to win, and he’s going to do it more than once.
The talent we all sought in 2009 has arrived five years later in 2014. Like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, all Logano needed was time and a rock hammer — actually, scratch the rock hammer and replace it with a new team. For whatever reason, Gibbs and Logano didn’t work, in the same way Kyle Busch and Hendrick didn’t. Busch won races with Hendrick, but was about as inconsistent as NASCAR’s rulings until he joined Gibbs and flourished at age 22. Logano joined Penske at the same age a year ago and is finally reaching his potential. Both drivers are the equivalent of first-round draft picks who showed glimpses of greatness but never really meshed in the system they were playing in. When they’re traded away or let go, the teams that scooped them up reaped the reward.
In the case of both drivers, their growth may have had less to do with the teams and more to do with their ages. Many people wrote Logano off before his 22nd birthday because the perception in NASCAR is if you are underperforming with an elite team, than you don’t have the talent. There is little room for excuses and too few spots available in these coveted cars to toil away in obscurity.
But look at it from Logano’s perspective. Mark Martin, one of the greatest Cup drivers of his generation, anoints you with the nickname Sliced Bread because he says you are the best thing to come along in years. Next you’re faced with Jeff Gordon/Kyle Busch comparisons. And, oh yeah, Joey, you’ll be driving Tony Stewart’s old car he won two championships in. Don’t let us down. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure for a teenager to face.
Every Cup driver dreams of being with one of the elite teams, and there is a sense of relief for those who get there, but there is also this added burden that comes with it. Just ask A.J. Allmendinger. He got himself noticed driving for a mid-level team (Richard Petty Motorsports) and was offered a deal with Penske Racing. But when he faced higher expectations and the results weren’t immediate, Allmendinger grew desperate, made a mistake and altered the course of his career. Ask drivers such as Casey Mears and David Ragan, who didn’t cut it in their opportunities and now hope for 20th-place finishes each week because they race for underfunded teams. Their chances of getting back are about as good as Timmy Hill winning a race this season.
If Logano started his career with Penske like he did at Gibbs, he could have found himself at BK Racing by 2015. Luckily for Logano, he didn’t. Instead he’s using his second chance to prove he belongs. Erase the question mark; let me be the first to announce that Joey Logano has finally arrived.
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