There are few better ways to torpedo a young driver’s career than to make him ride into the big leagues aboard a wave of hype. Such was the case of one Joseph Thomas Logano out of Atlanta by way of Middletown Connecticut. Early success in some support series earned him some high profile endorsements labeling him a star of the future in the Cup universe. While it’s usually ascribed to Mark Martin, who was an early supporter of Joey, the “Sliced Bread” (as in the best thing since….an outdated cliché that overlooks the invention of the pop top beer can) nickname was actually bestowed on him by two-time then-Busch Series champion Randy Lajoie. Martin actually referred to Logano as “the real deal”. That was when Logano was still at the tender age of 15. Martin went on to say “I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely 100 percent positive without a doubt that he can be one of the greatest ever to race in NASCAR.” With that high a degree of praise, most folks overlooked a critical word Martin had used, “can.” It was not preordained that Logano would be great, but Martin felt it was possible.
With that sort of hype and hosannas leading to his arrival, it was going to be hard for any young driver to live up to the billing. Labeled as the new young gunfighter that was going to ride into town and be successful shooting it out with the seasoned gunslingers, the hype surrounding Logano reached a point where if he were to have walked across a swimming pool some critics would have said he was too lazy to swim. It’s the American way to place someone on a pedestal against their will and then everyone does their darnedest to find a way to pull him down.
There was in fact some early success. At 16, Logano ran roughshod over the field in the then-Camping World East series with five wins and the championship. In 2008 Logano won an ARCA race in his first-ever start in that series. It took him a bit longer to win an XFINITY Series (Nationwide at the time) race. He didn’t win until his third start in that series. He was the youngest driver ever to win one of those AAA NASCAR races. Running a limited NXS schedule the following year, Logano still managed five victories in the AAA league.
In 2009, Logano also made his full time Cup debut driving for powerhouse team owner Joe Gibbs at the wheel of the #20 entry Tony Stewart had enjoyed so much success in before leaving Gibbs to start his own team. It was a premium ride in the Big Leagues and recliner quarterbacks could all list at least a half dozen other drivers more worthy of the seat.
When he arrived at Daytona that year, Logano was the talk of the garage area. Everybody was waiting to see what that “Sliced Bread” kid could do. Despite the hype, Logano’s full time Cup career got off to an inauspicious when he crashed and finished dead last in that year’s Daytona 500. While he did win the July race at New Hampshire, that was a result of contrarian pit strategy and rain that ended the race early. Most scribes and fans considered it a fluke victory at best. (Of note, that victory made Logano the youngest winner in Cup history in this era where it seems that team owners are scouring grade school sandboxes trying to find the next big thing.) When the 2009 Cup series concluded, Logano had scored a total of just three top five finishes and achieved a less-than-stellar 20th-place finish in the points standings. His average finish that year matched his position in the points.
Logano found more success in the No. 20 car in 2010, but only just barely, with seven top 5s and a final ranking of 16th in the points. The kid who was supposed to be the sport’s next big star fared even worse in 2011, with just four top 5 finishes and a dismal 24th place result in the standings. If the nickname “Sliced Bread” was still being tossed around, it was usually only used sarcastically. Logano did finally win again for Gibbs again at Pocono in 2012 after setting a blisteringly fast lap in qualifying to take the pole. But that was one of only two top-5 finishes Logano managed that year and the handwriting was on the wall. All the other Gibbs teams were enjoying great success and the No. 20 outfit with Logano at the wheel was inarguably the runt of the litter. Conventional wisdom at the time was that Logano was soon going to be on the outside looking in, and there didn’t seem to be much interest in the then 22-year-old driver who’d already been around the sport so long and who had accomplished so relatively little.
Most folks who followed the sport were flat out stunned and flabbergasted when Roger Penske announced he was hiring Logano to drive his No. 22 Ford in 2013. But the pressure was on Logano’s narrow shoulders as well. At Team Penske, racing success is expected and mediocrity often rewarded with dismissal.
Sometimes it just happens. A good driver and a good team sometimes just don’t gel. Such was the case with Logano’s tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, an outfit that had already proven they could field championship-caliber teams. Logano found a better fit with Penske’s organization driving alongside his teammate, friend and often-times wingman Brad Keselowski . Logano was able to reward the Captain’s confidence in him with a victory from the pole at Michigan that August and a much improved 8th-place finish in the points.
Of course Logano really came into his own last year with five wins (more than he’d managed in his five previous Cup seasons combined by almost double). He made the Chase and was in contention to win it right down to the last race at Homestead. (Yes, I know you haven’t gotten your daily fill of Matt’s sarcasm with this column, so let me just acknowledge I know that, thanks to Brian France’s impossibly convoluted and preposterous abomination of a points system, four drivers arrived at Homestead with a chance at the title, but Logano was, in fact, one of them even if he did finish last among those eligible.)
On Sunday of last week, Logano managed to win the biggest NASCAR race of them all, the Daytona 500. Even the folks who are still enraged by the caution flag that ended the race suddenly have nothing but warm fuzzy things to say about Logano, many of them backtracking quickly in their recliners, claiming they knew he had it in him the whole time.
There’s a point to the cautionary tale of Logano’s career to date. To any young driver out there, and I’m not thinking of anyone in particular (cough..cough..Chase Elliott), but when the accolades start pouring in, and the hype machine hits overdrive trying to splash your picture on the cover of every racing magazine (I mean, there still are some racing magazines out there, aren’t there?) take a deep breath and take a step back. Hope and pray that folks won’t believe the hype and for dead certain don’t believe it yourself. Because when the new kid in town rides in on his white charger, there’s still gonna be a whole lot of well-seasoned gunslingers with lines around their eyes from squinting at too many setting suns over the first turn wall in the closing laps who are going to be fairly insistent they’d like to win a race or two occasionally. Don’t think it could happen to the next fresh-out-of-the-oven loaf of “Sliced Bread? Has anyone seen Casey Atwood arounlately?
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