Joey Logano has come of age.
victory in Texas on Monday was accomplished in dominating style, leading the
most laps, holding off one of the best drivers in NASCAR – teammate Brad
Keselowski – while overtaking one the sport’s all-time greats, Jeff
Gordon. A late caution setting up a
green-white-checkered finish might have shaken a less experienced driver, but
not the 23-year-old Logano.
transformation started last year, when he won a race and qualified for the Chase,
neither of which his teammate was able to accomplish. And now it appears Logano is here for
good. He’s the only driver to reach the
final qualifying group at every track so far this season, has been competitive
in every race, and currently ranks fourth in points.
years ago, tagged with the unfortunate “sliced bread” label (as in, best thing
since…) by Mark Martin, Logano was the youngest driver to win a Nationwide
race. A year later he became the
youngest driver to win a Cup race. Yet
he was the first to admit he was far from an accomplished racer. He’d been forced into the Sprint Cup ranks
when Joe Gibbs allowed Tony Stewart to jump ship before his contract was up –
and before Logano was ready to move up as his replacement. Two years later he was railroaded out of JGR by
teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who complained Logano was bringing
nothing to the table to help the team improve.
and Busch were probably right, but it was handled poorly. At first Gibbs thought he had Carl Edwards
lined up to replace Logano after one season, but that deal fell through. The next year Gibbs lured Matt Kenseth away
from Roush-Fenway Racing. After turning
down a Nationwide ride at JGR, Logano landed at Penske Racing for the 2013, where
he found a teammate in Keselowski that not only wanted him, but actually lobbied for him.
tangled with some of the leading drivers in the sport, including Stewart,
Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and, most notably, Hamlin. But he also has done a lot of growing up
during the past year and after the Texas race, Kyle Busch acknowledged a
difference in Logano.
“I think Joey learned a lot over the years at
JGR, but never felt quite comfortable there, for whatever reason,” Busch
said. “Sure found a home at Penske. Those guys are really good over there. Joey has been. Brad has been. They've shown good speed this year. Shows they've got good stuff and Joey is doing
what he needs to be doing with it.”
“The first time I came here, I think it was
in the 02 car. I ran terrible. I ran 38th.
I didn't have an excuse for running 38th. I didn't know what I was doing. You're 18 years old with less than half a
season of Nationwide under your belt.
You get thrown into a tough situation.
But I didn't realize that at the time.
“Then over the years I've been able to just
kind of hone in on who I am as a driver, who I am as a person. When you're 18 years old, you got to grow
up. You're not quite done growing up at
that point. I may not be now. I feel like I'm getting closer.
I was able to go to Team Penske, get that fresh start, be able to take
everything you've learned there, but you're not taken as an 18-year-old kid
anymore. I came over when I was 22. You're looked at a little bit more as a man
than an 18-year-old kid that was still in high school.
different situation now. I've been able
to take advantage of that, kind of walk in the doors of Penske the first time
and say, Here is who I want to be, here is what I want to do, here is how I
feel like we can win races, do it together.”
Logano also has found a team that has
his back. When he tangled with Hamlin
and Stewart in last year's California race, it was none other than
Roger Penske who stepped forward.
''Joey is a great driver and
what happened at the end there wasn't anything more than hard racing,'' Penske said at the time.
''I stand behind him and I think he's
going to go down as one of the greatest drivers to ever race.''
Logano has matured in other ways. When asked in Texas what other teams, besides
Penske Racing, where off to good a start this year, he replied: “I'm going to say a lot of the Stewart-Haas
cars are really fast. The 14 was fast
today. The 41 won last week. The 4 is fast week in, week out. They're quick. You never count out Hendrick cars. Roush cars have shown a lot of speed here
recently. I think even the Petty cars
have shown a lot of speed here recently.”
Notice who he didn’t mention? Any of the JGR teams. While Busch has won and Kenseth is among the
point leaders, all three teams have struggled this year. Logano didn’t call them out by name
or number, but the message was clear.
thought: Did it seem a little too
convenient to anyone else that Keselowski was caught speeding on pit road prior
to the green-white-checker finish? Running second, he had closed in on Logano, and
then settled in a little more than a second back prior to the caution
flag. His speeding penalty certainly
eliminated any questions about whether or not Brad, who with a win was already
in the Chase, was racing Joey “100 percent” over the final three laps. Probably a little early in the season for conspiracy theories, but I’ll tell you what, if someone needs to give up some
places to a teammate come Richmond, speeding on pit road seems like a good way
to do it.