With two wins on the season, 23-year-old driver coming into his own
This is a sport where the folks in the grandstands have long memories. They can remember when Dale Earnhardt saw the air at Talladega, or when Jeff Gordon cried at the banquet, or when Tony Stewart won races in a Pontiac. Some of them can almost certainly recall the day when Richard Petty won his 200th, or when Davey Allison crashed across the finish line, or when Alan Kulwicki invented the Polish victory lap. They’re a wizened bunch, and they still hold on to their Mark Martin No. 6 T-shirts or Bill Elliott No. 9 ball caps, and in their time, they’ve seen and heard it all.
So no wonder, in that context, somebody like Joey Logano is still viewed as a kid. He’s not, of course, and Saturday night’s victory at Richmond International Raceway only served to reinforce that fact. In the span of just three NASCAR race weekends, he’s nearly doubled his victory total in the sport’s premier series. In seven months, he’s gone from a driver who almost missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — and indeed, might have had some shenanigans not unfolded — to someone who’s virtually guaranteed himself a return trip. Once seen as an iffy choice as Brad Keselowski‘s teammate at Penske, he’s now outperforming the 2012 champion.
These are all signs of a driver who, at age 23, appears to be just coming into his own. So why is it difficult for some to take Logano seriously as championship contender? He wondered as much a few weeks ago at Darlington, in the wake of his earlier victory this season at Texas, when he mused on one preseason ranking that had him taking not a leap forward following his 2013 playoff breakthrough, but a step back. "They had us like 15th," he said, "and I was like, ‘Why?’"
Why? Because first impressions are powerful ones, and Logano continues to shake the reputation as the kid who came up too fast, who scored that first rain-shortened victory at New Hampshire and then never could build on it, who was in a situation at Joe Gibbs Racing where his teammates never truly viewed him as an equal. Because people still remember the nickname "Sliced Bread" — originally credited to Randy LaJoie, as in, "best thing since …" — which over time became a curse rather than a compliment, and these days stands as a somewhat demeaning reference that’s long since grown moldy and stale.
In truth, Logano has been on a steady progression the past two years, flourishing in a Penske stable where he’s every bit the counterpart to Keselowski, but a lot of that previous stuff still sticks to him like strips of Bare Bond. If there’s anyone who deserves to be able to hit a reset button in terms of public perception, it might be Logano, who just a few years ago was dismissed as the can’t-miss kid who missed. It’s perhaps an imperfect comparison, but Logano was so young when he began his full-time Sprint Cup career — he was 18 when he started the Daytona 500 in 2009 — his situation feels very much like that of a basketball player who declared for the NBA straight out of high school, and then needed a few years of seasoning at the highest level before he was fully ready to compete.
Well, clearly he’s there now, given that he’s not only tied for the series lead in race victories, but perhaps also the more telling statistic of top-five finishes. He’s led double-digit laps in all but two events this season. He’s second only to Keselowski in average starting position, comprising a Penske team that’s the class of group qualifying and a beast on intermediate tracks. All of those indicators lead to one thing — the No. 22 bunch is showing staying power at a point in the season when that means something. Forget the legacy of Sliced Bread, which has long since passed its expiration date. It’s beyond time to take a fresh look at Logano, and judge him not on his past but his present.
That past, though, does stand as something of a cautionary tale. Some people were distressed at the idea of Kyle Larson moving into the Sprint Cup ranks this season, even though the Ganassi driver was three years older than Logano at the time of his ascension to the sport’s top level. At 18, Jimmie Johnson was racing off-road trucks. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was racing late models. Stewart was racing three-quarter midgets. Gordon had yet to make his first start in what’s now the Nationwide Series. Meanwhile, Logano was bracing for his first full campaign in NASCAR’s big league, in cars that are the most difficult in the world to drive. Talk about men versus boy. And people wonder why it took him a little while to bloom?
"Did I start too soon? Yeah, no doubt I did," he said at Darlington. "But it is an experience that I value a lot right now, because I am 23 years old with six years of experience behind me, and there is nobody else out here who has that. I am thankful for that opportunity and the tough times I went through to figure it out. … Things are going good right now. All the hard work is paying off."
Logano’s journey should perhaps curb the enthusiasm of those who seem to want 18-year-old sensation Chase Elliott in Sprint Cup right this minute, a rush team owner Earnhardt Jr. thankfully stemmed last week by opining via Twitter that the JR Motorsports star should spend two full seasons in the Nationwide ranks. Meanwhile, Logano reaches this sweet spot in his career as he’s set to turn 24, is engaged to be married, and despite his baby-faced smile seems light years removed from that teenager thrust into NASCAR’s highest level before he was ready.
Yes, to those stalwarts in the grandstand clad in Intimidator garb and raised on racers who didn’t hit their peak until nearly middle age, Logano is probably still seen as a kid, and probably will be for a while. Heck, Gordon had three championships and still fought the same perception, so at the least he’s in good company. Regardless, Sliced Bread is gone, the last crumbs wiped from the countertop. What’s left behind is a maturing driver on the rise, no matter which way you slice it.