2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 20 Home Depot Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 16th (2010)
Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990
Five years ago, when Mark Martin was asked who he would want to see replace him in the No. 6 he drove at Roush Fenway Racing, he quickly answered with one name — Joey Logano.
Joey who? At the time, not many had heard of the teenager, who was the tender age of 15 then, but they knew that Martin had an eye for talent after he had a similar revelation about future champ Matt Kenseth.
“I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt, that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR,” Martin said.
Now that he’s entering his third full season of competition, the time has come for Logano to show the promise that had Martin so excited about his future.
In his rookie year, Logano won a rain-shortened event in New Hampshire, and while he went winless in his sophomore season, there’s no reason to dub 2010 a sophomore slump. Yes, he was shut out of Victory Lane, but he improved in every other major category: top 5s, top 10s, poles earned, laps led and his position in points.
Yet 2011 might be the most telling season of all for Martin’s prophecy, as the last five Sprint Cup champions have had career-changing efforts in year No. 3. Jeff Gordon had seven wins and a title in his third year; Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch all had multiple-win seasons in their third campaigns, learning how to compete for a title before following up with the championship in year No. 4. Then there’s Jimmie Johnson, who scored eight wins and a runner-up points finish in his third full season — and we all know what he’s done after that.
That’s a lot of pressure for a young man who turns 21 this year, still searching to find his place in the Sprint Cup Series and earn the respect that goes along with it. Last season, he had a heated run-in at Michigan with Ryan Newman, who said, “I'm just trying to teach the little kid how to drive,” as they were being separated in the garage area after discussing their on-track issues. Add that to the infamous firesuit comment about Kevin and DeLana Harvick after Pocono, plus wrecking Juan Pablo Montoya at Homestead in an act of retaliation, and it’s obvious Joey isn’t going to let other drivers just run over him because he’s young and inexperienced.
“I think we probably missed the fire that’s inside of Joey,” says team owner Joe Gibbs of the media’s initial perception of him. “I think he does have a real fire, a real passion for what he does.”
That’s an important trait to develop in the uber-competitive sport of NASCAR. The key is not allowing that fire to boil over and become a hindrance. But Logano is in good hands with the team that surrounds him (temperamental teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin notwithstanding). He has Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who knows a thing or two about handling and getting the best out of hotheaded drivers (hello, Tony Stewart). They also have the equipment and knowledge that will continue to help Logano climb to the next level, and the young man himself seems to understand both patience and his role in making the team better.
“Knowing what you want in the car at certain race tracks, that’s something that you figure out as you keep going,” the youngster said late last season. “Some places, I think I have that really figured out. Some places, it’s unknown.
“It all comes together, a bunch of little things. It’s not one big thing, a light switch goes on and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, now I got it.’ It definitely takes a bit of time trying to figure it out. And it takes a lot of hard work.”
With five top-10 finishes in the last six races of 2010, the hard work seems to be paying off, and the team looks to be on the right track. Whether or not he’s ready to perform up to Martin’s lofty expectations and take that next big step is something only time will tell. But if you’re using history as a guide when looking for a first-time Chase sleeper, Logano’s your man.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Logano’s impressive performance in the final 10 races was a story many overlooked. “In the Chase, he performed like a Chase driver,” says another team’s crew chief. “I think he kind of crossed the barrier in terms of consistency right there at the end of the season. If he keeps it up, he’ll make the Chase this year.”
Another says, “There isn’t much doubt he’s getting it, but I think there’s a still a little of the ‘goofy kid that everybody on the playground wants to pick on’ there. He’s started to stand up for himself, but he’s still got some growing up to do. It’s what happens when you put a kid like that in this series at a young age.”
“He’s proved he belongs,” says another. “The next challenge is to prove he can win from time to time and run up front pretty regular. I still think Logano making the Chase is a little of a stretch.”
Looking at Checkers: His 8.5-place average finish at Charlotte is impressive.
Pretty Solid Pick: Has a knack for Dover, as well, with 10th- and third-place runs last season.
Good Sleeper Pick: Talladega, with three top-10 finishes in four starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Atlanta was once JGR’s playground, but not so with Logano.
Insider Tip: Remember, this is a team led by Greg Zipadelli that won two titles with Tony Stewart. Once the driver gets up to speed, this group will be tough.
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 16
Laps Led: 53
Laps Completed: 10,564
Lead Lap Finishes: 23
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 16.2
Average Finish: 16.8
After First 26 Races: 21st
Final Points Standing: 16th
Driver Rating: 80.3 (20th)