In the year in which he turned 23, the driver whom Mark Martin once called the “best of his generation” finally started living up to those lofty expectations. In his fifth Cup Series season, Joey Logano had a career year in 2013 after moving to Team Penske from Joe Gibbs’ operation, stabilizing the No. 22 car after becoming its fourth different driver in less than two years.
Logano ran up front consistently, won from the pole at Michigan in August, and then made the Chase for the first time in his career. An eighth-place points finish was eight spots better than his previous best of 16th (2010). Logano also showed that he wouldn’t back down from conflict, either in or out of the race car. In one turn — on the last lap at Fontana — contact with Denny Hamlin altered a season, while older drivers learned to think twice about messing with a youngster coming into his own.
Now, the trick for Logano in 2014 is to remain among NASCAR’s elite. Can he? Yes, and with an expanded Chase field, he shouldn’t have an issue with a postseason bid — even if teammate Brad Keselowski, along with 2013 injury victims Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, return to form.
At least Logano comes to battle armed with a solid support system. No major changes are expected on the No. 22 team this year, allowing Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon to build on the foundation they established in 2013. While he’s relatively new to the Cup scene, Gordon has been around the block in the sport, and he understands how to handle the young Logano well. Their pairing shows how chemistry can be fickle: With Gordon, Logano has already equaled the wins scored with Tony Stewart’s right-hand man, Greg Zipadelli, with whom he was paired at JGR from 2009-11.
Perhaps most important, the youngster has a true mentor in Keselowski. The former Cup champ has taken the driver under his wing, building a relationship that inspires a level of confidence that Logano never had at JGR. The 2013 season showed, through the off-track comments of Kyle Busch and the on-track rivalry with Hamlin, that JGR wasn’t exactly “Three’s Company.” Everyone at Penske has invested in Logano’s growth over the long term.
That sense of security extends to the boardroom. Team Penske announced in late 2013 that sponsor Shell-Pennzoil had signed a multi-year deal to remain the primary sponsor of the No. 22 for the foreseeable future. It’s a major vote of confidence; previous funding deals for Logano had been in place prior to his taking the wheel of a ride, but Pennzoil’s re-upping was all about him — and Roger Penske’s empire didn’t hurt, either.
So why is he still on the Chase bubble? One easy answer is equipment. The team made the switch from Dodge to Ford prior to last season and rivaled Roush Fenway Racing as the top Ford operation. That said, the Blue Oval crowd spent the season’s first half chasing its tail while Chevy and Toyota ran circles around them. It’s a small gap, one that superstars like Keselowski and Carl Edwards still overcome through skill and veteran experience. Can Logano be placed in that category? Roush-Yates engines, while stout, also failed in the opening Chase race, killing momentum. Two failed motors will be two too many in 2014.
The road also gets a bit rocky when it comes to consistency. Logano didn’t really have a pattern to his performances in 2013 — he had strong runs in initial track visits and not-so-strong runs the second time around, or vice versa. There wasn’t one type of track that the team could look at as an area of overall strength. That’s good in the sense that there are no glaring weaknesses, but it makes it harder to focus on specifics. The team also needed recovery time from a September distraction in which it was accused of conspiring with Front Row Motorsports to earn Logano more points at Richmond. Nothing was ever proved, and while Logano would have made the Chase regardless, questions dogged him far into the postseason.
That makes 2014 a critical year. On paper, it’s easy to count the youngster out due to the history of “sophomore slumps” with new teams and the experience of drivers around him. But at some point, Martin’s prediction needs to come true. A superstar is no one-year wonder; can Logano finally shed the critics for good?
Looking at Checkers: Logano has become quite the intermediate tracker. The bigger the better — think Atlanta, Auto Club, Texas, et al.
Pretty Solid Pick: His win-from-the-pole performance at Michigan last year was pretty impressive, no?
Good Sleeper Pick: Think past his Dover tumble in 2009 and realize that he has four consecutive top 10s on the concrete high banks.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Since scoring a pair of top 10s at Martinsville in 2010, he’s limped to a 17.8-place average (zero top 10s) in the six races since.
Insider Tip: Logano found himself in some scrapes early in the 2013 season but rebounded to post personal bests for points finish, top 5s, top 10s, laps led and average finish. The thinking here is the kid’s finally for real.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“He’s doing well with his teammate at Penske,” a rival crew chiefs says. “Logano was one of the few drivers to win in a Ford last season. And honestly, he was rushed into the Cup Series before he was ready — he’s just now getting to the point where he should have been beginning to figure out how it works at this level. That said, he’s going to be second fiddle to Brad Keselowski until he’s able to match him by winning a title in the Cup Series.”
While last season’s improvements were obvious to any observer, another crew chief says that there are still questions about the 23-year-old: “Some drivers feel like he’s been given his ride and hasn’t earned it. Plus, he just got engaged, and there are a lot of times that a commitment to a woman can derail a driver’s career. Also, his dad can be a bad influence. Logano is at a point in his career that he needs to get out from his daddy’s shadow.”
“Logano’s success last season was two-pronged,” says a media member. “One, he needed to get out at JGR; that place was doing him no favors. Two, he landed at possibly the best spot he could with a big-money sponsor and a defending-champion teammate welcoming him with open arms.”
No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 8th (2013)
Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
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