Joey Logano’s been termed the “best thing since sliced bread” for a decade now, but 2014 was the year he finally earned that label. Logano, who had three career wins entering the season, won five times and went all the way to Homestead in the title hunt before fading to fourth after the season’s final race.
The man who was anointed by Mark Martin as the “best driver” of his generation took a big step forward at age 24, the same age at which Jeff Gordon won his first title. Logano, who would have captured the championship under the old Chase format, gained valuable postseason experience while scoring victories in nearly every type of race. He won on short tracks (Richmond, Bristol), on intermediates (Texas, Kansas) and the flat mile at Loudon last year, leading in a career-high 22 of 36 races. He led 993 laps, more than tripling his previous top mark of 323 for a season, and failed to finish on the lead lap just six times. By season’s end, owner Roger Penske had Logano signed to a long-term extension, as the once-disappointing superstar completed his transition from bust to boom.
“It’s been a spectacular year,” Logano said at Homestead. “We had fun with it. Learned a lot, how I can maybe do a few things differently next time I compete for a championship.”
He won’t have to wait long to do that. Logano enters his third year with Team Penske facing higher expectations; he’s set to be one of Sprint Cup’s top title contenders for years to come. Driving the No. 22 Ford with sponsorship from Shell-Pennzoil, AAA and AutoTrader.com, Logano has financial support that extends through 2018. A perfect mix of professionalism and potential, Logano was a good pickup for the team after the departure of Kurt Busch, a driver whose off-track controversies affected his on-track performance. Logano keeps his cool and rarely makes waves, although he’s learned over the years to stand up for himself. While rivals still exist, like Denny Hamlin, Logano has gained respect from most of his competition.
That balance of aggression and hard driving is the hallmark of Logano’s teammate, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. Keselowski handpicked Logano as his teammate at Team Penske, and his guidance has no doubt led to improved performance. The two are well matched, using similar driving styles, and are committed to an “open book” policy with information. Keselowski’s a bit more controversial than Logano, and that’s part of why it works well; Logano is content to be more mild-mannered, but he’s no lackey, a role he sometimes played at Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s this duo’s chemistry, setting an example from the top down, that keeps Team Penske competitive with rivals twice its size.
Team Penske has become the flagship team for Ford, supplanting Roush Fenway Racing as the manufacturer’s prime championship threat. Penske chassis had great speed in 2014, and the Roush-Yates power under the hood represents some of the best engines in the business. A smaller, streamlined Penske team saw both drivers getting only the best equipment and support. Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, is often overlooked but is a key cog in the team’s engineering and overall success.
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So what will it take for Logano to take home his first Cup title in 2015? Perhaps first and foremost, he’ll have to stay one step ahead of his older, more experienced teammate. The new rules package, with reduced horsepower and downforce, will play a role as well; teams that figure it out quickly will earn early victories and a pre-Chase edge. Logano also struggled a bit on the restrictor plate tracks, not scoring a top 10 in four combined starts at Daytona and Talladega. Logano’s career plate race average is 19.8, and while the superspeedways don’t represent a large percentage of tracks, Talladega looms large inside the postseason.
The biggest obstacle Logano faces is the level of competition in the series. With a field of 16, the new Chase format demands near perfection; a single mistake at the wrong time can destroy an entire season in a matter of seconds. It’s a lesson Logano learned last year, when a faulty pit stop at Homestead dropped him to the back of the lead lap and destroyed any chance at the title.
The good news is that every other team in the hunt faces the same formidable competition, and Logano gave them all a run for their money last year. Team Penske was the best organization as a whole last season, and with limited changes, it’s likely it will be so once again in 2015.
The “best thing since sliced bread” is ready to keep slicing through the field.
Short track sweet spot Logano’s 6.2-place average finish at tracks smaller than a mile was his best average by track type in a career season that saw him net five trips to Victory Lane. It makes sense. Logano turned heads while racing as a teenager in lower divisions with his dominance at some of America’s most heralded short tracks.
Dropped positions Logano had a tough time holding onto his stellar running positions last season, considering his team gave up a ton of spots during green-flag pit cycles (a loss of 63 positions) and in the final tenth of races (a 19-position loss).
Unkind Atlanta Save for his second-place finish there in 2013, Logano finished 14th or worse in his seven other starts at Atlanta, averaging a 24.3-place finish. His 14th-place finish there in 2014 was an 8.2-position drop from his 5.8-place average running position.
No. 22 Penske Racing Ford
Primary Sponsors: Shell/Pennzoil, AAA Insurance, Autotrader.com
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: 2018
Best Points Finish: 4th (2014)
Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.