For every Kyle Busch, there’s a Casey Atwood.
For every Kyle Larson, there’s a Todd Kleuver.
For every young talent who shows enough in his first moments in the limelight to tell you he’s a certain star, there’s a young talent who fades quickly into obscurity, retaining a connection to the sport only as the answer to a “What ever happened to…?” question.
And then there’s Joey Logano.
It’s not Logano’s ‘overnight’ success at Team Penske that’s remarkable. Logano’s third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway is simply an affirmation of talent that was always there.
Logano was an adolescent when Mark Martin began touting his prospects.
“Joey Logano, in my opinion, will be a Cup champion,” Martin said back in 2008, after Logano turned 18.
Martin has a great eye for talent, and he may well be right. Now 24, Logano has begun to realize the promise he showed as a teenager.
After a difficult tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano is starting to harness the ability that compelled Penske teammate Brad Keselowski to lobby aggressively for Logano as the full-time driver of the No. 22 Ford to start the 2013 season.
In his two seasons with Team Penske—the current one less than two-thirds complete–Logano has recorded four of his six career victories and 21 of his 37 career top-five finishes.
No, Logano’s current run is not remarkable. What is indeed remarkable is that Logano remained at the highest level of NASCAR racing long enough to achieve it.
“He’s a huge part of our future,” team owner Joe Gibbs said that same year, even before Logano was announced as the full-time successor to Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
But Gibbs’ endorsement was hardly prophecy. It’s fair to say that, at the time, Logano lacked the experience and maturity to live up to the moniker “Sliced Bread,” a nickname that earned him more derision than respect when Logano faltered early in his career.
Gibbs paired Logano with veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli for his 2009 debut season, but Zipadelli was accustomed to working with a veteran champion in Stewart, not a raw rookie. To call the relationship between Logano and Zipadelli strained is to understate the reality.
And with Stewart leaving in 2009 to form his own team, there was always the sense, rightly or wrongly, that Zipadelli had one foot out the door at JGR before he made the move to Stewart-Haas Racing as competition director after the 2011 season.
Gibbs retained Home Depot as the primary sponsor for Logano, another awkward fit for an 19-year-old who didn’t have a home of his own at the time.
Those weren’t the only distractions. As far as job security was concerned, Logano was always on the precipice.
During the 2011 season, Gibbs made a strong run at Carl Edwards, fueling speculation that Edwards would be in the No. 20 Camry and Logano out of a job. Edwards opted to re-sign with Roush Fenway Racing for three more years, and Logano was back, with Jason Ratcliffe as his crew chief.
Earlier, Gibbs had courted Juan Pablo Montoya as a possible candidate for a fourth car. Had a deal come to fruition, Logano would have lost another spot in the pecking order, as he already played third fiddle behind Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
And, ultimately, the signing of Matt Kenseth for the 2013 season spelled the end of Logano’s stint at Joe Gibbs Racing. With Home Depot taking a reduced sponsorship role, and with Dollar General preferring Kenseth, a former series champion, there was no money to support Logano’s efforts at the Sprint Cup level.
In several respects, though, Logano was lucky. The recipient of enormous marketing hype, Logano made his first start in the Sprint Cup Series in a relative vacuum of young talent in stock car racing. In 2008 and 2009, there were no Kyle Larsons, Chase Elliotts, Ryan Blaneys or Darrell Wallaces clamoring for the glamor rides.
That contributed to Logano’s longevity.
He was also fortunate that Edwards deferred his move to JGR for three years. Had Edwards signed with Gibbs—and it was close—Logano would have been out of a ride a year earlier, in a different landscape of available Cup rides.
Logano also made his own luck by continuing to win in the Nationwide Series. He posted nine victories in 2012 alone and now has 21, tied for 13th on the all-time list with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Harry Gant.
As Logano struggled in Cup, his frequent visits to Victory Lane in the Nationwide Series kept reminding us of his talent and suggested that a breakthrough in NASCAR’s premier series was inevitable.
In confirming the departure of Logano, Joe Gibbs acknowledged that team owner Roger Penske might well pick the fruit that JGR had cultivated.
That’s exactly what has happened.
And in that respect, Gibbs was prophetic indeed.