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Caraviello: Logano realizes potential he's always had

June 11, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Logano realizes potential he's always had

LONG POND, Pa. -- In some eyes he will always be that phenom kid racer, the can't-miss prospect out of Connecticut who people were raving about since before he was old enough to legally drive on the street. That part of Joey Logano's past sticks with him, even though he's gotten older, even though he presently occupies the quite veteran position of driving to keep his job. Maybe it's because he's still only 22, maybe it's because of that same cherubic smile he's been showing off since he broke into NASCAR's national divisions only a short four years ago.

Or maybe it's because he hasn't yet accomplished enough to be defined by his present -- something Logano took a large step toward changing during this extended weekend at Pocono Raceway, where he came to a resurfaced triangular track that challenged and befuddled teams for five days, and proceeded to show levels of grit, adaptation and savvy well beyond his years.

In short, he kicked everyone's butt. This time there would be no invisible asterisk of the kind that always accompanies a rain-shortened victory, like Logano's first Sprint Cup triumph at New Hampshire 2009. He was fast in testing on Wednesday and Thursday. He topped the sheet in final practice on Friday. He claimed the pole with a track-record speed on Saturday. And then on Sunday he led a career-high 49 laps, battling past Mark Martin at the end to become the first pole winner to reach Victory Lane in nearly a year.

* Logano wins at Pocono | Final Laps | Victory Lane

Welcome to Joey Logano, all grown up. He's not a kid anymore.

"I just kept telling myself, I can do this. I can do this," Logano said. "And I knew I [could]. You've got to have that confidence in there that you can do it. I was focused in and made sure I did all the right things."

Of course, it was Martin standing between Logano and his first victory "the right way" -- the driver's words over the radio after taking the checkered flag -- on NASCAR's premier circuit. Who else would it be? After all, it was Martin who essentially introduced the wider world to Logano, whom the future Hall of Famer noticed as an 11-year-old running in a youth circuit at Charlotte Motor Speedway alongside his son Matt. Martin was effusive in his praise and fearless in his predictions, claiming that Logano was good enough to be his successor in the No. 6 car he was driving for Jack Roush at the time. At 14, Logano tested Martin's Cup car at a Florida short track, and his career path was quickly set in place.

And now here they were, side by side at Pocono, a victory at NASCAR's highest level to be decided between them. "I thought it was pretty amazing just to line up next to him if we were running 15th," Logano said. "He's a great racer, and he makes very minimal mistakes out there. He's really good. Every restart he was getting better and better, and I was like, 'Oh, man, this is getting tight.' I couldn't have picked someone cooler to line up against on a late restart like that to try to win a race against him."

It didn't come easy. Martin shot past his former protégé on the outside of Turn 1 off the final restart with eight laps remaining. But with four to go, Martin got a little too low in Turn 3, and wobbled just enough for Logano to get right up to the back bumper of the blue and white No. 55 car. "It's my chance," Logano said. "It' so hard to pass, I had about one shot to get to him and really get it back." Martin was guarding the bottom, so Logano went in deep, loosening the leader's vehicle just enough for the No. 20 car to slide by on the bottom. Was there contact? Logano wasn't sure.

Martin was. "Well, I'd call that a bump-and-run," he said. "It has been acceptable in this racing for a long time. It's not how I would have done it, but certainly if I'd have had a fast enough car, he would have gotten a return. But I couldn't quite keep up with him. It was great racing, and everybody does what they decide to do. It was a great race, and I'm very, very proud of my race team for putting me in something that would give me a shot. I'm having fun with it. Maybe next week we'll be the ones with the trophy."

"I just kept telling myself, I can do this. I can do this."

--JOEY LOGANO

Martin was left with a seventh runner-up finish at Pocono, a track where he's never won. Logano celebrated a victory that was desperately needed, given his unsettled contract situation with the Gibbs team. His contract ends after this year, and he said Sunday he's not sure where he stands for 2013 and beyond. After a promising finish to the 2010 season, Logano stagnated last year, after which crew chief Greg Zipadelli left to become competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing. Jason Ratcliff moved up from the Nationwide tour to fill that position this year, and has his driver on a hot streak that includes top-10 finishes in three of his past four starts.

* Press Pass: Logano on win, future | Martin on finish

Logano moved up to 15th in points with the victory, which also placed him third in the Chase wild-card standings. A postseason berth would certainly help his cause at JGR, as did Sunday's victory. "It's all up in the air," he said. "Obviously winning a race means a lot and it helps that out a ton. For sure right now my future is not set with anybody. You need to go out there and win races, not like we always do, but to get this win means a lot. It's at a perfect time. ... My hope is to obviously stay with what I've got and keep working with Jason. But you never know."

Was Sunday an indication of things to come? It was an unpredictable weekend, to be certain, one fraught with unknowns because of a new surface that rendered old notes and strategies almost useless. Ratcliff made an 11th-hour decision in final practice to replace his setup with one being used by Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch, who blew an engine in the race. "It paid off," the crew chief said. In the end there was a new Sprint Cup points leader, with Matt Kenseth usurping Roush teammate Greg Biffle, and two new wild-card leaders in Busch and Ryan Newman. There were pit-road speeding penalties and black flags and motors going bust. After five days of on-track activity, it still all felt like tossing blades of grass into the wind.

There was just one constant -- Logano, quick from beginning to end. There are a lot of quirks at Pocono, and there were a lot of surprises Sunday, but Logano's victory falls into neither category. He went out and seized it, showing equal degrees of poise and maturity, something one of his fellow competitors has known he's been capable of since the very beginning.

"He raced for it," Martin said. "He was fast from day one of testing. He certainly didn't get that one handed to him, especially my pulling off that last restart. So, you know, maybe things will start to turn. He's been kind of in a stall in his career or in his progression with the Cup Series, but it looks like the last couple of weeks that maybe that's starting to turn. I've always known since I saw him drive at 11 years old that he could be a Cup champion. I knew it then."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.