The 22-year-old has quickly grown up in front of the other drivers
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Joey Logano emerged from his bright yellow hauler Friday afternoon, right on the heels of Penske Racing crewman Dave "Mule" Nichols. He joked to the gathered media scrum that he thought reporters first wanted a word with the No. 22 Ford's tire specialist.
If only deflecting the spotlight was that easy.
Scrutiny's glare has never been brighter on the 22-year-old driver, who entered NASCAR's top series four years ago as a plucky rookie with ballyhooed expectations and a catchy nickname. Now the intense light is focused on Logano for altogether different reasons after his involvement in post-race shoving matches in the last two events, but also for the glimpse at his potential to compete for victories on more than a slightly occasional basis.
"The last three weeks we’ve been fast enough to be in Victory Lane, so I feel like it’s right around the corner for us."
-- Joey Logano
"The game plan is not to be out in the middle of the drama, but at least they’re talking about you," Logano said. "That’s a good thing."
Logano's name hasn't been the most talked-about name in the stock-car racing community for some time, largely attributable to his moderate but uneven success in his four-year stint with Joe Gibbs Racing -- all while under the weight of lofty expectations. But five races into this season, his first with the Penske Racing organization, Logano has found himself near the front of the pack with much more regularity.
Sustaining that early performance will be a matter of meeting expectations again.
"I think in Joey’s case, he has had a lot of hype and he’s had a lot of success," said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, "but in the Cup series, he has struggled. And I think there is a lot of question behind that and I think it’s been pretty tough on him to have all that success and hype along the way, and come into the Cup series and not be able to live up to it; whether it’s the team or him or whatever it is. Just the combination hasn’t been there. I think that now with this move to Penske, that there’s certainly a lot of pressure on him to live up to those expectations."
But running fast has also meant that his aggressive style has been on display more in the camera's view. An otherwise stellar day at Bristol Motor Speedway ended with a run-in with former Gibbs teammate Denny Hamlin. A week later at Auto Club Speedway, another bumping episode with Hamlin and a blocking incident with Tony Stewart only intensified the scrutiny.
Being in the middle of post-race altercations is probably not a regular appointment that one wants to keep. But as the saying goes, there may be no such a thing as bad publicity.
"It’s good for your sponsor and good for your team, I guess, to have a higher awareness, but we want to do it for being in Victory Lane and not for being almost close to being in Victory Lane," Logano said. "The last three weeks we’ve been fast enough to be in Victory Lane, so I feel like it’s right around the corner for us."
The focus on how Logano conducts business on the race track hasn't been a polarizing issue in the garage, but it seems everyone has an opinion. Penske teammate Brad Keselowski knows first-hand how an aggressive style will draw fire from his rivals, most notably after his squabbles with Hamlin and Carl Edwards in the early stages of his NASCAR career.
"I think I probably had a little more experience with that than I’d like to have, but as far as Joey is concerned I think it’s typically old guard, new guard thing," Keselowski said. "Joey is trying to establish himself as an elite driver in this sport and trying to join that rank, whether that’s the top 12 that make the Chase or those that are capable of contending for race wins year-in and year-out. Certainly, there’s going to be resistance to that and he’s going to have to fight through that. I think it’s a real test of character for him and if he can get through this test with saying all the right things and doing all the right things -- biting your tongue even though you know you’re right -- if he can get through that test, I think he can graduate into an elite level."
Even if it means ruffling feathers?
"In some ways, he should be proud of the fact that he’s made a few people angry," Keselowski added. "It would be like if somebody came in and was a brand-new sports writer and wrote some bad-ass articles, you would probably be threatened, too. That’s where Joey is at. He’s running some good races. He’s got a great team and he’s got a chance to really stand out. I don’t know if that’s necessarily been the case before this year."
Whether Logano had a chance to shine at JGR is up for debate, but his results never seemed to match the hoopla bestowed on the rookie who entered stock-car racing's biggest stage as "Sliced Bread," an allusion that he was the greatest thing since. In four years with Gibbs, though, his 18 victories in the Nationwide Series were supported by just two wins in Sprint Cup. He also has yet to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason.
For as many years of experience as Logano has at the top level of NASCAR, it's easy to forget that he's still just 22 and has plenty of years of racing -- and youthful exuberance -- in front of him.
"I think a lot of it is he’s grown up in front of us," said Jeff Burton, the 1994 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year. "We all make mistakes as we grow up. All in all, Joey is not a bad guy. He can be a little more receptive to listening rather than arguing. Joey is not a dirty driver. He’s not. Some of it is piling on and some of it he brings on himself. By any means, I have no problem driving into turn three at Daytona side by side, or turn two with him here. I’d race with him anywhere, any time. I’m not uncomfortable racing with him at all."
The balance of Logano's season will potentially be determined by how well he handles the early bumps, manages expectations and earns respect. None of these are rapid processes, but so far, nothing in his career has happened overnight.
In the meantime, Logano doesn't plan to alter his approach -- or pass the spotlight toward his tire specialist.
"I’m not going to change the way I drive," Logano said. "I don’t feel like I do anything that’s really disrespectful to other drivers out there. I race really hard. I’m fine with being known as a hard racer. That’s OK with me."
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