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Every kid has an idol, someone they want to be like when they grow up.
Even if they one day get into a highly publicized fight with their one-time idol on pit road.
Such is the case of Joey Logano and one of his idols, namely NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart. Growing up in New England, Logano’s life was consumed by two things: racing and Stewart. He wanted to be like Stewart so much, to the point where he dutifully and intently studied Stewart’s moves on the race track and copied them himself.
Invariably, watching Stewart and the lessons he learned helped Logano win a great deal of races growing up.
And then in what some might call the ultimate honor, Logano was the hand-picked choice of team owner, Joe Gibbs, to replace Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota when the latter switched teams after the 2008 season.
Logano was just 18 years old at the time!
“I was nine or 10 years old (when he was a Stewart fan), so 10 years later I’m driving the car that he’s leaving, with pretty much the same team he had then,” Logano said. “I take over his car, people were talking about how I’m going to fill his shoes in his race car and all this stuff.”
Logano grew up with posters of Stewart on his bedroom wall. He voraciously read every story he could about the Indiana native — who patterned himself after another racer, the legendary A.J. Foyt – be it a race story, feature, Q&A or everything in-between.
When he was in his early teens and racing late models throughout the Southeast, Logano and his family were living in a condo atop Atlanta Motor Speedway at the time. It was centrally located to many of the small bull rings he raced upon.
But after years of idolizing Stewart, one day Logano dropped his hero cold.
It took Logano almost 20 minutes to be convinced to tell this story, but truth and transparency have always been his calling card, so here’s that recollection — or as the late legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say: “And now you know the rest of the story.”
“Right in-between the (Atlanta Motor Speedway) garage and the bus lot is a little area where fans can kind of be there, and you see your driver, and a lot of the drivers would stop and sign autographs or whatever,” Logano said with an almost sheepish recollection. “Well, I have a Tony Stewart hat (on), I have all my stuff, I was a Tony Stewart fan. I wanted to get Tony Stewart’s autograph, I wanted to meet Tony Stewart.
“(Stewart) must have had a bad day or something, because now knowing Tony, this isn’t who he is. But Tony’s an emotional person as well. I’ve learned that about him too, and probably something wasn’t going his way that day, but Tony just walked right by us.
“I yelled, ‘Hey Tony, sign my hat.’ And he didn’t even look at me, just bee-lined, right? And I’m like, ‘Screw this guy.’ Right? That was my reaction, like, ‘I don’t like this guy.’ So, I took all my (Stewart) stuff and I threw it in the garbage when I got home.”
In hindsight, years later, Logano would come to understand why Stewart was the way he was on that particular day — and in a sense now, wished he had kept all his Stewart memorabilia.
There’s a moral to this story that Logano is quick to point out: He’s been in Stewart’s shoes at times — so to speak — when the last thing he wanted to do was sign an autograph or spend time with a fan.
“Every time I see a kid, it is like, ‘Stop in my tracks.’ I try really hard to do it,” Logano said of doling out his autograph to admiring fans, who have waited a long time to get a glimpse of and a couple seconds of time with their racing hero. “I can’t say I’m perfect at it, but I have that memory burned into my mind of what it felt like to be rejected as a kid.
“I feel like adults can somewhat understand (what a race car driver goes through): ‘Hey, there’s a job at hand. I have to go to work. There’s things I got to do. I have to get to a certain place at a certain time.’
“But kids don’t really get that. I didn’t get that. I didn’t understand what a bad practice felt like. I didn’t understand what bad qualifying efforts felt like, where you’re mad at yourself, you’re mad at the situation, you just want to go back and figure out how to be better. But nobody realizes what you’re going through in those moments, so you always have to remove yourself or try to remove yourself from the situation.”
Once he reached the NASCAR Cup Series , Logano learned a lot from Stewart — both good and bad, although they were on different teams at that point. Among the more notable things Logano learned was an up-close-and-personal example of Stewart’s temper, during the March 24, 2013, Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Late in the race on a restart, Logano blocked Stewart — with a full head of steam — from getting past him. When the race was over, Stewart hunted Logano down. For a guy who grew up idolizing Stewart, Logano quickly learned there was another side to the man they call “Smoke.”
Stewart was hot about the incident — especially since Logano’s block forced Stewart out of line and rather than a top-five or top-10 finish, he wound up 22nd, while Logano finished third.
It’s an incident Stewart has never forgotten. A few years ago in an interview with NASCAR, he still vividly recalled the run-in (the duo now laughs about it these days).
“I’m like I got his ass now. I’m gonna dot his I and cross his T. We’ve got this,” Stewart said of wanting to punch out Logano. “And about that time, a big fuel guy grabs me by the collar and pulls me back like I’m a rag doll. I was just so mad about it.”
Logano recalls the same incident with a laugh, as well, although it wasn’t funny when it happened.
“Fast forward a couple years later (after he first came into Cup), we’re fighting on pit road together, right?” Logano said. “Life’s weird, man. I’m telling you, just crazy things happen. You never know the paths that you’re going to cross with people sometimes.
“And so to think of, from how our relationship started through the whole thing, now we get along fine, but it’s kind of funny how that all happened, yeah.”