My Brain on NASCAR: Logano growing into front-runner role

When it comes to fans’ perception of a particular athlete, what a difference a few months can make. Just ask Joey Logano.

The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) season was a pivotal one for Logano. His Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) team hired 2003 Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth away from Roush Fenway Racing to replace Joey in the No. 20 Toyota midway through the year, making the young driver a lame NASCAR duck looking for a new flock.

Meanwhile, a failed drug test resulted in the suspension of  A.J. Allmendinger, driver of the No. 22 car for Penske Racing. Pretty much any unemployed or semi-employed driver you can think of — guys like Brian Vickers and David Ragan come to mind — were considered for the seat, but in the end Logano was chosen as the man for the job.

The problem was that almost no one really considered Logano much of a man.

The driver who was given the nickname “Sliced Bread” (as in, the best thing since … ) has felt the hungry dogs of doubt nipping at his heels for years. He was originally scheduled to spend a couple of seasons competing full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) for JGR before being moved up to the Cup Series in 2010 to replace Tony Stewart, who was leaving to run his own team.

That plan, however, turned into a rush job when Stewart left a year early, and 18-year-old Logano suddenly found himself competing against the seasoned superstars of NASCAR’s premier series. Tony Stewart is a tough act to follow under the best of circumstances, and these were anything but: Logano was working with Stewart’s team, Stewart’s crew chief, and driving Stewart’s championship car.  It’s practically impossible to make a name for yourself with the weight  of someone else’s reputation literally wrapped around everything you do.

But Logano soldiered on, and there were a couple of bright spots. He made history in 2008 by becoming the youngest driver in history to win a NNS race, and followed that achievement up in 2009 by doing the same thing in the NSCS, winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway at the age of 19 years, 35 days. A second Cup win came last season, at Pocono Raceway.

But that pretty much sums up the highs. In four seasons of competition, Logano has failed to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, and in a way has become a victim of his own hype. Entering t he 2013 season, the 22-year-old driver — who stands over 6 feet tall and weighs in at around 140 soaking-wet pounds — was still perceived as little more than a gangly, under-achieving kid.

Then came The Feud, and it’s a doozy. Logano and his former teammate Denny  Hamlin have been trading paint, both verbally and on-track, since the season-opening Daytona 500. Contact between the two on the final lap of the most recent race, at California Speedway on March 24, knocked both front-running drivers out of contention for the win. There was no deliberate malice on either side, but unfortunately the wreck sent Hamlin to the hospital with a spinal fracture.

After driving in the shadow of Hamlin and another former teammate, Kyle Busch, for the past four seasons, Logano seems to have literally come into his own — his own team, his own crew chief, his own identity — and it appears to have instilled a new sense of, well … ownership. Five races into the 2013 season, he sits ninth in the driver standings. Regardless of what form of confrontation he faces, he isn’t backing down. Rather, he is learning to stand up, and as we all know, that’s one of the most important parts of GROWING up.

It is important to remember that if you’re going to hold up a yardstick, make sure you’re using the proper standards of measurement. I surely am glad nobody examined me under a microscope and judged  my future potential based on who I was at age 18, or age 20. It would have been a pretty grim assessment, believe me.

So long story short, Joey  Logano may not yet be “the” man, but we are definitely watching him become “a” man before our very eyes, and that’s the very best — and only — place to start.

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