Mark Story: Fast-moving NASCAR star Logano already in 'comeback' phase at age 24

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 26, 2014 

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SONOMA, CA - JUNE 20: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, sits in his car prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 20, 2014 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)

ROBERT REINERS — Getty Images

  • NASCAR Week at Kentucky Speedway

    Thursday: Kyle Busch wins Craftsman Truck Series UNOH 225.

    Friday: Nationwide Series John R. Elliott HERO Campaign 300, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    Saturday: Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

    COMING SATURDAY

    A special section previewing NASCAR's Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, the Quaker State 400.

SPARTA — They say life just moves faster in the 21st century. The career of Joey Logano being Exhibit A.

When Logano was 14, NASCAR legend Mark Martin saw him race a Legends car at Charlotte and declared "I am absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt that (Logano) can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR."

The Middletown, Conn., product was 18 when he came to Kentucky Speedway to run his third career race in the Nationwide Series. That night, he became the youngest driver ever to win in the series. By then, many were referring to Logano by a nickname — "Sliced Bread," as in the greatest thing since.

Logano was 19 in 2009 when he not only claimed a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series, but inherited one of the most prestigious in NASCAR — the No. 20 car that Tony Stewart had made famous at Joe Gibbs Racing.

In our accelerated times, however, the trip down can be every bit as quick as the trip up.

By age 22, Logano had logged 144 Cup starts for JGR, posting two wins with 16 Top 5s. Those were not the numbers expected for one projected to be "one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR."

So for the 2013 season, JGR wooed veteran Matt Kenseth to take over the No. 20 car. Logano landed a ride with venerable car owner Roger Penske.

Now, lo and behold, at the ripe old age of 24, Logano is at Kentucky Speedway for the fourth Quaker State 400 on Saturday night as one of NASCAR's redemption stories.

The guy who won two Cup races and led 337 total laps in 144 career starts for Joe Gibbs Racing already has three victories while leading a robust 802 laps in only 52 races with Team Penske.

Is this dramatic reversal in fortune a case of a young driver growing up or more the story of a driver finding that elusive "fit" with one team that he never developed with the other?

"Yes," Logano joked.

Turning serious, he said "I think it is a combination of all of those things. When I came to Team Penske, I was coming in as a 22-year-old. I was a lot more mature than I was when I first signed with Gibbs at 16. It was just a completely different dynamic between me and my team."

Rather than part of a three-car team at JGR with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, Penske runs two Cup cars with Logano paired with 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

"For whatever reason, a two-car team has been a good fit for me," Logano said. "Brad and I have worked well together, and our teams have. I have worked really well with my crew chief, Todd (Gordon). Then, who wouldn't want to be driving (for a team) where Roger Penske comes on your radio?"

With his record 15 Indianapolis 500 wins as an owner, Penske is more identified with open-wheel racing than stock cars. But "The Captain" has had ample NASCAR success, too, with Ryan Newman's 2008 Daytona 500 win to go with Keselowski's Cup championship.

"He's very, very busy with his businesses and race teams. I don't see him that much," Logano said of Penske. "But he texts me, just to see what I'm thinking about how things are going. In IndyCar, he still calls the races, so he likes to jump on the radio during (Cup) races, too. It gives me confidence when I hear his voice on my radio."

Logano's 2014 reflects a driver and team performing confidently. The No. 22 Ford has won twice, at Texas and Richmond. Though seventh in the traditional points, by virtue of NASCAR's new 'win-and-you-are-in' championship formula, Logano is already locked into The Chase grid.

For a variety of reasons, Kentucky Speedway is a Logano favorite. It started with that first Nationwide Series victory in 2008.

"It was Father's Day weekend, my third race," he recalled. "To put it on the pole and then win that race, it's certainly one I'll never forget."

After that first win, Logano became the "King of Kentucky" in Nationwide races. He won the pole and the race in Sparta three straight years (2008-10). Yet once the Cup Series finally came to Kentucky Speedway, Logano's dominance did not immediately translate.

While still with JGR, he finished 14th in 2011 and 22nd in 2012. However, after last year's move to Penske, Logano was fourth in the 2013 Quaker State 400.

"Bumpy mile-and-a-half tracks have been Penske's trademark,'" Logano said. "Texas, Atlanta, now we're coming to Kentucky, the roughest of all."

On the career comeback at the ripe old age of 24, don't be shocked if Joey Logano finds the fastest way over the "Kentucky bumps" Saturday night.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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