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Reconsidering Joey Logano

  Joey Logano hoping to bounce back this season after a disappointing 2011 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   It was an ironic moment, Thursday morning at the track, as NASCAR's annual Media Day got underway in a huge tent just behind the Joe Weatherly grandstands -- Joey Logano and Mark Martin, next to each other talking about their careers and the upcoming season.
   Still young Logano, starting his fourth season on the Cup tour.
   Ageless Martin, well, the physical fitness buff and ever graceful stock car racer, who ran his first Cup race back in 1981….  
   The link, of course, is that Martin is the guy who 'discovered' Logano, at a short track some 10 years ago when he was barely a teenager, and yet quickly pronounced Logano ready even at that young age to race a Cup car. Martin promoted Logano so strongly it was inevitable he would get a call to the big leagues, with Joe Gibbs taking the gamble that the kid could eventually fill the shoes of legendary Tony Stewart, and persuading sponsor Home Depot to make the leap of faith too.

   Fast-forward to late 2010: Logano is hot. The pole at Bristol in the spring. A second-place finish the next week at Martinsville. Then, after a slow summer, he kicked it back in high gear over the final three months, at Richmond, Dover, Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix. Five top-10s in the last six races, and if he'd been in the playoffs, he'd have made a strong run at the title.
   But then…

   Jason Ratcliff, taking the spot on the crew chief's box where Greg Zipadelli ruled for so many years (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Last season was a flat bummer, he concedes. He turned 21 last May, but that was about the highlight of the year.
   Was Logano brought up to Cup too soon?
   "Looking at it now, probably yeah," Logano says, that 2010 streak notwithstanding.
   "There is a lot more to it than I thought.
   "I was just 18, and got the opportunity to jump in the Home Depot car. And I'd do it again, who wouldn't. So it was definitely the right thing to do.
   "But once you get in there, you realize there is a lot more to it, how much more stuff comes along with it. Off-track stuff, dealing with people, dealing with certain situations, keeping the team motivated, being a team leader.
   "I was just 18, and that was all stuff new to me, didn't know how to do all that. I was just used to racing all the time.
   "It was a lot bigger jump than I thought.
   "I started racing when I was six. And when you're that young, you have fun with it. It's not just a job.
   "But when you get to this level it's a different story. You have to stay focused, and you sometimes have to give up stuff to gain stuff."

Tighter teammates this season? Kyle Busch pushing Joey Logano in a Daytona 500 draft during January testing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "You've got to step it up," Logano says. "And the first is, obviously, realizing that.
   "And with the crew chief change (Jason Ratcliff taking over Greg Zipadelli's spot on the pit box) it becomes more 'your' team, it allows you to become a leader, and that's a real big deal for me. Jason and I are at the same level, and we're going to do it together."
   Remember, when Logano got the call, Zipadelli and Stewart had already won two NASCAR championships and 33 Cup races. When Stewart left, Zipadelli was sudden dealing with a relatively untested rookie, almost 20 years Stewart's junior.
   Still, after closing 2010 with such a rush, Logano and Zipadelli came into 2011 "with a ton of confidence that we were going to go out there and make things happen," Logano says.
   And what happened wasn't that pretty.
   "Tell me about it," Logano says with a laugh.
   "We fell on our faces. We had some little problem early, got into a hole, and couldn't dig ourselves out."
   Some on-track confrontations didn't work out that well, to put it mildly. Rivals began beating up on Logano, and Zipadelli – used to Stewart's 'instant justice' – hammered on Logano to start dishing out more.
   Things devolved.
   Then sometime in late summer, apparently when Zipadelli got a nod from Stewart about leaving Gibbs to join his team, the situation in the Home Depot hauler began settling down. The good finishes didn't come very easily, but the mood was calmer.
   Of course to be fair, the entire Gibbs operation had a very rough and ragged 2011. Teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch struggled at times. Engines were a bit of an issue.
   The three teams weren't very together.
   Will this season the three teams be tighter?
   "When you have a season like that, you learn to take a step back," Logano says. "I think that will help us all come together. Jason coming will help with the communication; and Darian (Grubb, Hamlin's new crew chief) has plugged his stuff right in. And I just love Dave Rogers (Busch's crew chief); he and I have raced together a lot. Dave is awesome.
   "Last year our whole company wasn't as strong as it needed to be. So at the end of the season you've got to change something, do something different, breath some new life into it.
   "And I personally have more confidence going into this season than even I did last year…which arguable I probably shouldn't. But I do. I feel we're going to go out there and do some good things."
   Hamlin says he's traditionally been a slow starter to the season. Busch on the other hand is typically a very fast starter.
   "I think it's important to take off strong, to set the tone for the season. Last year we didn't do that  very well, and we struggled all year. I don't think you can afford to have bad races early and get yourself in a hole.
    "You've got to make the chase."
   And that's something Joey Logano has yet to do.


Mark Martin (L) and the guy he 'discovered' so many years ago as a future NASCAR star, Joey Logano (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




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