Teammates now: Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski -- Ford's new 1-2 punch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The man at the center of the hurricane is Joey Logano.
And he seems cool with it.
This season, it appears, there is a new Joey Logano on the stock car circuit. With more than a little bit of Brad Keselowski in him now.
Call this the 'Joey ain't taking no more @#$%^ tour.'
Logano is only 22, hard to remember at times, because he's been racing Sprint Cup since 2008.
Up too fast? Well, maybe so. But then he was billed as a hotshot newcomer, by no less than Mark Martin. And Joe Gibbs used that to help sell sponsor Home Depot on a new deal, when Tony Stewart left.
During his early years on the NASCAR trail, Logano was pushed and pushed to toughen up, to stop taking guff from rivals.
And it's hard to figure out this NASCAR stuff anyway, without having someone with 'a foot in your back,' as Jeff Burton described Logano's situation here Friday.
Wonder if Jimmie Johnson ever gets bored with all this stuff? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jimmie Johnson, who was noticeably off at California the last time out, two weeks ago, took a step toward bouncing back, winning the pole for Sunday's Martinsville 500 at record speed. "The first pit box is key, helps you out quite a bit," the seven-time track winner says.
Not only is this the first race at this flat half-mile for the new 2013s, but Goodyear also has a new tire setup, leading to record speeds. However the tire test for this event was last August.
Six men broke the record, and drivers predict more track records will fall this spring.
NASCAR's new rear end camber rules may well be an issue here; drivers wonder if some teams might abuse the camber rule and thus also abuse the tires too much -- looking very fast on short runs, but risking tires wearing excessively on longer runs. "We've studied the rear end temperatures and all that extensively, and I don't think there will be mechanical issues," Marcos Ambrose, on the outside of the front row, says. "But it may be possible to abuse the tires."
"I think that is a valid point," Brian Vickers agreeded. Vickers is third fastest.
Tires are expected to fall off in speed as much as two seconds per lap over a full gas stop. "Our teammates did see high-wear (on race setups), which is fairly common here, because this track doesn't seem to take rubber that well, until we get into Saturday's practices," Johnson said. But he said he didn't anticipate any tire issues because of excessive brake heat.
"Actually I consider this a 'green' track until the race starts, because the track changes so much about halfway through the race, and the setup you worked so hard on Friday and Saturday is out the window. When we really start laying down right-side rubber, things change a lot."
Injured Denny Hamlin, listening to the action at Martinsville. He's out at least till mid-May. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
How much of Sunday's four-hour battle will be technical/mechanical and how much mental temperment is up for more debate than usual, given the Joey Logano debate.
Keselowski reflects on Logano's early season controversies and says "It's a real test of character for him. If he can get through this test, he'll graduate to an elite level.
"It's a lot of 'old guard/new guard.' And it all depends on how competitive you are.
"When I look back at what I've gone through, I'm proud of it -- because when someone is mad at you like that, it's because you're competitive with them.
"In some ways Joey should be proud of it."
Tony Stewart, so upset with a block Logano threw late in the California 400 two weeks ago that he was throwing fists on pit road afterwards, says he's trying to keep focus here, and keep Logano off his radar:
"There are bigger feuds going on than what happened two weeks ago," Stewart said Friday, apparently trying to downplay things now. "And it’s not even a feud. I disagreed with him and what he did, and he has a different side to it and he is entitled to that.
"I think it’s a hard scenario for him this year because of switching teams (from Joe Gibbs to Roger Penske), and a lot of things that are going on. So I think there is a little extra pressure on him right now.
"He has to understand he is in a position where he can run good...and he is messing with guys that run up front all the time... and there are common denominators in some of these equations here, and you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it is.”
Stewart says California is history, for him: "I've got three race cars here and we are in Martinsville this week. I've got a lot of stuff to do other than worry about something that happened two weeks ago.
"I can't change it. I can't do anything about what happened two weeks ago."
And Stewart concedes his personal feelings about 'blocking,' may not be universal on the stock car tour: "My stance has never changed about blocking. Everybody has got a different opinion.
"I know the last two weeks everybody has tried to make a comparison to the Talladega deal (where Stewart, race leader, blocked Michael Waltrip's passing bid the last lap, triggering a huge crash that wiped out most of the field). Talladega is a little different deal than the rest of it. I don't like it at Daytona and Talladega either, but it's the position we are put in there.
"What happened at California is a different deal.
"The people that are trying to compare the two are people that -- honestly I've read who has written it, and it's disappointing they don't understand the sport any better than that. But there is a huge difference between the two.
"I don't like blocking. I never have, I never will.
"I learned from Rusty Wallace and Dale Sr., Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton -- drivers raced each other with respect. Your job was to go out and do a better job than anybody. And none of those guys ever blocked 15 years ago."
Now that may be rewriting history. We'll have to go to the tape to make judgement.
Still, Stewart makes the case like this: "It's our jobs as drivers to go out there and try to pass people. That is what racing is about.
"We didn't have blocking 10 years ago.
"I don't know where all of a sudden it became a common deal, or some people think it's all right to do now.
"I don't believe it should be common practice."
But then Jeff Gordon is among those who disagree: "There's a mirror and a spotter in these cars for a reason.
"To me blocking has always been sort of wide-open and accepted.
"But you've got to make the block soon enough. If the guy is there, and you start turning down on him, you're basically giving the guy behind you an excuse to turn you. We see it a lot more at Daytona and Talladega.
"To me that (at California) was two guys racing hard.
" I can understand why Tony was mad, because he had a hole in front and faded. Had he gone down into turn one and raced side-by-side with him and finished in the top five, he probably would have shaken it off as 'I wasn't happy about it, but we'll deal with that later,' and not reacted quite as aggressively as he did.
"But to me everywhere we go, you've got to use that mirror and you've got to figure it out -- especially in a green-white-checkered situation, you've got to go for it, and you've got to do everything you can to win on both sides."
Virginia officials are honoring NASCAR legend Wendell Scott with an historical highway marker near his Danville, Va., home.
Logano himself? "I feel like, with Tony and me, it's pretty much over.
"We have not talked to each other; but we had an off-weekend and time to relax a little bit and cool off. So I feel that's over; I feel we're moving on.
"I think we both understand what happened. I've heard his comments, and he's heard mine."
"Every driver is going to have his own opinion," Logano says. "Late in the race you're going to see that a lot. You're going to see it here.
"A lot of people do it, and as a driver you have to be ready for that.
"I looked back at the four or five cars behind me (in reviewing the California video), and they did the same exact thing. That's hard racing at the end of the race.
"Early in the race, no, you shouldn't do that. At the end of the race, I would expect it to be done to me."
Logano has a new team this season, a new boss Roger Penske, a new brand, Ford. Everything is new. Except the pressure. Which is amped up.
"The game plan is not to be in the middle of the drama... but at least they're talking about you," Logano says. "That's a good thing.
"And we've had some really fast cars that can go out there and win these things."
Indeed, Logano could easily have won both Bristol and California, and he could well be considered Ford's lead driver right now, as surprising as that might seem.
Hamlin says Logano needs to show more patience, but Logano disagrees. "I feel I have enough racing experience and enough racing savvy to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
Logano isn't known as a man who goes looking for trouble: "But I'm also not here to get walked on either.
"There's a fine line how you're going to earn that respect.
"No, I don't feel like I need to prove myself. I want to go out and win races. If that's proving yourself, okay, then that's what it is.
"I'm out here to win races just like everyone else is, and I'm going to race hard to do that."
Blue skies Friday at Martinsville, and 70 degrees is Sunday's forecast. Thursday's snow and sleet are history. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)