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The right place, the right time, and Joey Logano makes history...with a little help from Greg Zipadelli

Tony Stewart (R) high-fives former crew chief Greg Zipadelli (L), in victory circle with winner rookie Joey Logano (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Joe Gibbs looks positively brilliant now.
   It might not have been the prettiest NASCAR victory, in a rain-shortened race. In fact it was a steal.
   But Joey Logano has been a comer, and for several years now. Remember all that talk from Mark Martin for so many years about this unknown kid who was ready for Cup racing when he was maybe only 13? Well, that's Joey Logano.
   And Sunday, just barely a year after his first NASCAR start, in a Nationwide race, and just 20 races into a career that team owner Joe Gibbs says he hopes "lasts another 20 years," Logano is now a major league Sprint Cup winner.
   Yes, there was the rain.
   But anyone else could have played the same strategy crew chief Greg Zipadelli did:
   And, like Zipadelli says, the key to winning in NASCAR is first to put yourself in position to win: "And that's what we did here.
   "It was a crazy day. But this sport is about putting yourself in position to win, and we did that because we were behind and we could do some things that the other guys couldn't, because they were protecting their track position."
    A win this season? Was that really part of the pre-season game plan?
   Gibbs laughed. "Do I have to be honest," he said. "Actually we just wanted to see improvement all year.
   "You don't think of a rookie up here, with no testing. Sure, you want to win, but it wasn't really in our mindset.
   "I have to thank (sponsor) Home Depot for being willing to go with a young guy. And our guys have been great this year, really supporting Joey, showing a great mindset.
   "Absolutely thrilled for Joey.
   "If we keep this thing going, maybe we can ride it for another 20 years."
   After 10 years driving for Gibbs and Zipadelli, Tony Stewart – who might well have won Sunday too (he finished fifth) – came to victory lane to high-five with Zipadelli and congratulate the kid who replaced him at the wheel of the orange number 20.
   "I just laughed when Tony came up after the race – I told him 'This is the one that got away from us last year because of rain,'" Zipadelli said, referring to last year's race here, which Stewart dominated, only to get beat by the rain in a similar gambling scenario.
   "Yeah, we got lucky, obviously. The rain came at just the right time," Logano says. "But a win is a win in my book."
   Losing Stewart after 10 great years and two NASCAR championships, Gibbs last summer had to make a call, whom to pick to take the ride with Zipadelli and a championship team.
   And when Gibbs went with 18-year-old Logano, a raw rookie in this sport, there were more than a few questions.
   And some earlier this season were still questioning the call, thinking perhaps Logano was a little over his head.
   But then Logano came out of the box at Daytona with some unexpectedly bold racing at Daytona. And after a sluggish next few weeks, Logano finally started hitting stride about a month ago.
   "I figured out early this season that this sport is a rollercoaster," Logano said with a laugh.
   Gibbs concedes giving Logano this deal was a gamble. "But we all were involved in the decision to give Joey this ride, especially Zippy. Now we were thinking at that time we'd get to do a lot of testing this year (NASCAR then banned all testing)," Gibbs said. "So Joey is seeing a lot of these tracks for the very first time on race weekend.
   "And these guys on the crew are used to running for championships, and now they're working with a rookie…."
   But it looks like it's paying off.
   "This has really been going on about the last eight races," Gibbs said.
  The specifics of Sunday's win: The final round of gas stops started with about 35 to 40 miles to go, and Zipadelli, because he'd made an extra stop earlier, had a little more fuel than the rest. So, with a car that wasn't really a contender, Zipadelli gambled on holding Logano out on the track until the bitter end.
   It even surprised Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch, who had battled hard for the lead all day, but who, after their final stops, didn't realize for a while that Logano was in fact the leader.
   Then rain began, NASCAR called first for a yellow, then for the red.
   "We could have probably gone another four to six laps," Zipadelli said of Logano's fuel. "But in our situation we were going to ride it out until we ran out of fuel."
   "This is so, so huge," Logano said. "This is like my home track, it's where I watched my first Cup race. And while you don't necessarily like to win in the rain, your first win is always huge. You only get your first win one time.
   "We overcame a lot; the left-rear went down just before that last long green-flag run. I thought then we were done. But Zippy made the right move."
   "It was a huge day for us, as a group," Zipadelli said, conceding the pressures of the season with a rookie. "It was awesome to do this. We've won a race every year….and winning is something we definitely wanted to accomplish this year."
   A cut tire put Logano a lap down, but he got the Lucky Dog caution to get back on the lead lap, though his car still wasn't really a contender.
   And then Zipadelli worked some of his magic, got a lucky break, "and I was just fortunate to be the guy at the wheel," Logano said.


  Joey Logano climbs from his rain-soaked Toyota (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAr)

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