I have seen some pretty impressive young racecar drivers in my time around the sport. Some are household names, others not so much.
I once saw a 14-year old Chase Elliott destroy a field of late models, running 100 laps and not deviating a tenth of a second from lap one to lap 100. I saw Ty Dillon and Brandon McReynolds school some fields in ARCA and late models before they were legal to buy smokes.
But one of the most impressive performances I have seen in 30-plus years around the sport came on May 4, 2008. It was the day that Rockingham Speedway reopened with a massive 50-car ARCA field for a 312-lap race.
There were some pretty established drivers in the field and some guys who would make a name for themselves in NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10-time ARCA Champion Frank Kimmel, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Mr. I’ll-race-anything-anywhere Ken Schrader.
None of them had anything that day for a 17-year-old kid whom Mark Martin had dubbed “sliced bread” — as in “best thing since …” — a few years earlier. Young Joey Logano led 257 of the race’s 312 laps.
At one point, he had lapped everyone in the field except Schrader. After a late race caution and a slow pit stop, he found himself in fifth with five laps to go. That didn’t last long; by the time the field was in turn three after the restart, Logano had regained the lead.
Logano turned 18 later that summer and by the end of the NASCAR season, he had been named the driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs, replacing then two-time series champ Tony Stewart for the 2009 season.
After a win in his rookie season, Logano’s career didn’t take off like many expected.
In four years at Gibbs, he only won once more in the Cup Series and in 2012, it was announced that Matt Kenseth would take his place in the No. 20 and the plan for the then 22-year old was the head back to the Xfinity Series full time, where he won 18 races over five years and run a limited Cup schedule.
Logano seemed to be a victim of being pushed too far, too fast. Landing a top-notch Cup ride too young has a way to do bad, bad things to your career. There are far more Brian Vickers than Jeff Gordons or Kyle Busches.
In late 2012, it looked like taking Gibbs’ second-tier deal seemed to be the best career move for Logano. Then Roger Penske came calling. He needed a driver for his No. 22 Ford after the Kurt Busch debacle followed by A.J. Allmendinger’s failed drug test.
In 2013, Logano won one race en route to an eighth-place finish in the standings. Last year, he had a break out season, winning five times while finishing fourth in the Chase. This year, he has won three times at three very different tracks: Daytona, Watkins Glen and Bristol.
With two races remaining before the start of the Chase, Logano stands to start the Chase in third place (tied with Kenseth), only trailing Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch who have four wins.
At this point, he has to be considered one of the favorites to win a championship. Sure the Gibbs guys have been on a tear lately, but Logano and his Penske team have been one of the more consistent groups all year.
It’s easy to forget that Logano is only 25. He has been a part of the NASCAR Cup Series for seven years now. If he wins the Championship this year, only Jeff Gordon, who won the Winston Cup at 23 in 1995, and Bill Rexford who won in 1950 at 23 would be younger.
At Bristol last weekend, Logano proved his mettle, withstanding a hard charge from series champion Kevin Harvick, a driver with whom he has had frequent run-ins over the course of his career. A challenge he may have shrunk from in years past.
Another indication of the maturation of “sliced bread,” perhaps into a champion.
— Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.