Auto Racing / Sports

NASCAR's Logano leaves the drama and Sprint Cup rivals behind him

Everywhere NASCAR's Joey Logano looked last year, he seemed to find trouble. Or it found him first.

Logano and former teammate Denny Hamlin collided in consecutive weeks at Bristol and California. Hamlin ended up with a back injury that sidelined him for four weeks, and Tony Stewart called out Logano for his racing tactics.

Two weeks later, Logano watched anxiously as his No. 22 Team Penske Ford barely made it through inspection in time to get on the track at Texas Motor Speedway. When Logano arrived the next week at Kansas, both he and teammate Brad Keselowski's teams had been hit with fines and penalties for using illegal parts.

The 2013 season was just eight weeks old.

"We were in the middle of all the drama it seemed like every week -- no matter what it was," Logano said with a smile.

Logano fought through the adversity. He won at Michigan from the pole, setting a track qualifying record of 203.949 mph. He made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his five-year career.

And now Logano, in his second year with Team Penske, is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup's new format as one of two drivers with two victories this season heading into tonight's 5-hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway.

"A lot of things stacked up against us at this point last year," Logano said, "but we still had a lot of speed in our cars. We showed how tough my team is because we were able to get that win at Michigan and make the Chase.

"That says something about a team right there, and now this year, so far -- knock on wood -- we've been able to cut out the drama, and you see those results for some of that reason and also having another year under your belt with the team."

Not only has Logano won at Texas -- site of last year's stressful night -- and Richmond, but his five top-five finishes this season are tied with Dale Earnhardt for the most in the series through 10 races.

"Obviously, the chemistry keeps building," Logano said. "Myself and (crew chief) Todd Gordon are clicking right now, and he's giving me what I need and I've been able to do my job.

"That's why you see those race results there, so for two reasons -- we cut out the drama, and we're able to build off a year of getting to know each other and being able to use that to our advantage now."

Certainly, a fast car can overcome some shortcomings, but for Logano, 23, it was just a matter of time until he matured into a savvy driver.

"He's 23 years old, but he's been racing a long time," Gordon said. "In a race car, he's wiser than his years. He came here, and the transition to the 22 car gave him a new start. The thing we could focus on is we have speed. When you have speed, you have something positive."

Going through that turbulent season might have toughened up Logano as well.

"His willingness to stand his ground when people roughed him up, whether it was Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman or Tony Stewart, gained him a lot of respect," said Fox analyst and former NASCAR crew chief Jeff Hammond.

"You might say, 'How could wrecking Hamlin gain you respect?' But that is part of the evolution of developing. We've seen him finally learn how to communicate with the crew chief and team. They're able to figure out what he needs, and now we can see what people have been talking about since his early years."

Indeed, Logano, with five career wins, is finally fulfilling the promise expected of him when, at 19 years, 1 month and 4 days, he became the youngest driver to win a Sprint Cup race while with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009.

"I've been doing this for six years now, so I've been through a lot," Logano said. "I started when I was young, and going through some of the stuff I had to do and pretty much growing up in front of everybody . . . so it's hard to say one thing has changed me or made me mature into who I am now.

"I'm obviously not to where I want to be yet. I always want to keep getting better, and I think that goes for everyone. I'm sure Jimmie Johnson wants to keep getting better, and that's what it takes to go out there and win championships. There are just so many little things here and there that has changed me as a driver and a person."

The biggest change was when Logano's contract was not renewed by Joe Gibbs Racing, who signed Matt Kenseth for the No. 20 car last year. Logano moved to Penske when the seat in the No. 22 opened up.

"He has been more successful this year than I expected," said Fox analyst Larry McReynolds. "Nobody questioned his talent in the past, but I don't think he had a fair shot at Joe Gibbs Racing.

"Everyone knows Joey was pushed into that car a year too soon. In the four years he was there, he always was kind of the black sheep and not really embraced as a teammate. He needed a fresh start, and Penske is perfect for him."

"Did I expect him to have two wins after 10 races? Not really, but we saw hints of performance last year, especially during the Chase."

Now that Logano is locked into his second straight Chase, he can drive with peace of mind.

"We kind of thought with one win you're going to be all but locked in," Logano said, "but this really secures you. Having a couple of wins this early in the season and in two completely different racetracks make you very confident for the rest of the season.

"At this point we really have nothing to lose, it's all about going for wins and having fun out there and making sure we're ready for when the Chase starts. We've put ourselves in a good position this early in the season, and we're going to have some fun."

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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