Logano ready for Cup debut

Published 2:20 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nerves have never been a problem for Joey Logano — at least not on the racetrack.

The 18-year-old driver has been racing against older and more experienced competitors since he was a toddler.

“I guess the only time I can remember ever being nervous in a car was when I took my driving test,” Logano said. “That’s because it would have been real embarrassing to fail it.”

He got his driver’s license just fine. And when it comes to race cars, Logano hasn’t known much failure. He has steadily climbed the racing ladder in since father Tom Logano first buckled him into a go-kart at age 4.

But if ever there was a reason for the younger Logano to have another case of nerves, it is this week as he prepares for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start at Richmond International Raceway. To make the field, he’ll have to qualify, since his No. 02 Joe Gibbs Racing entry is not among the top 35 in car owner points. And if it rains, a real possibility as forecasters watch Tropical Storm Hannah, Logano also won’t make the race.

Having to qualify doesn’t seem to bother Logano, and neither does having to live up to the hype that has surrounded his phenomenal rise — including being named to replace two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 JGR Toyota next season.

“I think I’d feel weird without the pressure because I’ve kind of gotten used to it,” Logano said after being anointed as Stewart’s successor. “And if I didn’t have the pressure, I’d think something would be wrong. I’m 100 percent cool with it.

“I go out there expecting to win. I go out there expecting my team to expect to win. I think that’s what everyone is here for and that is what I want my team to be here for.”

So far, so good.

Despite signing with Gibbs at 15 and quickly showing the kind of promise that might have gotten him there earlier, Logano had to abide by a NASCAR rule and wait until his 18th birthday in May to make his debut in the second-tier Nationwide Series.

He had a sixth-place finish at Dover in his first start, won the pole in Nashville in his second race, then won from the pole at Kentucky. In his first 11 Nationwide starts, Logano has chalked up three top-fives and eight top-10s. Not bad for someone who is still three years away from being able to legally sip champagne in Victory Circle.

Even with all that obvious ability on display, Gibbs had intended to give Logano the rest of this season and 2009 to gain experience in Nationwide, continue as a test driver of JGR’s Cup car and get comfortable with his surroundings. But Stewart’s unexpected decision to leave his home of 10 years to drive for his own team upset those plans.

“I asked Joey, ‘Do you think it’s too quick? Would you rather spend more time?'” Gibbs said. “Joey said, ‘To be quite truthful, every minute you (give) me in the car, I think I would be gaining experience. I don’t think I would benefit from having somebody else coaching me up or splitting races.'”

The youngster will run seven of the last 11 Cup races this season — two in a fourth Gibbs entry and five more with Hall of Fame Racing, which gets its engines and cars from Gibbs.

Kyle Busch, who came to the team this year after an apprenticeship at Hendrick Motorsports, knows exactly what Logano is up against. Busch, now one of the biggest stars in Cup at the age of 23, was also considered a phenom when he ran his first truck race at 16 and made his Cup debut for the team at 19.

But his buildup was nothing like what has surrounded Logano’s rise.

“For all of the pressure that people wanted to put on him for his Nationwide debut, he did real well with it,” Busch said last week before the Cup race at Fontana, Calif. “And all of the pressure that everybody wants to put on him for his getting into a Cup ride, he’ll have to do a good job with that, too.”

Busch said Logano’s biggest hurdles will probably be what he has to face off the track.

“I think it’s just probably the amount of exposure, with the amount of media, with the amount of sponsor appearances, with the amount of all that stuff,” he said. “Hopefully, Joe Gibbs Racing will take it easy on him a little bit at least, and (sponsor) Home Depot won’t wear him out too quick.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is impressed by what he has seen from Logano, especially when he reflects on what he was like as a teenager.

“It’s exciting to see these young guys come in,” Junior said. “So much talent at such a young age. I remember how I was at 18. I didn’t have the mentality and the (maturity) to handle all the things that they’ll face in the garage, in and outside the car. I think that’s really where the owners and the mentors can be most careful is how this guy is affected by the attention outside the car and what kind of driver … that makes him.”

Meanwhile, Logano is just trying to enjoy driving the race cars and ignore the fuss that is building outside of the cockpit.

“I started (racing) when I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “Back then, people didn’t start racing until they were 16. I’m 18 and I’ve been racing for 12 years, now. I feel that’s where it’s different … I feel I’m ready.”