Tom Bowles
Thursday February 25th, 2010

Want a little NASCAR trivia? Quick, name that Joe Gibbs Racing driver who sits inside the top 12 in points two races into the new season.

Denny Hamlin? No. Jimmie Johnson's "main" rival has been his own worst enemy, with runs of 17th and 29th leaving him stumbling out of the blocks.

Kyle Busch? Nope. Bad luck and poor drafting choices have him stuck in neutral.

That leaves ... Joey Logano?

You got it.

What a difference a year makes for the 19-year-old. NASCAR's reigning rookie winner has turned into a sizzling sophomore who will enter Las Vegas a career-best ninth in points. Runs of 20th and 5th should have him breathing easy at the craps table this week, and that's a far cry from the last time we visited Sin City. Back then, finishes of 43rd and 26th to start the year left critics up in arms and claiming that JGR's gamble to replace two-time champ Tony Stewart with a lanky, inexperienced teen was equivalent to hitting on the blackjack table when you already have 21.

"It just goes to show all our hard work pays off," Logano told me this week. "You have more fun racing when you see the leaders. But don't get me wrong. I have a long way to go."

Preaching patience to the media reveals the budding maturity of this racing prodigy who was dubbed the next big thing by Mark Martin four years ago. Logano is armed with the knowledge a transition to Cup cars doesn't come easy. Since Hamlin finished third in points in 2006, rookies the last three years have just two wins and a grand total of zero Chase appearances while learning the ropes. Sure, Logano got lucky in winning a rain-shortened New Hampshire race last summer, but that proved an anomaly in a year where he collected just three top 5 and seven top 10 finishes.

"I made mistakes, that's for sure," he says of his inconsistent freshman year. "And most of it was mistakes that I didn't even know I was making. A lot of stuff, just getting the feel for the car and telling Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) the wrong adjustments and [having him] work on the wrong end of the race car.

"It was tough last year when critics were like, 'Oh maybe he shouldn't [be in Cup].' Is it tough? Yeah, that's tough. Is it frustrating? Yeah. But at the same time, you gotta keep working harder."

That's what he did, plugging away during last year's playoffs when most non-Chasers get busy "stroking it" while awaiting the start of 2010. Chemistry between Logano and Zippy seemed to hit a new level with the turning point an ugly Dover wreck in September as Logano flipped his No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. He was visibly shaken, but getting through it seemed to fuel his competitive fire. He had two top-5 finishes in the final six races in a momentum-builder that's carried over to 2010.

"I know you don't learn experience, but experience is the biggest thing I've gotten out of my rookie year," he says of going through that school of hard knocks. "I just don't think it's going to come like a light switch, and BAM! We're going to be running good every week, you know? But as long as we keep doing what we did last week, and keep getting good finishes, gaining some momentum, and doing a good job on adjustments, it's going to come."

As Logano transitions towards the level of weekly contender, there's bound to be some growing pains -- and he's already hit a small bump. The main complaint among his critics is that the man nicknamed "Sliced Bread" often gets sliced up by his competition when it really counts. He seems unwilling to fight back when others get aggressive. Most recent case in point: Fontana, where Logano led over 100 laps of the Nationwide race but failed to win after Greg Biffle bumped him from behind.

Faced with the same scenario, many drivers would have knocked Biffle silly after the race. Just don't expect the 19-year-old to do the same, as he's modeling his reputation not after his spin-now, talk-later JGR teammates, but after one of his role models: Martin.

"You don't want to get in a grudge match," he says. "Look at Mark, the way he's run through his whole career. There's not one person out there on the race track who doesn't like that guy. You gotta race people the way they race you, but you gotta be smart out there. You remember things that happen, but you do the right thing.

"I'll make a mistake, and I'll get behind someone and I get into them ... it's nothing intentional. And I'm always there to call and say, 'Hey man, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to.' That's something I learned last year. Jeff Burton had a little heart-to-heart with me, and told me that's probably the right way to do it."

Respect instead of rivalry isn't always what you see in a driver who hasn't even reached his 20th birthday. But his maturity level appears to be at an all-time high these days, as Logano is already looking at the big picture of making the playoffs.

"Points are a big deal in the Sprint Cup side," he claims, making it clear that he won't be going after Biffle or anyone else. "When it comes down to making the Chase, and there's one race that could make you or break you, you're going to punch yourself in the face for making a stupid decision or something on the race track that costs you."

Instead, Logano will be working on building his consistency the next couple of weeks in order to make his postseason case. It won't be easy, especially with the weight of added expectations that come with success. But after being labeled a future NASCAR superstar before he could even drive on the street, it's something he's learned to manage.

"I can't tell you I really think much of expectations as much," he said. "I think I try to set realistic goals for myself, and it's not my decision on what other people say. So, I just go along with it.

"I do the best I can and work the hardest I can to become the best."

He's well on his way.

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