Brant James
Tuesday February 1st, 2011

The manufactured perception of Joey Logano reached NASCAR's highest echelon long before the gawky kid from Connecticut.

Anointed by Mark Martin as talented enough to drive a Sprint Car before legally able to drive on a street, Logano was a precocious winner against older foes at every level. He eventually aligned with Roush Fenway and then was guided away by his father and prime influencer, Tom, for a better deal and quicker route to the big leagues with Joe Gibbs Racing. When his chance at a full-time Sprint Cup ride arose in 2009, it came as a replacement for departing two-time series champion Tony Stewart, who left his sponsor, car number and crew chief behind and a massive wake for a then-19-year-old to manage.

Two years later, Logano lives in his own house, with his own sparse furnishings and his own roommate. The No. 20 Toyota program has started to feel more like his home, too. And now it's time, he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli said, to make the next evolution as a first-time Chase for the Championship qualifier like teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

There's no pressure, Logano said, greater confidence helps alleviate that impediment. Despite a woeful mid-season swoon, confidence came easier with greater results at the end of the 2010 season, when Logano finished with successive seventh-, six-, fifth-, fourth- and third-place finish before crashing in the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Logano finished 16th in points, but winless after collecting his first Cup win at Loudon, N.H., in 2009.

The next level is attainable, Zipadelli said, but not assured.

"Just because we had a good second half of the year doesn't mean ... everybody knows how tough this sport is and we have to work at it," he said. "It's not going to just happen. Everybody else around you is working to be better. We have to continue to do that. The good news is that we probably have more room to grow than the guys to the left of us and the guys to the right of us here just because we're still new at it."

Logano might have completed an integral part of his development as a member of the garage herd with two off-track incidents last year. Logano, angered over being spun out of the top-5 late in the Pocono spring race by Kevin Harvick, charged into his adversary's crew and prodded Harvick and his ubiquitous, fire-suited wife and business partner, DeLana, in a national television interview afterward. Then there was a televised garage dispute with driver Ryan Newman.

"I think everyone has gone through it," Logano said. "I don't think you can talk to one race car driver in this whole garage that says he's never been in some kind of scuffle with anybody. Last year I felt like I got pushed around a little bit too much and I started pushing back a little bit, and I think that's what you've got to do to earn that respect. When I first started I was a rookie, I came in and it's hard to push back. Now it's to the point that, OK I've been here long enough. I feel like I'm considered one of the guys -- if you want to say that. There's no reason to take that stuff anymore. You've got to stand up for yourself."

That was an especially important point for Logano, who because of his youthful advancement often had his father at his side. A man who rearranged his business career and poured part of his personal fortune into advancing Logano's racing efforts, he was obviously invested in his son. But as a result, his son was often viewed by competitors as a child needing to break away, especially considering Tom Logano's history of confronting other drivers. Joey Logano finally began creating some of his own space last season when Tom Logano faded somewhat into the background after being sanctioned by NASCAR for pushing a television reporter during the Pocono incident.

"It's all him earning his spot," Zipadelli said. "Let's face it, he came in here at 19 years old and he got put in a car, [replacing] arguably one of the best drivers the sport has seen. He had huge shoes to fill in a lot of ways, from Tony's [Stewart] performance on the race track to his spirit off the race track. There were a lot of different things that he got thrown to the wolves.

"Pocono, he ran top-5 all day, he earned it, he raced well all day and somebody took it away. Hats off to him, he should be mad. If he wasn't mad, I would have a bigger problem with finishing like we did. The Ryan Newman incident -- that was a racing deal. That's not the only time that's going to happen. That's all part of growing up."

And growing into his very high-profile occupation and team. Finally, Logano said, he feels like the No. 20 program is his, not Tony Stewart's.

"Probably toward the end of last year," Logano said. "It's cool because you feel like all of the guys are behind you. You feel like it's your team. I went through the same thing on the Nationwide side. You've got the 20 car winning all of the races and then I jumped in there. You've got Denny [Hamlin] driving it, [Tony Stewart] was driving it. All of those guys were driving the thing. Now I feel like that's my team over here. I am to that point over here now. I think it took me a year and a half to feel that way before it actually did that."

And now, he said, it's time to do something with it.

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