Every ingredient that went into the mix predicted a breakout season for Joey Logano in 2011. Performance is paramount and he'd closed out 2010 with five top-5s, including thirds at Dover and Phoenix and seven top-7s in the final 11 races. He'd finished 16th in the Sprint Cup championship in his second full season, at age 20. Logano was a teenage prodigy when he arrived to Cup and he'd substantiated that he could take that talent to the next level. The greatness that Mark Martin had predicted early seemed ahead.
Eleven races into this season, it's been a struggle and a disappointment for Logano and Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 team. His best finish has been 10th at Talladega, followed by 11th at Richmond and 13th at Martinsville. The other eight have been 23rd or worse and he's 28th in the points.
"This year is definitely not what we expected it to be," Logano said. "We ended last year really good and we came in with a lot of high expectations. We kind of struggled with some things out of our control at the beginning of the season, motors, getting wrecked on pit road. But we still had speed in the cars."
Logano was in a multicar crash at Daytona, nothing unusual there for anybody, and went out with an engine failure at Phoenix. And there have been other accidents, with Jimmie Johnson at Richmond and with Marcos Ambrose at Darlington. Logano and the team self-destructed last week at Dover, finishing five laps down in 27th.
"I spun the thing out, my mistake, but it was still going to be a decent day and we got a wheel loose," he said. "It's been one thing after another. But we started fifth. I know that was off practice, but we still had speed. There are signs of hope we're getting better and we know we're going to get better."
Logano says the challenge in the past few weeks had been adapting to the Goodyear-supplied tires to the No. 20 Toyota. They're different from track to track, season to season.
"Recently, the tires have thrown us for a loop," Logano explained. "Kyle [Busch] has it figured out and Denny [Hamlin] and I haven't figured it out. We're taking a lot of different directions to try to figure it out. The tire plays into certain driving styles. I look at Kyle and Carl [Edwards] and they've got it figured out. [Tires are] the one thing that is the same for everybody and certain people figure what the tires take to make it go fast. It's a matter of changing your driving style and what you look for in the race car.
"I think that's the biggest thing that can get us back on track, figuring out the tire. You've got to get everything to match up and we'll be right where we were last year. We need one good weekend to get the momentum back."
Logano has become a big believer in momentum. He had it at the end of last year and it's disappeared this season.
"Everything was clicking just right at the end of last season," Logano said. "You get that momentum deal going. Even if we didn't feel our car was that good in practice, we knew we'd come out and do good no matter what happened. [Momentum] is bigger than you think. I never realized it was that important, it's very, very big. It's hard to explain, but the biggest thing is just confidence. Momentum equals confidence."
It's easy to understand why Logano didn't realize the momentum factor. Until he arrived in Cup, he always had it by winning races at every level.
Logano was ready for the Nationwide Series before he was eligible to race in it and sat around waiting for his 18th birthday. Three weeks after he turned 18, Logano won at Kentucky in his third Nationwide start.
Tony Stewart had decided to leave Gibbs following the 2008 season to become co-owner at Stewart-Haas and it accelerated the timetable for Logano's move into Cup. Team owner Joe Gibbs decided to promote Logano at least one year ahead of projections, in 2009. Gibbs figured, correctly, that Logano would learn faster how to race in Cup by being in Cup.
"It was go do it, just get out there and figure it out," Logano said. "Was it a little earlier than I expected? Of course it was. I had to go at it hard. I knew it was going to be tough going in, it's expected. But is was also an awesome opportunity, an honor."
Logano, with help from Mother Nature and some good strategy, won at New Hampshire in his rookie season, finished a respectable 20th in the points with three top-5s and seven top-10s. He'd proven he belonged. And he verified it with his second season.
Cup has been a major adjustment for Logano on and off the track. Sponsor Home Depot has kept him busy with television commercials and appearances and the media requirements were more extensive that he'd ever experienced.
"As a person, I'm completely different than I used to be, to the good," Logano said. "The experience of knowing how to deal with situations on and off the track means a lot more than you think. It's a big deal, probably one of the biggest differences about coming into Cup, and all that stuff [sponsors, media] added on top of driving the race car is tough to learn to deal with.
"As a driver, the way you race people in Cup is different. I've learned more in the last two years than in my whole career, by a lot, and it's a product of racing against the best race car drivers in the world. It's unbelievable how much I've learned and how much a different person and driver I am."
Logano is still thinking Chase and putting some wins on the board, the next steps in his progression. There's no points at stake, but he'd like to start Saturday in the Sprint Showdown and get to the All-Star race at Charlotte.
"It's kind of the same way we've approached every other race, we're going to go for the win and do everything to get to the bigger race," Logano said. "Charlotte is my favorite race track. I love the place and hopefully it can turn things around for us and get us momentum. You can turn around a season pretty quickly with something like that."
Logano went through a 19-race stretch without a top-5 in the middle of last season before the late-season surge. He's a year older -- he'll be 21 on May 24 -- and more experienced and mature as a driver and person. Every factor points to him still making this season better than 2010.