Logano, other drivers on the hot seat entering 2012 season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Joey Logano has experienced an entire NASCAR career in three seasons: he was the next greatest thing ever; a hotshot kid with the opportunity of a lifetime; and a disappointment after two seasons, in jeopardy of losing his job by the third.
It is with this accelerated education that 21-year-old Logano, who Mark Martin said was a future great when he was in his mid-teens, attempts to steady himself and his career in his fourth season driving the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. He knows it won't be long before his future is again called into question, with a new set of drivers supposedly in line to nab one of the prime jobs in the Sprint Cup garage. That he is in the final year of his contract heightens expectation and, he admits, urgency. Last year it was Carl Edwards, the eventual series runner-up, who was courted by JGR before eventually re-signing with Roush Fenway Racing. Another poor points finish by Logano (he's been 20th, 16th and 24th with one win as a full-time driver) won't do, and he knows it.
"In this sport you're never going to feel secure," he said. "You've got to take that to motivate you. You want to be comfortable and want to be secure and know everything is fine, but realistically it's probably not, so you've got to go out there and motivate yourself to do whatever you can to give you that feeling."
Logano said he attempted to ignore midseason reports of his career demise, but admits it was a difficult task. He begins this season with a fresh start of sorts in new crew chief Jason Ratcliff.
"You try to block it out," he said of public speculation. "You don't necessarily want to hear it and all it does is take your mind off where it needs to be, so you try to not think about it, but when you turn on the TV and all you see is them talking about you, saying you're out or you're in or this or that, whatever it is [you think], 'Huh, I wonder if any of that is true?'
"The thing is, that's not going to make you a good race car driver, thinking about that stuff. That is a distraction and you don't need distractions."
Neither do any of these other drivers, who, for their own individual reasons, face a season of great scrutiny, pressure and speculation.
Here are four other drivers under various forms of pressure:
One of the most opportunistic drivers this offseason, the sixth-year Sprint Cup driver left Richard Petty Motorsports when sponsor Best Buy vacated. He was nabbed by Penske Racing as a replacement for Kurt Busch, chosen over former race-winners David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers.
It's the chance of a lifetime for a driver who has just four top-fives in 152 Cup starts and has finished no better than 15th (last season) in the final points standings. Certainly, he has improved since leaving the now-defunct Champ Car series after the 2006 season, but Penske needs someone who can keep up with and push teammate Brad Keselowski and maximize the coveted Shell-Pennzoil sponsorship. The gregarious Allmendinger should thrive in the ancillary aspects of his job -- media, hospitality -- but all indications are he is working on only a guaranteed one-year deal. Time to perform.
The 2004 Sprint Cup champion insists this season will be all about "fun" and "old-school racing," a typical salve for a drivers' pride when monied sponsor pressure and modern resources have been lost because of on- and off-track incidents. Busch's departure from Penske Racing will allow him ample opportunity to see just how much fun he can create with Phoenix Racing, an 18-member team with scant resources.
What Busch accomplishes statistically likely will matter little, and only positively. If he excels in Phoenix's equipment, his reputation as a driver will only be burnished. If he fails, the equipment will be blamed. But if he handles whatever inevitable adversity arises, perhaps he can rehabilitate his image and land a job with a larger team next year. But, then again, if it's all about "old-school racing" and hanging with the boys in the shop, perhaps there is no pressure on Busch after all. The answer should be arrived at soon.
His 2011 antics again overshadowed his extraordinary abilities in a race car. Those same abilities came to the fore with two remarkable saves during his victory at the Bud Shootout on Saturday. Observers will question how long it will take for his mental game to catch up ... until it does. Talent will always be granted extra opportunities, but Busch needs to look no further than one rung up his family tree to note the repercussions when teams have had enough of the poor off-track behavior.
The perennial prospect joins NASCAR's most successful team after riding out the string for a season and a half at RPM and Red Bull Racing. With the No. 5 Chevrolet vacated following the departure of Martin, Kahne, 31, finally appears to have the strong foundation he's lacked since original Sprint Cup owner Ray Evernham sold his team to George Gillett in 2007.