DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the chaotic moments following the end of Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, as fireworks exploded overhead and a collection of crumpled cars limped back to the garage area, team owner Joe Gibbs stood calmly in front of Joey Logano's hauler, waiting for his young driver to wrap up a series of interviews along pit road.
Logano had battled back from damage his car received in one wreck and then avoided several other late accidents to post a fourth-place finish, giving him his fifth top-10 in the past eight races. As a result, Logano currently is one of the 12 drivers qualified for the Chase for the Championship, leading Ryan Newman by one point and Kasey Kahne by three for the final spot.
As the minutes ticked by with no sign of Logano, Gibbs' son J.D. Gibbs -- the president of Joe Gibbs Racing -- leaned over and said to his father, "If we wait much longer we'll miss Denny," referring to fellow JGR driver Denny Hamlin. Joe Gibbs continued to stare toward pit road and said simply, "I want to see Joey."
Finally, Logano arrived, and Gibbs greeted him with a wide smile, a handshake and several congratulatory pats on the shoulder. Logano smiled back, clearly enjoying the moment. There were absolutely no signs of tension between owner and driver, no display of discord. Gibbs was genuinely excited for Logano, and Logano seemed equally as thrilled to receive the post-race attention from his boss.
So why then does it appear that Logano is on the verge of possibly losing his ride in the No. 20 car with JGR?
Welcome to the sponsor-driven world of modern-day NASCAR, where image is everything. And unfortunately for the baby-faced, 22-year-old Logano, he does not have the manly "Mr. Fix-It" image desired by his car's primary sponsor, Home Depot. The home-improvement company has been getting crushed on the track in recent years by rival Lowe's, the sponsor of five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. In addition, Johnson looks like a guy you would actually see shopping at Lowe's. Logano, on the other hand, looks like a kid you would see at Comic-Con.
So when Logano went eight consecutive races early this season without finishing better than 15th, speculation begin to swirl that his contract with JGR -- which expires at the end of this season -- would not be extended. Those rumors increased in intensity a few weeks ago when it was announced that series points-leader Matt Kenseth will be leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season. There is no way that Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, would voluntarily leave Roush without having a ride lined up with a new team, and all signs point to that ride being the No. 20 Home Depot car.
The move makes sense from Home Depot's standpoint. Not only would it have a driver who consistently runs in the top 10 and makes the Chase, but it would have a spokesperson who looks a lot like its average customer: A 40-year-old everyman who you easily could imagine building a deck or fixing a faucet. For NASCAR sponsors these days, having the proper pitchman in their car is nearly as important as the performance on the track.
The problem with all this for JGR is there is no indication that the team wants to lose Logano. JGR first signed Logano to a contract as a development driver when he was only 15 and put him in a Cup car when he was 18, making him the youngest driver in the modern era of Cup racing. As Gibbs said Saturday night, "We have a lot invested in Joey. We want him with us long term. That's what we're working on."
The question is, how can JGR make it work? Hamlin recently signed a contract extension with the organization and Kyle Busch, despite his occasional behavior issues, is too talented to let go, especially now that he has toned down his act. So if Kenseth is coming on board to drive the No. 20 car, the only way JGR can keep Logano is to add a fourth Sprint Cup team or convince him to take a temporary demotion to the Nationwide Series.
JGR has never fielded four Cup teams, and adding a team is an expensive proposition. Primary sponsorship for a top-tier team can exceed $30 million a year, and there aren't many sponsors willing to throw around that kind of money these days. There is also the issue of adding crew members and space to the organization's headquarters to accommodate a fourth car.
As for taking a step back to Nationwide, Logano has been stellar on that circuit this season, with five victories and nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts. He is certainly young enough that he could spend a couple of seasons in Nationwide, maybe win the series championship, and still have a lengthy Cup career. Given more time, perhaps JGR could come up with the funding for a fourth Cup team in a year or so. But considering that Logano won the Sprint Cup race at Pocono just a month ago and is in strong contention to make the Chase, it seems unlikely he would be receptive to leaving Cup.
Of course, all of this talk is precisely the type of thing that irritates drivers. When Logano was asked after Saturday's race whether the uncertainty about his future had served as motivation for his recent success, he replied, "It acts as frustration."
"It's hard," Logano continued. "[Crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] and I have talked about it. It's not something you can ignore. It's obvious. We've talked about it, we know where we both stand and we know what's going on. I told him we just have to make the most of what we have, and all that other stuff will play itself out."
Gibbs said he has no concerns that Logano will be distracted by all the outside chatter and internal negotiations. "This is a tough league for a driver. You have to be able to handle tough things," Gibbs said. "Joey has a great attitude and is doing a good job. It's one of those deals where we know he has the talent, and he's stepping up and getting after it."
Still, both Gibbs and Logano used the phrase "up in the air" when asked about Logano's future with the organization. Gibbs says he wants to keep Logano, and in turn Logano says he wants to remain with JGR. But this might be one of those unusual situations where outside forces -- namely sponsorship -- demand a change that neither side truly wants to occur.
"We're just trying to get things figured out," Logano said. "I have nothing definite right now. I wish I did, but I don't have anything yet. All of the cards will kind of go in the right slot here eventually. Until then, I'm just going to go out there and race hard. It's taken awhile to get here, but everything is working right now. We just want to try to keep that going. That's really all I can do."