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Kansas preview: Joey Logano is coming of age

Photo: John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images

Even after a 25-point penalty from NASCAR, the precocious Joey Logano is still 14th in the points.

It seems like five minutes ago, especially when you measure the passing of time by how little Joey Logano has physically aged from when we first met more than four years ago. In the fall of 2008, the Cup circuit had just rolled into Kansas Speedway -- the site of this Sunday's race -- and I spent the better part of the weekend with Logano, then 18, and his family.

Oh, he was young. He was a dead-ringer for a fresh-faced Richard Petty (and he still is) and while he knew NASCAR history well, he didn't want to dig too deep on anything -- girls, movies, books -- other than racing. This wasn't surprising, given that racing consumed his young life. After all, in 2004, when Joey was only 14, Mark Martin told every microphone he could find that Logano, who raced against Martin's son Matt, would one day be known as one of the greatest stock car racers this country has ever produced.

Imagine that pressure.

Still, as we cruised around the outfield in Kansas together on a golf cart in '08, Logano was quick to tell me that racing was all he knew, all he loved, all that his thoughts were tethered to. His dad, Tom, had lived a hard yet successful life: He started a garbage business in the 1980s in Connecticut, and it grew rapidly. When Joey was four, Tom, who was a stick-and-ball fan, bought Joey an eight-horsepower go-kart on a whim. Within days, Tom was awestruck: his boy was fishtailing that kart with startling ease around the dumpsters and trailers that Tom kept on the 14 acres of his land waste company.

"There were times," Tom told me, "when I thought that if doesn't hurt himself, he's going to be pretty good."

During Logano's rookie year, he won a race, becoming the youngest ever to do so on the Cup circuit, and finished a respectable 20th in points. When I asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. about Logano in 2008, this was Junior's response: "It's going to be damn hard for him to handle all of the attention. There's going to be so many people pulling him in different directions. I know I couldn't have handled it as an 18-year-old."

Yet, Logano has. This week he traveled to the SI headquarters in midtown Manhattan and spoke with Maggie Gray. He was quintessentially smooth -- a necessary skill for any big-time driver (he didn't forget to thank his sponsors) -- and after the cameras stopped rolling he told Maggie that there could have been a "third wheel" syndrome at Joe Gibbs Racing (meaning, he was the odd man out in the team's threesome of himself, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch) and that he's been "wheeling like hell" this season for his new team, Penske Racing, and he "won't stop." He also refused to apologize to Denny Hamlin for their wreck at Fontana, saying instead that he's texted Denny and wished him a "speedy recovery."

My take on Logano in 2013 is that he is a driver who is coming of age before our eyes. Logano and his Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski were docked 25 points by NASCAR on Tuesday due to illegal rear-end housing parts on their cars that were confiscated by officials before last Saturday's race in Texas, but Logano is still 14th in the standings and very much a threat to qualify for his first Chase. He's been running with the lead pack all season and I don't think that will change on Sunday at Kansas.

In seven career starts in the Heartland, Logano has never finished higher than 15th on the 1.5-mile oval. But past statistics simply don't apply to him this season. He has consistently bettered his career finishing averages in 2013 and is my pick to take the checkers on Sunday.

Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:

1. Jimmie Johnson

The current points leader, Johnson's average finish this season is 7.1, and If he maintains this pace it would be a career high, which is really saying something about the current state of affairs for a team that has won five championships.

Johnson has won two of the last seven events at Kansas and he came in third in this race last year. Expect another top-three run from the No. 48 team on Sunday.

2. Kyle Busch

Busch is on roll right now. He's finished in the top five in each of his last five starts, including wins in two of the last three races. This is the kind of dominance from the No. 18 team that many in the garage have been expecting for years, given that Busch is widely considered to possess more natural driving ability than anyone in the sport. He's currently second in the standings.

Though he has never won at Kansas in 11 career starts, it would be an upset if he doesn't contend for the checkers on Sunday based on how well he's been performing in recent weeks.

3. Matt Kenseth

Many people in NASCAR will tell you that Kenseth has the look a champion this season. Though he's only tenth in the standings, he's led laps in five of the seven races and -- if he hasn't been involved in a wreck or had a mechanical issue -- he's consistently run near the front of the pack.

Kenseth won at Kansas last fall. He should be good for a top-five finish on Sunday.

4. Clint Bowyer

A native of nearby Emporia, Ks., Bowyer considers this race his personal Daytona 500. He's eighth in the standings and has had two top-five finishes in his last four starts.

Bowyer has never won at Kansas -- he came in sixth here last October -- but expect him to be very aggressive on Sunday. He'll have a throng of friends and family in the grandstands, and he'll be compelled to give them a good show. Look for him to challenge Logano in the closing laps.

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