He still looks so young, like he could be bagging your groceries or working the cash register as a summer job at your local Dairy Queen. But that callow aspect is just what makes Joey Logano such a dichotomy: By appearance he seems so harmless; by action he has established himself, at age 23, as one of the most aggressive -- and, in some circles, one of the most reviled -- NASCAR drivers of 2013.
Logano's win-or-wreck philosophy was evident last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. On the final restart of the race, he purposely blocked several drivers to stay ahead of Kevin Harvick and maintain his second-place position. When leader Mark Martin ran out of gas late, Logano cruised to his first victory of the year.
With three races left in the regular season, Logano is now 13th in the standings, only seven points behind Martin Truex, Jr., who, as the 12th-place driver, currently holds the final spot in the Chase. (Wild card berths are given to the two drivers ranked 11th through 20th in the standings based first on who has the most wins, and then on points. Truex and Logano each have one victory.)
Logano's penchant for blocking led to an early-season feud with Tony Stewart, who took a swing at him on pit road at Fontana in March. Smoke was steamed because he felt that Logano hadn't given ground during a restart. During the final lap of that same race, Logano bumped into Denny Hamlin from behind, causing them both to wreck. Hamlin got the worst of it: he suffered a compression fracture in his lower back, missed four races, and, frankly, hasn't been the same driver since the incident.
Even though Logano has been crushed on Twitter for his driving style -- "When you go on Twitter and read that everyone hates you, it doesn't make you too excited," he said -- he hasn't changed. Only four weeks ago he was 18th in the standings. Now, after three straight top-10 finishes, he's on the cusp of qualifying for his first Chase. In fact, no driver has scored more points than Logano over the last four races.
Last season, Brad Keselowski, Logano's teammate at Penske Racing, discovered a setup secret in his car late in the summer and got hot in the final weeks of the regular season. That run ultimately propelled him to the Sprint Cup championship. Can Logano duplicate Keselowski's feat? One thing seems certain: Logano should be very, very fast on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
On March 17 at Bristol, Logano had one of the three best cars in the field, but he was spun by Hamlin -- the appetizer to the main course of their wreck the following week at Fontana -- and finished 17th. The key to winning at Bristol, a half-mile, banked oval that features bumper car style racing, is to stay off of the wall and on the lead lap.
It says here that Logano will do both and take his second-straight checkered flag on Saturday night. In the process, the boyish/brutish driver will essentially lock up his spot in the Chase.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Bristol, the so-called fastest half-mile in the world:
1. Kurt Busch
As I've written before, the man who was once widely viewed as the sport's black knight is the unlikely feel good story of the 2013 NASCAR season. Driving for the underfunded Furniture Row Racing team out of Denver, which shares resources with Richard Childress Racing, Busch is currently ninth in the standings. If he can maintain this position during the next three weeks, the pilot of the number 78 Chevy would become the first driver from a single-car team to make the Chase.
Bristol is Busch's best track on the circuit. He has more career wins there (five) than at any other venue on the schedule, and he came in fourth at Bristol in March. Expect another top-five from him on Saturday night.
2. Kyle Busch
The younger Busch has been just as productive at Bristol as his brother. He has as many wins as Kurt (5) in Thunder Valley, and in 17 career starts there he's won almost $3 million. He finished second there last spring. To run well at Bristol, a driver needs stamina, sustained mental sharpness, and off-the-charts hand-eye-foot coordination. Kyle possesses all of those traits at this track. Currently fifth in the standings, he simply needs a solid points outing to strengthen his grip on a Chase spot.
3. Kasey Kahne
Kahne is the reigning winner at Bristol. Currently 11th in the standings, he would qualify for the Chase as a wild card if the playoffs started today. He already has two wins this season, so his spot is relatively secure. He had a dominant car at Bristol in March, qualifying second and leading 109 laps before taking the checkered flag. Barring a mechanical failure or getting caught up in an accident, Kahne should have a top-five run on Saturday night.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt has endured a rough two weeks. After finishing 30th at Watkins Glen on Aug. 11, he came in 36th at Michigan last Sunday. He's fallen to seventh in the standings and only has a 20-point lead over Kahne. This means Earnhardt, who has been in the top five in points for the majority of the season, is in theory only 20 positions on the track from falling out of the Chase. So this is a key race for the number 88 team.
Bristol is, statistically, Earnhardt's best track. (His career average finish of 11.6 there is higher than at any other venue in the Cup series.) He came in sixth in the spring race and, no doubt, would happily take a similar finish on Saturday night.