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NASCAR's Joey Logano growing into Sprint Cup contender

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Meeting or exceeding expectations has been Joey Logano's greatest challenge as a Sprint Cup driver.

NEW YORK—In the midst of NASCAR's young driver renaissance that rivals the one marked by the emergence of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kurt Busch at the turn of the century—when Cup racing seriously rivaled football as America's most popular sport—Joey Logano is rapidly shedding his spoiled brat label as he delivers on his exceptional promise. Among the gifted upstarts who are challenging the old guard are 23-year-old Trevor Bayne, the upset winner in the 2011 Daytona 500; and 24-year-old Austin Dillon, who rolled to the Nationwide Series crown in 2013; but it is Logano, 24, who is leading the way.

The expectations couldn't be higher after his breakthrough season of 2013. Had his No. 22 Ford not succumbed to engine trouble in the Chase opener at Chicago last September—a race he began on the pole—Logano might have finished higher than eighth in the driver standings. Still, he can't exactly be bitter about that end result—certainly not this year while he's riding the best start to any of his six seasons of racing at the Cup level. Through 14 events, Logano has taken the pole once (in Las Vegas), finished in the top five six times, and won twice—in Fort Worth at the beginning of April and in Richmond at the end of that month.

This year's changes to the Chase's 10-race playoff series format already have Logano, who currently sits ninth in the points, looking forward to another playoff appearance. Along with expanding the field of drivers (to 16 from 12) and essentially awarding automatic bids to regular-season race winners, the new rules have made "a win more valuable," he says. "It gets you into the Chase, but it also moves you through the Chase when we get into it. If you have a bad race in the first three events but win the next one, you're on to the next round. That's good for us, especially after we blew out in Chicago last year. Now we have an opportunity to reset."

An opportunity to reset was necessary for Logano's career, especially after Mark Martin, with his pronouncement of the kid as "the real deal" all but staked his reputation on Logano's success while laying on some heavy hype. It has taken Logano some six years and 75,000 miles of hard learning at the Cup level to get to this point, but this could be the year that he becomes known as more than just another, if absurdly talented, youngster. It could be the one in which he fully arrives as a NASCAR force.

The Whiz Kid

He was only 15 years old—too young to hold down a full time job, but plenty old enough to start accruing some real world work experience. Instead of picking up an after school shift at a neighborhood coffee shop or movie theater somewhere in Atlanta—the city that became his temporary home after his family left south central Connecticut to advance his younger sister's growing ambitions in figure skating—Joey Logano inked a multiyear development deal to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in the spring of 2005.

Nobody asked if he had a learner's permit. Nobody cared. Not after seeing the way the kid had flogged his Pro Legends car around some of NASCAR's toughest circuits. Logano seemed to treat every race as if he were back on the 14-acre lot of the trucking company that his father, Tom, owned. It was there that young kid Joey eagerly and fearlessly weaved around dumpsters and trailers in his eight-horsepower go-kart over and over again, like a pint-sized Ken Block.

Logano says he felt a whole lot safer on that spread than on, say, a football field—which seemed to him like a far more dangerous patch of ground than a racetrack. Still does. "In football you take a big hit, you've got to not only get back up, but you may take a big hit again," Logano explained to SI.com, six days before starting on the grid in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. "And then you've got to do it again next week. [NASCAR drivers] don't crash every single week—and if we do, we're out of the race. We have time to recover."

Hard Hitting: Joey Logano Believes Football is More Dangerous than NASCAR

Joey Logano recenlty made headlines for saying he believes playing football is more dangerous than NASCAR racing. On Monday's SI Now, Logano joins SI's Maggie Gray to discuss those comments and more. 

The kid compiled quite a resumé in a hurry. He was a quarter-midget grand national champion at age seven, winning the title in each of the next two years as well. At nine, he was a Bandoleros national champ and the youngest driver to compete in a Legends Car race. At 12, he set a track record by winning 14 staight races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and earned national titles in Young Lions and Pro National, becoming the youngest Pro Division Legends champion ever.

After Logano drove rings around a kid named Matt Martin in a Legends race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte in 2005, the kid's dad, Mark—the wizened stock car vet with 40 Cup wins—called the then-14-year-old Logano the best young racer he'd ever laid eyes on. "I am absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt, that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR," Martin said.

Unfortunately, Logano's first major endorsement all but doomed him to a level of workplace pressure that verged on inhumane.

At first, though. Martin's praise nearly turned into something more: the foundation of a close working relationship between Logano and one of NASCAR's living legends. Martin was so intent on corralling Logano in Roush Racing's stable that he tried to convince team owner Jack Roush to lend the kid a Cup practice car. The boss was open to the idea, but reluctant to part with one of his expensive speed machines unless Logano could find somewhere safe to park it—like at a race shop. Tom Logano, still flush with cash from selling off his trucking operation, then uprooted the family again and headed north to Mooresville, N.C.—the cradle of stock car racing—and got into the business of trading paint, but the formal partnership with Roush never materialized. When Jack Roush was too slow to budge from his wait-and-see position, he gave JGR an opening to scoop up the promising youngster.

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At 17, the hotshot Logano won the NASCAR East Series title and rookie of the year honors.

After three years of solid work in the minor leagues—three victories at the Pro Cup level and six more in NASCAR's Pro Series—the 18-year-old Logano was tapped as the replacement for the outgoing Tony Stewart in JGR's No. 20 Chevy. That job—a promotion, really—didn't seem too big for Logano when he accepted it in 2008. That year, he landed on the pole in his second Nationwide Series start and won from that position in his very next race, three weeks after officially becoming old enough to vote. Racing a full time Cup schedule in 2009, the 19-year-old scored three top-five finishes—including a checkered flag in Loudon—on the way to becoming the Cup series' youngest ever event winner and rookie of the year.

Hitting reset

But after his successful freshman run, Logano had a hard time reaching the top step of the podium again while collecting 11 top-fives—but no wins—during the next two seasons. The more he voiced his frustrations, the harder it became for his teammates to see him as anything but an temperamental punk. "It was tough," Logano said. "When I first started racing over there, I got a ride to the race shop because I couldn't drive myself. I struggled trying to break that mold, and I didn't quite have the results I needed to break it, either. Between the two of those things, it was kind of like a double-edged sword of, 'How am I supposed to do this?'"

The answer came when Logano turned 23: a job switch. In 2013, he defected to the Penske garage and immediately went on to score a career-high 11 top-fives—including a win at Michigan. But the great expectations, mounting pressure and higher stakes meant hotter interactions between Logano and senior peers like Stewart and former JGR teammate Denny Hamlin, who have hardly handled their differences with kid gloves.

When Logano blocked Stewart on the final restart of the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif.—a maneuver that effectively sealed a third-place finish for Logano and 22nd for Stewart—the three-time Cup champ met the kid in the pits after the race with fists flying.

When Hamlin spun out Logano a week earlier at the Food City 500 in Bristol, Tenn., a fed-up Logano—who was running second and contending for the checkers—vented his frustration right into Hamlin's window after the race. Hamlin would get in the last word, on Twitter of course. "Hush little child" was all he said.

Rather than apologize for those generational run-ins, Logano thinks NASCAR would be wise to promote them—especially when pitching the sport to a younger generation of prospective fans. "I feel like our biggest problem is reaching the younger demographic," he said. "The more we can educate our fans to what's going on behind the scenes throughout the race, the better. I feel like I can help that. There's so much emotion out there [on the track]. I mean, people are mad a lot, you know?"

Logano's season culminated with his first appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and better things appear to be in store. With teammate Brad Keselowski also penciled in to the Chase, thanks to his victory at Las Vegas earlier this year, Logano and Team Penske will be a much bigger factor for the balance of the regular season and beyond.

"Now we can use our tests that we actually get—we get four tests a year—at racetracks that we're going to compete on during the Chase," he says. "We don't have to use those tests to try and get into the Chase. We can get our next spec of cars a few races before the Chase, kinda get used to 'em and attack it and go from there."

There is likely to be closer to the place that Mark Martin foresaw nine years. Getting there hasn't been easy, but the kid is well on his way.

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