Joey Logano's on-the-job training in the Sprint Cup reached a milestone Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he finished fifth.
Which milestone?I regard it as his first legitimate top-five. Sure, Logano won at New Hampshire in late June and became the youngest Cup winner in history at 19 years, 35 days, but that was a gift from the heavens. The rain stopped the race precisely when he needed it to win.
Logano's fifth was more impressive than his victory because he had to race for it in a 17-lap, green-flag run at the end. He challenged Jeff Gordon, who held him off for fourth, and outran Clint Bowyer, who was sixth. Logano had to earn his top-five the old-fashioned way.
"I was trying everything I could," Logano said. "Me and Bowyer, we were running him [Gordon] down. I think both of us were faster. I was a little bit better than Bowyer and was able to get by him and then try to get Gordon there. He's a smart race car driver. He knew where my car was better than his and he made sure he put his car there so I couldn't get by him.
"He knows what it takes to keep people behind him, and we raced real hard. He got down to my door and I was chasing him on the bottom. I had a blast. I'd never really got to race against Jeff quite that hard at the end of a race for position. Racing a world class champion race car driver like that, running door-to-door for a fourth-place finish, that was a bunch of fun. It's still really cool to me. I'm still a rookie on this whole deal. To be racing Jeff Gordon, I never thought that day would happen."
Logano had to fight for positioning for nearly all 500 miles. He drove past the pit box on his first pit stop, had to back up, and rejoined at the back.
"We just had to start battling back and it didn't seem like we could catch a break," Logano said. "We tried to go for some pit strategy with two tires and everyone would do it. Or some guys would do two tires and it would work for them and four tires weren't making up as much as you wanted them to.
"We weren't catching cautions the right way, I felt like I was passing a car or able to pass a couple cars when the caution would come out.
"Then, I would have to restart behind them. Things like that weren't helping our track position at the end. Getting a top-five, that was huge for the whole Home Depot team. These guys deserve to be in the top-five every week, so it's a big deal for me and for them."
With six top-10 finishes in 31 races, Logano is 20th in the points and headed for Rookie of the Year. That's better than good for a young driver who was thrust into a full Cup season one, maybe two years ahead of schedule.
Joe Gibbs Racing hadn't planned to rush Logano into Cup so soon. He couldn't even make his first Nationwide Series start until he turned 18 in late May last year. It figured he'd run the full Nationwide with a partial Cup schedule in 2009, then perhaps make the jump to full time Cup in 2010, a opportunity that likely depended upon whether Gibbs would fund a fourth car.
That all changed when Tony Stewart, who was under contract for 2009, decided to leave a year early. After a multi-million dollar buyout was negotiated, the Gibbs organization suddenly had a very big seat to fill in the No. 20. Logano's win in his third Nationwide start helped convince the team he was better than any other driver they could get. Eventually, inevitably, Logano was going to be a Cup driver, so why not start getting him the experience he needed? Home Depot agreed.
Logano was clearly in over his head during his three Cup races in 2008, where he placed 32nd or worse, and during the opening races this year, his lone top-20 was a 13th at Las Vegas. It's been up-and-down since then. Fifth at Lowe's was Logano's first top-10 in eight races. Huge? You bet it was. It proved Logano is really starting to figure out what it takes to win at the Cup level.
Further evidence that the Gibbs organization made the correct decision to jump Logano up can be found in his Nationwide performance this season. He has five victories in 20 starts and would be challenging teammate Kyle Busch for the championship if he were running the entire schedule. While the Cup car is a completely different animal, Logano is at least one year ahead of where he would have been if Gibbs had kept him only in Nationwide.
There were questions about Logano's ability to meet the demands and expectations of getting into the No. 20 this season and he's answered them with professionalism and poise. The Chase and future championships are ahead, probably sooner than later.