Logano's steady improvement could mean a shot at the Chase

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Joey Logano will make the Chase this year.

The 19-year-old is in his second full Sprint Cup season and Mark Martin's prediction that Logano would become one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history is looking more and more like a possibility.

But Logano has years of racing in front of him before being put into the class of a Richard Petty, David Pearson or Jimmie Johnson. But the talent is there. Just look at the astounding progress he's made in 45 Cup starts.

Heading into the eighth race of 2010, Logano is 11th in points. Nineteen races remain before the Chase begins, but Logano is barely in the top 12 with leading contenders Martin, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya, in hot pursuit. They've all been in the Chase, all tough veterans and savvy racers. And every driver in the top 12 has been in the Chase with the exception of Logano. He's the driver trying to make the breakthrough to the next level.

Logano's level of performance advances with every race. You can chart it in the results. He's finished significantly higher than last season in six of the seven races. Logano was second at Martinsville (up 30 positions), fifth at the Auto Club Speedway in California (up 21), sixth at Las Vegas (up seven), and 10th at Phoenix (up 11). He's scored 352 more points than in 2010.

Another prime indicator of a driver's season is how he compares with teammates, and with two top-5s and four top-10s, Logano has more in both categories than Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin combined.

But none of this should come as a big surprise. Logano was steadily putting together better results from Daytona to Homestead-Miami last season. He finished 20th in points, was Rookie of the Year and, at New Hampshire, became the youngest winner of a Cup race in history -- with the aid of a well-timed rain storm, of course.

Logano faced crushing pressure in his rookie year, thrust into the No. 20 Home Depot car that Tony Stewart made famous sooner than expected when Smoke departed to form Stewart-Haas Racing. But there were also some advantages to inheriting the job, starting with the leadership of crew chief Greg Zipadelli.

"[Logano] has matured so much in less than two years," Toyota Racing Development President and General Manager Lee White said. "Listen to his comments and listen to what he's asking for on the radio and it's night and day to what he was doing last year. You have to give a lot of credit to Greg Zipadelli for helping him learn that."

"He's been through the rough phase where it didn't feel right and he didn't know how to communicate with Zippy. He and Zippy are learning how to make it work."

Logano has the speed and the car control -- natural talents of great drivers. What takes time is learning how to adjust the car to track conditions, how to manage tires, how to stay out of trouble, how to make the most of out what you've got in the car and how to close the deal at the end of 500 miles. But Logano appears to have a head start as he is already better than most of the competition at all of these.

"Joey is living up to his phenom tag," White said. "He came in as a phenom and was probably oversold and the challenge he had was delivering. He's done an amazing job."

Logano's driving style is smooth like Johnson or Hamlin and intentionally non-confrontational. He's not going to start banging into you unless you do it to him.

"I try not to be in any rivalries," Logano said. "That's what you don't want. If you want to try and make the Chase or run for championships, or anything like that, a rivalry is not what you need. It's not going to do it. You try to stay out of stuff as much as you can, but at the same point you don't want to get pushed around there and be a rag doll.

"I always say, 'You got to race people the way you want to be raced and race people the way the race you.' But at the same time, you have to be smart."

Cup heads to Texas this weekend. Logano never finished on the lead lap on the fast 1.5-mile track. He was 19th last fall, his best result there. He'll do better Sunday.

"It's going to be fun watching him at Texas," White said.

Is the Chase a stretch for Logano this season? I think it's well within his reach and he'll make it. So does White.

"I'll predict that Joe Gibbs Racing will have two in the Chase and I think one of them will be Joey," White said. "They may have three, they have a shot, but at least two and one of them will be Joey."