Joey Logano started this Sprint Cup season looking like a Chase contender. He was 12th in the points through the eighth race at Texas. It's only his second season in the most competitive series in the USA and probably the world, but Toyota Racing Development President Lee White and I agreed that Logano would make the Chase in a SI.com column in April.
Our logic was this: Logano had the experience on the tracks to make a jump in performance and coupled with his natural talent, being guided by Cup-winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli and driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, it would be a recipe to elevate him into the Chase.
Logano faded over the next 17 races, no top-5 finishes and five top-10s split between two ninths and three 10ths. He was 21st in the points upon arrival at Richmond for the final race of the regular season. White and I weren't close in our prognostication, but our logic wasn't completely flawed.
Starting with a fourth at Richmond, Logano suddenly has gotten it. He has added a third at Dover and has put together three straight top-10s -- seventh at Charlotte, sixth at Martinsville and fifth at Talladega -- going into this weekend's event at Texas. Logano has scored 931 points in the seven Chase races and would be fifth in points if he was in it.
That's pretty good for a 20-year-old who was tossed into the deep end a year earlier when Tony Stewart unexpectedly departed to become a partner in Stewart-Haas Racing. The Gibbs' plan was to run Logano in the full Nationwide Series in 2009 and then bring him up to the big leagues.
"Things are really going well for us right now," Logano said. "We've been consistent and continue to build momentum going into next season. That's a huge confidence booster for this team. We know we can do it, now we just have to continue to execute.
"The start of the season was really good for us and then we got a little lost over the summer. It's tough to rebound from that, but that's what we've been able to do as a team and that says a lot."
Logano's No. 20 has had some good results this season on the high-speed intermediate tracks like Texas, including a fifth at Auto Club Speedway in California, sixth at Las Vegas and seventh two weeks ago at Charlotte. But his best at Texas is 19th and he was 28th in April. Logano ran better than that, in position for a top-15, when a multi-car wreck sent him to the garage for repairs.
"Texas is going to be a challenge for us," Logano said. "Typically, we haven't run well there, but I feel like as a team we are communicating so much better that getting a top-10 there is certainly achievable. People like to call these 1.5-mile tracks 'cookie-cutter' tracks, but I assure you they all drive completely differently. I run really well at Charlotte, but struggle at Atlanta and Texas. If we can get a solid finish this weekend, that would be huge for this team to check another one of the tracks I've struggled off the list."
Logano's season statistics show definite progress from his fine Rookie of the Year season in 2009, which included becoming the youngest driver to ever win a Cup race. Logano has eight top-5s and 14 top-10s this season compared to three top-5s and seven top-10s a year ago. He was 20th in the points in 2009 and is 17th and rising this season.
Does Logano need to get faster and be in position to win races to make the Chase in 2011? Absolutely. Will he? Absolutely.