NORMALLY, DRIVING around in circles at landscape-blurring speeds doesn't make Joey Logano queasy. He's a NASCAR driver, after all. But on Sunday afternoon, as the Daytona 500 reached its final laps, he was feeling the urge to throw up. Actually, Logano would admit later—after easing his bright yellow Ford into Victory Lane, jumping onto its roof, swigging Coke, spraying it on his delirious crew members and Gronk-spiking the bottle onto the checkered-tile floor below—he had been fighting back that urge all day long.
This is an article from the March 2, 2015 issue
Interestingly, Logano's queasiest moments didn't come when three-time winner Jeff Gordon (racing in his final 500) and two-time champ Jimmie Johnson were taking turns using his right front door as an aerodynamic springboard to the front. Nor did they come during Logano's trips through Turn 4, a veritable wind tunnel on a 70° day. Nor did they come during those tense stretches late in the race, when the prospect of the Big One seemed but a flinch away. No, it wasn't until Lap 197 of a scheduled 200, when a two-car crash on the frontstretch brought the Great American Race to a dead stop just as Logano had retaken the lead, that this typically steel-bellied driver found himself swallowing extra hard to keep his prerace burger down.
The field idled for almost seven minutes, way too much time for Logano to think about way too much: the impending restart, which would require quick reflexes and a push from the fourth-place car of Clint Bowyer to get out front; the parallel mechanical troubles suffered by Ford teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, both of whom were now behind the wall; and the fact that Logano has dreamed of winning this race since he was an eight-year-old go-karter pretending to be Jeff Gordon on the obstacle-strewn lot of his father's Middletown, Conn., garbage company. All of this swirled around in Logano's helmet as he braced for the race's green-white-checker finish, a two-lap sprint into immortality. For a racer in danger of developing a reputation for failing to meet the moment—who flopped as Tony Stewart's replacement after being dubbed Sliced Bread (as in, the best thing since) by veteran Randy LaJoie, and who was last seen stewing on pit road at Homestead-Miami last November after his car fell off the jack and crushed his chances of winning the Chase—this seemed like almost too much for Logano to reckon with.
How he came out on top in the end—beating Denny Hamlin off the line, getting a couple of key shoves from Bowyer and parrying a run from 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick—Logano still couldn't quite fathom even after the confetti fell. In fact, while waiting to do a live television interview, he would spy a still frame of himself on a nearby video monitor, doing a victory burnout on Daytona's frontstretch underneath the words JOEY LOGANO DAYTONA 500 CHAMPION, and snap a photo to further authenticate his feat. "There's a lot of cool things that come along with it," he would say of his new status. "I'm not even sure what they are yet."
But his career-defining moment would prove even more cathartic for NASCAR, which could not have been in a more desperate rush to get past the Speedweeks from Hell.
NOT UNLIKE the Big One, NASCAR's troubles simmered and stewed before exploding in spectacular fashion. They began all the way back in September, when closed-circuit video of Ray Rice KO'ing his then fiancée Janay Palmer (now his wife) in a casino elevator exploded on the Internet and made domestic violence in sports a hot-button issue.
Two months after the Rice elevator clip, as qualifying began for the penultimate race of the Cup season in Phoenix, 37-year-old Patricia Driscoll complained to Delaware authorities that her former boyfriend, 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, had bashed her head against the wall of his motorhome during the fall race in Dover, Del. Joe Custer, the executive vice president of Busch's team, Stewart-Haas, backed Busch and relayed his denial of the allegations. NASCAR chairman Brian France expressed an intent to wait on a completed investigation before considering punishment. The court of public opinion said, That'll never happen because Travis Kvapil, a truck series driver, was still racing after pleading guilty in 2014 in a North Carolina district court to assault and false imprisonment of his wife. (Under the plea agreement the charges will eventually be dismissed if he completes two years of probation, community service and an anger management class.) It seemed that another domestic violence charge would simply vanish like tire smoke.
And then a public hearing began in Delaware family court for a protection-from-abuse order, a writ that would forbid Busch from contacting Driscoll—a self-employed defense contractor who runs a military nonprofit, the Armed Forces Foundation, with a high profile at NASCAR races. In four court days across three months Busch called Driscoll a "trained assassin" and accused her of killing with rifles and poison, scheduling her assassination missions around the NASCAR schedule. She painted him as an alcoholic with documented problems governing his temper and managing his mood.
Last Friday, four days after awarding Driscoll the no-contact order, commissioner David W. Jones entered a court opinion, writing that he found her version of the encounter "more credible based on her demeanor," as well as on the evidence and testimony of witnesses, and that Busch's version was "unlikely to be true." But the line that hit hardest was this: "Given [Busch's] passion for his racing career and his intemperate and frequently violent reactions to seemingly minor racing setbacks, the Court finds that there exists a likelihood of future acts of domestic violence against [Driscoll]."
Jones's words clearly resonated with NASCAR. During a hastily convened news conference on Friday night, executive vice president Steve O'Donnell suspended Busch indefinitely. After that decision Busch's manufacturing sponsor, Chevrolet, suspended him indefinitely as well.
While Busch was fighting for his career, his younger brother, Kyle—who weeks earlier bristled at being mistaken for his scandal-plagued sibling—got caught up in a multicar wreck during an Xfinity race at Daytona last Saturday, crashing hoodfirst into an interior concrete wall. The accident shook NASCAR: Busch was extricated from his car by first responders and taken by ambulance to a Halifax Health Medical Center, where he underwent surgery to repair a broken right leg. It was deemed unconscionable that such a thing could happen again at Daytona, the track that spawned 14 years' worth of stepped-up safety measures after the death of Dale Earnhardt. That includes SAFER barriers, the energy-absorbing walls that ring the perimeter of every big league track. On Saturday night a sober O'Donnell once again took the dais with track president Joie Chitwood, who promised to reinforce all the interior walls at the track with tire packs for Sunday's race before covering every inch of the "hot" parts of the track with SAFER barriers.
The Busch headlines overshadowed confrontations earlier in Speedweeks—including one that saw Logano and Harvick play bumper cars on pit road following the All-Star race and another in which Danica Patrick put hands on Hamlin after the second 500 qualifier on Thursday (a troubling visual for a sport grappling with a domestic violence problem). The off-track controversies also detracted from a genuinely juicy on-track subplot: an intergenerational struggle for supremacy.
DEMOGRAPHICALLY, THE Cup garage essentially breaks down into three groups. You've got your Gen Xers (Gordon, Johnson, Harvick, et al.), who are either pushing 40 or past it and command respect with their myriad accomplishments. Next, you've got your Middle Children (e.g., 2012 Cup champ Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards), who are 30-plus and agitating for respect. On the bottom you have your Millennials (Blaney, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon), who are in their early or mid-20s and have the potential to dominate the sport well into the next decade.
The 24-year-old Logano, though, is sui generis. While he would seem to belong to the Millennial group, he has been racing in the Cup series for seven years, which technically makes him a Middle Child—albeit one who broke into the bigs at 18.
Perhaps that's why Keselowski prefers to think of his Penske teammate as a child prodigy. "Not to go all Doogie Howser on you," he says, "but what ends up happening is he spends two or three years getting stuffed in the locker, beat up. At the end of those two or three years, he gets it. Problem is, in that school, he's still the youngest one. So he's got to go to a different school."
Logano's old school was Joe Gibbs Racing, where he was saddled with the unenviable task of replacing Stewart, who had piloted the number 20 car to Cup titles in 2002 and '05. As for those locker-stuffing moments, Keselowski means Logano's early dustups with Ryan Newman, Stewart and Hamlin—who once ended one of their beefs with a tweet telling Logano to "Hush little child."
It didn't help that Logano was hardly living up to LaJoie's assessment, earning just two wins and 16 top fives over five seasons. The more he voiced his frustrations, the harder it became for his Gibbs teammates to see him as anything but a temperamental punk. "I struggled trying to break that mold, and I didn't quite have the results I needed to break it, either," Logano says. "It was kind of like, How am I supposed to do this?"
The answer: Leave and come to Penske, Keselowski more or less told Logano, while at the same time working on owner Roger Penske, who was about to drop Kurt Busch from the number 22 car. When Logano committed to Team Penske for 2013, at 22, it was as if he had signed a new lease on life. Finally, he could be his own man. "So now instead of being seven," Keselowski continues, "Joey was 11 or 12 with all this high school knowledge. It was perfect timing for a change of venue, with just the right amount of experience to capitalize on it."
In his first year with Penske, Logano won one race. Last year he won five and made it to the final round of the Chase; barring that doomed Homestead pit stop, he might have won the whole thing. Immediately after the race, in which he finished 16th, his thoughts turned to Daytona. During the off-season he virtually lived in the Penske gym, taking his only extended break to marry longtime girlfriend Brittany Baca. He strategized with his teammates, including crew chief Todd Gordon, on shoring up his game on superspeedways—where, save for the Chase race at Talladega, which saw him push Keselowski to victory, Logano has been a poor performer. He spent Speedweeks watching races with spotter Tab Boyd, picking apart his own performances and identifying rivals in the field who might make for good partners. The effort all came together on Sunday, in one final stomach-churning restart.
When he crossed the finish line, Logano could say that he had done the one thing that Stewart hasn't in his 17-year Cup career. Yet more than an hour later, as Logano rode a golf cart under a darkened Florida sky from a news conference in the infield media center to a junket in Victory Lane, he still couldn't believe that he had claimed stock car racing's brass ring. Passing through a gate bearing a poster of Newman (who was, until Sunday, the only Penske driver to conquer this place), Logano couldn't help but ask, "Do you know who won the Daytona 500?" Yes, we do—and NASCAR will be more than happy for him to keep talking about it.