Win at Texas Shows Joey Logano is a Legit Sprint Cup Title Contender in 2014

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Win at Texas Shows Joey Logano is a Legit Sprint Cup Title Contender in 2014
Larry Papke/AP Images

Joey Logano knows all about potential. After all, he was just a kid when veteran NASCAR driver Randy LaJoie gave him the nickname "Sliced Bread," as in anointing young Logano as the next great wheelman in the sport.

Fact is, Logano has spent years trying to live that little moniker down. But based on the way he won the rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway Monday, he might finally be poised to live up to it and challenge for his first Sprint Cup title.

And he's still pretty much just a kid. Even though he's already in his sixth season as a full-time driver in NASCAR's premier series, he won't turn 24 years old until next month.

Logano told the world after winning at Texas that he had a feeling about getting to Victory Lane after finishing fourth in three of the season's first six races—at Phoenix, at Las Vegas and at Martinsville only one week earlier.

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"I felt very confident about this race," Logano said. "For some reason, I told (crew chief) Todd Gordon, 'We're gonna win this week,' and I was mad when we didn't get the pole. But I felt like we had a car that could win this thing.

"At the beginning, we didn't. And then Todd and the guys made good adjustments and had good stops all day."

Of course, Gordon could not have made those adjustments without great feedback and communication from Logano, who was able to tell him what he thought the car needed to drive more to his liking. It's called chemistry, and it's been building for this pair since Logano made the jump from driving Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing to driving Fords for Team Penske two years ago.

Logano has led laps in his No. 22 Ford in six of the seven races thus far this season, including 12 or more in five of those six and 39 or more in four of them. That means these guys have found speed in their cars, and they've found it at all kinds of different race tracks.

Logano led 71 laps at one-mile Phoenix, 44 at 1.5-mile Las Vegas, 39 at the .526-mile short track at Martinsville and a whopping total of 108 at Texas. The only place that the circuit has visited where he failed to lead at least two laps was the two-mile Auto Club Speedway, where a mechanical problem relegated Logano to a 39th-place finish after he qualified seventh.

His only other finish outside of the top 11 came at Bristol, where a power-steering issue hampered him and he still managed to finish 20th—largely as a result of leading 12 laps earlier in the race.

"It's been a heck of a season so far," Logano said in Victory Lane at Texas. "I feel like the Shell/Penzoil Ford could have been to Victory Lane a couple of times, and we're finally here. I feel like we gave away a couple already this season, so this car is fast. We're here to be a force all year.

"I'm stoked. It's super-cool. Texas Motor Speedway is one of the coolest race tracks. The first time I came here I got my butt handed to me really bad, so to win at this track means a lot."

What has happened with Logano since he left Joe Gibbs Racing is more than him just receiving a fresh start with a new organization and a new manufacturer. When he left JGR, where he had been since he signed as a developmental driver at age 15, it was as if a burden of somewhat unrealistic expectations was lifted from his shoulders.

Ever since he burst onto the Cup scene at JGR after experiencing success in the Nationwide Series, it seemed Logano was trying to live up to the nickname given him by LaJoie. But he was forced to do so in the shadow of outstanding drivers in Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin who, while veterans, were also still young enough that they were striving to make their own marks in the sport.

When Logano won a rain-shortened Cup race at New Hampshire in 2009 at the age of 18, expectations only rose.

He couldn't live up to it. By the time JGR came upon a chance to sign Matt Kenseth for the 2013 season, Logano was about to be the odd man out and likely would have been demoted to a full-time Nationwide ride had he stayed with the company, according to JGR president J.D. Gibbs.

So he left and went to Team Penske. Suddenly, he was coming to a team that already had a guy in Brad Keselowski who had won a championship, yet one who seemed less intimidating and more of a kindred spirit to Logano.

Keselowski actually lobbied team owner Roger Penske to sign Logano, figuring it would be a great fit for both owner and driver. Not to mention for Keselowski as a teammate.

Even though Keselowski experienced a difficult and frustrating title defense in 2013, no one outside of the No. 22 team seemed happier that Logano made his first Chase for the Sprint Cup than Keselowski. Logano eventually finished eighth in points last year.

Under the new Chase qualifying format in 2014, a win is likely to guarantee Logano another spot in the Chase. And he's already showing the kind of consistent speed and lethal combination of patience and determination that makes a Cup champion.

Case in point: Logano was blowing away the field as the laps wound down at Texas when, just before he was to take the white flag signifying one lap to go, Kurt Busch hit the wall and brought out one last caution. It was the last thing he wanted to see.

But after hitting pit road for four fresh tires, Logano did not fret about losing his lead for the subsequent restart. Possessed with the confidence that he had a winning car and the skill to take it wherever he wanted on the 1.5-mile track, Logano started in third on the second row behind Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers.

John Raoux
Logano loves being able to pick Brad Keselowski's brain.

The old Loganowell, actually the younger version of Loganomight have panicked or been so upset that he still had work to do on what looked like a certain victory that he might have screwed up the restart. In short, he might have tried too hard to live up to all those expectations.

He might have lost focus and made a critical mistake.

Instead, he bided his time until he caught Gordon and passed him with a sweet crossover move on the final lap of the green-white-checkered finish. Whether Logano really is Sliced Bread or not, Gordon was toast.

Logano admitted prior to the 2013 season that it took him time to learn that, well, he still had lots to learn in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. "You've got to work at it," he told SI.com reporter Dustin Long. "You've got to learn what to study, you've got to learn lots of things."

Maybe he's not what you would call a quick learner, but Logano does appear to be picking up the nuances that could finally take him to the next level of his craft.

Only time will tell if Logano has the staying power this season to keep it up. But for now at least, he's looking every bit like a driver who has made the left-hand turn from being a potential Sprint Cup title contender to developing into a true one.

 

Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained for this article were obtained firsthand by the writer.

Joe Menzer has been to every Sprint Cup track in America to cover races, has written two books about racing and now writes about NASCAR, college basketball, golf and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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