A familiar orange and white car has been making its return to the front in 2010, mixing it up among the leaders with solid performances and finishes in the ever competitive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Inside that Toyota Camry is a confident young man who finally appears to have confidence behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup machine, and it's showing in the early races this season. With a year of Cup racing under his belt, all those lessons, experiences, and racing lines are just some of the things that comprise this sophomore racer.
Don't look now, but Joey Logano has compiled a steady season in his No. 20 Home Depot car, contending for wins and often finishing with the big names like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.
While not in the same esteem as those established Cup stars, this 19-year-old's stock will be on the rise for the rest of the year. Shedding those rookie stripes, last year's freshman honoree has proved his case as a Cup racer in the first three races of this season.
Since his 20th place finish at Daytona, the perennial Joe Gibbs Racing efforts have been strong and appear to have the makings of a good case for the Chase later this year. Results like a fifth at Fontana and sixth in Sunday's 400-miler at Las Vegas are cases of "home improvement" with this sophomore talent.
Last year was a rough campaign for this group, who often wrecked out early and looked lost at sea. Logano had a difficult initiation into the most elite form of stock car racing, showing obvious rookie pains at some of the challenging circuits like Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville, and Dover.
In fact, there were times when the tracks absolutely overwhelmed him. No matter how many adjustments were made to his car, he was nowhere to be found among the top-20 racers during an event.
Praised by Mark Martin as "the next big thing" back in 2007, for the skeptics, the label seemed rather hyped for the young driver from Middletown, CT. After all, he either wrecked in top level equipment nearly every race last spring or strung along in the back of the pack.
Some felt that Gibbs and his organization brought Logano up too early to the Cup ranks, citing that he needed more time in the Nationwide Series. While a fair observation, haven't some of the best in Cup racing had their growing pains at some point?
Perhaps a trip around Darlington Raceway with NASCAR legend David Pearson helped the raw talent with his mindset behind the wheel of a Cup car. The 105-time race winner may have helped Logano in terms of his confidence and mindset on tackling the tracks of the Sprint Cup tour, which aren't the most easiest places to compete at even with high-caliber equipment.
Sure, he may have that first career victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last June, which was a huge confidence boost for the No. 20 team with a smart call late in the race. However, the most impressive race that Logano compiled in his rookie-winning season was the Southern 500 at Darlington, which was likened to a rookie quarterback in Green Bay excelling in their first start at Lambeau Field.
Starting fifth, the pride of the Constitution State raced wisely and kept his car in shape, never flinching at the narrow and challenging "Lady in Black." He would bring the car home in ninth position and in one piece, which was something to be proud of for a first-timer in Cup racing.
Fast forward to 2010, where he's finished 20th, fifth, and sixth. What's the difference between a single year? One word: confidence.
Earlier this year, Logano won the Toyota Showdown at Irwindale, CA, which featured the sport's greatest regional stars at a very tight, competitive short track. He showed maturity, poise, and confidence way beyond his age of 19 years, almost wheeling his car like a young Davey Allison in his No. 28 Texaco Ford.
The communication is as strong as ever between Logano and Zipadelli, who may have found himself a raw, young version of Tony Stewart. Having mentored and worked with NASCAR's most aggressive but versatile racer for 10 seasons, he knows a thing or two with polishing diamonds in the rough. Calm, collective, and positive, "Zippy" has the coaching abilities to harness the unmistakable talent of his fellow statesman.
One cannot help but think of certain driver-crew chief relationships similar to the No. 20 team, like Allison and Larry McReynolds, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, or Dale Jarrett and Todd Parrott. Perhaps with more victories and seasons together, we can add the Logano and Zipadelli connection.
Don't be surprised if Logano reels off some victories in 2010, which could make this season memorable for JGR fans and enthusiasts of this young gun sensation. A solid super speedway and intermediate track racer, the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be a formidable threat as long as patience and smarts are exercised with this aggressive, hard charging racer.
While he downplays his chances to race well at Atlanta, one thing's for certain: Joe Gibbs has a third ace in the artillery that will be ready to contend for victories and titles in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Perhaps Logano is truly the next big star to come along after all.