NASCAR: Logano to replace Stewart
By Mike Cranston
HUNTERSVILLE ó Joe Gibbs remembers being a little hesitant the first time he met Joey Logano, days before he was to sign the phenom driver to a development contract with his race team.
“I come from football,” the former Washington Redskins coach said Monday. “I’m used to seeing these great big guys, so when you sign them I’m getting my money’s worth.
“I looked across the table and there was Joey, maybe 5-10, 5-9. I said, ‘He’s 15. We’re going to sign him?”‘
Three years later, a few of inches taller and only a few pounds heavier, Gibbs is convinced the rail thin, 18-year-old Logano can effectively replace Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
“The farther you go the more you become convinced you’ve got somebody special,” Gibbs said.
With Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup points champion, set to leave JGR after 10 years to become driver-owner of what is now called Haas-CNC racing, Logano next season will inherit Stewart’s sponsor, Home Depot, and his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.
He’ll also have plenty of pressure strapped to his 140-pound frame. While Logano has made a successful debut in the second-tier Nationwide Series, with three top-five finishes in nine races, he’s yet to drive in a Sprint Cup race. Questions remain whether an 18-year-old has enough maturity to race at NASCAR’s highest level.
It didn’t stop JGR from signing Logano to a long-term contract and Home Depot to agree to a lengthy deal to continue as the primary sponsor of the No. 20 car. And it was clear at Monday’s announcement that JGR was eager to put the focus on Logano and not last week’s embarrassment that saw seven crew members suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for cheating.
“I’m cool with pressure,” Logano said. “Moving up to this car now, it’s more pressure, but I can handle it.”
Logano, of Middletown, Conn., has starred at every level since his father, Tom, strapped him into a go-kart at age 4. He was racing quarter midgets at 6 and later won 14 straight races in Legends Cars. He won the NASCAR Busch East Series title last year and won the first ARCA race he competed in earlier this year.
The driver who veteran Mark Martin called “the real deal” ó when he was 15 ó finished sixth in his Nationwide debut on May 31, a week after he turned 18. He captured the pole in his second race and won his third start at Kentucky Speedway, becoming the youngest winner in Nationwide history.
So when Gibbs allowed Stewart out of the final year of his contract, he had little interest in pursuing free-agent drivers Ryan Newman, Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr. or other veterans.
“There were other options, but I think for the long-term and what’s in the best interest of JGR, The Home Depot and our whole team, Joey was the guy,” said J.D. Gibbs, JGR president and Joe Gibbs’ son.
Logano will make his Sprint Cup debut on Sept. 6 at Richmond. He’ll also run at Atlanta and in a few more races in a car owned by Hall of Fame Racing, which gets its engines and chassis from JGR.
Next year, Logano will also run close to a full Nationwide schedule to gain experience.
“I’m sure there’s a lot I have to learn,” Logano said. “Racing is a lot of little things that make it. Every time I go to the racetrack I learn things. … As long as I pick up something every time I go to the racetrack it’s going to be great.”
Young drivers have had mixed success in NASCAR. Points leader Kyle Busch entered the top series at age 19. So did Casey Atwood, who eventually lost his ride.
Logano will benefit by working with one of NASCAR’s most successful crew chiefs. Zipadelli helped Stewart’s transition from open-wheel cars, and Stewart was voted rookie of the year in 1999 when he won a record three races. Stewart went on to win series titles in 2002 and ’05.
“We’re excited about starting over,” Zipadelli said. “We’ve had a great 10 years. We’ve got some pretty good stats to set our goals at right now and to use that as our motivating tools in the future. We’ve got to win at least three next year, like we did in ’99.”
Zipadelli later said making the year-end Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is a goal.
With high expectations, his past success, JGR’s top equipment and an experienced crew, any mistake will be magnified. And since he’ll inherit a car that’s currently in sixth place in the Sprint Cup standings, maybe Logano could make the Chase next year.
Of course, Logano won’t turn 19 until the night of May’s Coca-Cola 600, which will mark the longest race of his life.
“Knowing your son, we talked about it and it wasn’t a hard decision to make,” Tom Logano said. “I think he’s ready.”