Racing: Logano youngest driver to win Sprint Cup
By Mike Harris
LOUDON, N.H. ó There were questions about the judgment of team owner Joe Gibbs when he decided to replace departing two-time champion Tony Stewart with a 19-year-old rookie.
The former NFL coach, head of Joe Gibbs Racing, admitted Sunday he tried not to put too many expectations on the talented but inexperienced Joey Logano.
“We were really looking for just constant improvement, and that’s really what we’ve seen,” Gibbs said after Logano became the youngest driver in the history of the Sprint Cup series to win a race, taking the rain-shortened Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
“The last seven, eight races we’ve battled back from some real tough things,” Gibbs added.
Sunday was no exception as the precocious teenager overcame a crash and a lost lap, then saved just enough fuel to earn his first Cup victory in only his 20th start.
Logano, not even allowed to begin his NASCAR career until he turned 18 in May 2008, added his latest victory to three wins in the second tier Nationwide Series.
“Well, I figured out this sport is a rollercoaster,” Logano said when asked how tough his learning curve has been. “I go up and down, up and down, up and down. … One week you can win and the next week you can be 43rd.”
The youngster was among a group of drivers who moved to the front of the field after getting out of sequence on fuel stops. He took the lead when Ryan Newman, trying to stay on track as long as possible with rain threatening, ran out of gas on lap 264 in the event scheduled to go 301 laps.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon moved into second and was steadily cutting into the lead as Logano, with a nearly empty gas tank, conserved as much fuel as possible. But the rain began falling three laps later.
The competitors ran six slow laps under caution before NASCAR put out a red flag in hopes of drying the track. But the rain began falling harder and the race was called after 273 laps.
“I was, like, `The day just went bad, just try to finish it off and get as best finish we can,’ and we made the right move at the end,” Logano said.
The youngster gave most of the credit to crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who worked with Stewart throughout the 10 years he spent at JGR and stayed with the team when Stewart left to become an owner-driver.
“He went for it and I was just lucky enough to be in the seat,” Logano said. “He said to just stay out, rain’s in the area. So we started saving a little bit of fuel … It’s a dream come true, that’s for sure.”
Zipadelli, who guided Stewart to 33 Cup victories, seemed a little stunned by this win.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “Obviously, everything at the end of the day went our way. You can’t control the weather. The only thing you can do is try to play it to our hand.”
Logano, 19 years, one month and four days old, broke the record set by Kyle Busch for the youngest winner. Busch, now 24, was 20 years, four months and two days when he won for the first time at California in Sept. 2005.
Logano was first spotted as a 15-year-old by NASCAR star Mark Martin, who predicted greatness for the youngster. He been on the fast track ever since, winning races at every level and beating some of NASCAR’s top developmental drivers along the way.
To his embarrassment, Logano was dubbed “Sliced Bread,” as in, “the greatest thing since … ”
The kid has struggled at times this season, but he has shown flashes of the kind of talent that gave Gibbs the confidence to put him in the No. 20 Toyota.
“We know today we were fortunate,” Gibbs said. “And we know there will probably be some tough days out there for us. But I’m absolutely thrilled for Joey and his family and for us, all of us at Joe Gibbs Racing. We figure we can keep this going, ride this thing for about 20 years.”
It was a virtual home victory for Logano, who was raised in Middletown, Conn., and who made his first Cup start on the same 1.058-mile oval last September, struggling throughout the race and finishing 32nd.
Gordon was disappointed with the second-place finish.
“I felt like we had the best car,” Gordon said. “The guys got us out first on our last pit stop, but it just got us out ahead of the guys we were racing with.”
He said Zipadelli made “a gutsy call” leaving Logano on track.
Kurt Busch, who won a rain-shortened event here last June, finished third, followed by David Reutimann and Stewart, the series leader by 69 points over Gordon.
The race was slowed by 11 caution flags for 47 laps. The ninth one was brought out when Logano spun in heavy traffic, hitting the wall in turn four on the 1.058-mile oval.
That cost Logano a lap, but he got it back on the next caution flag, earning the free pass as the first car a lap down.
Logano said Zipadelli told him he could probably have run about five more laps before he ran out of gas.
But the rain came and Logano won.
“Obviously, it’s not the way you want to win your first race, in the rain,” Logano said. “But 20 years down the road, when you look in the record books, no one will know the difference. A win is a win and I’ll take them any way I can.”
Spoken like a veteran.
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