Will Joey Logano ever fulfill his promise and became a bona fide Sprint Cup star and perennial championship contender?
That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic, or black flag if he's dead set in opposition to the idea.
Luke: In an earlier column this week, I remarked that Logano—dubbed “Sliced Bread” by former driver Randy LaJoie—has been running more like burnt toast lately. This extended slump dates back to the beginning of 2011, the youngster’s third year on the Sprint Cup tour.
After showing promise at the end of 2010, his sophomore year, Logano has regressed to the point of being questioned for his worthiness for the plum No. 20 Home Depot machine. The former occupant of that coveted seat, none other than one Tony Stewart, consistently won races by the handful and brought home two Sprint Cup trophies to owner Joe Gibbs. Logano, through three-plus seasons in the same equipment, has shown no propensity for similar feats of prowess.
With Logano as a case study, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on whether the current model of top teams grooming young drivers from a young age for elite rides—lining the paths of the chosen ones along the way with plenty of horsepower, talented crew chiefs and big-name sponsors—is indeed a healthy way of developing world-class talent of the type needed to succeed on stock car racing’s biggest stage.
Traditionalists would hold that the way to properly develop a driver is for a young talent to work his way through the lower series, and then, upon arrival in the Cup Series, to prove his chops in lesser equipment over a period of several years before being handed the keys to a top-flight ride.
In Logano’s case, it’s becoming clear that the cradle-to-throne approach has failed spectacularly. Logano has yet to make the Chase, win a race under green, or finish ahead of any of his teammates in the season standings. Of course, much more analysis would be needed to properly address that question, and perhaps the issue will be addressed in a future edition of Bonus Points.
But for now, it’s safe to say that JoLo is in imminent danger of becoming the next Casey Mears (former Hendrick prodigy) or David Ragan (formerly rising, and now fallen, star with Roush Fenway Racing). It’s not too late to turn it around, and we shouldn’t forget that Logano is a mere 21 years old.
Perhaps dropping back to the Nationwide level for a few years would kick his career back into gear, but that is far from a given. Such a noted observer of talent as Mark Martin predicted that Logano would be a superstar at the Cup level, but talent in a 15-year-old doesn’t always translate to success driving against the world’s best.
The verdict on whether or not Logano, a likeable fellow but oft-disappointing on the track, will indeed become a true star and championship mainstay: a red flag from this writer.
Sam: It's Joey Logano's fourth full season on the Sprint Cup tour, and as sports writers, it is unfortunately our duty to talk about the issue most often associated with Logano. That issue is, rather painfully for Sliced Bread, whether or not he's actually going to fulfill expectations as a potential Cup-level champion and manic race winner.
A quarter of the way through his fourth season, neither of those rosy prognostications have come true; even moreso, Logano hasn't really flirted with any degree of success on the Cup level. Currently, even his Nationwide Series performance is uncharacteristically low.
Several issue lie as potential leaches on Logano's entrance into the Cup level back in 2009. Firstly, the formerly-titled Car of Tomorrow, then with its rear wing, front splitter, and generally very cumbersome handling, had just made its full-time debut on the Cup tour. Such a marked change it was that for the next couple of years many drivers simply existed in a mild chaos of having to adapt years of driving technique to an entirely new handling behavior.
Having cut his teeth, and marvelously so, on "regular" stock car handling, 18-year-old Logano found this new car, combined with the intensity of Cup-level competition, two big pills to swallow at one time. Speculation has been made on whether or not Logano should have taken the route currently being taken with massive success by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Namely, find success on the Nationwide tour, and actually stay there for a year or two; i.e., don't up and go pro at the soonest green light shown. Whatever the case, it was impossible for Logano to turn down the offer of Tony Stewart's old team and sponsor.
Now, three years later, the results haven't measured up. Home Depot has already shown the dreaded beginnings of the sponsorship chipmunk dance, having shed about ten of its races to Dollar General's decals. To put more pressure in the issue, Home Depot's bar of success is somewhere around where Jimmie Johnson runs; i.e., with Johnson giving Lowes such profound success, Home Depot is looking for a driver to keep their orange somewhere near JJ's blue and silver.
A similar case went down recently with former Roush driver David Ragan. Having taken over former champ Dale Jarrett's ride, with a big time sponsor in a prestigious driver stable, David Ragan's results never materialized fully, and five years later Ragan finds himself in a new job and third-tier ride. Similar fates include relegation to running for the Nationwide championship with part-time cup rides, loss of the current job to be taken up by a third-tier team, or worst case, loss of the current job to be left floating indefinitely between intermittent Cup and Nationwide offers. What happens to Logano?
The future has a more rosy glow than was the case with Ragan, but the clock has never ticked faster or louder for Sliced Bread. Now is indeed the time to shine, as in 2012, as in full-throttle Chase contention and a couple of wins. The yellow flag of Nationwide Series caution is waving with gusto, with one hand reaching for the third-tier team red.
Final analysis: it's a red flag for Logano as his career hangs in the balance.