|Logano (22) and Hamlin crashed Sunday|
Since joining NASCAR’s senior circuit with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009, the Connecticut native has struggled to find his place in NASCAR’s competitive hierarchy, never quite living up to his “best thing since sliced bread” billing. Logano was thrust into Cup competition a year earlier than planned, after multi-time series champion Tony Stewart jumped JGR’s ship to accept a lucrative, owner-driver position with the team now known as Stewart Haas Racing.
Since then, Logano has struggled to emerge from Stewart’s long shadow. His race cars were Stewart’s cars. His crewchief, Greg Zipadelli, was Stewart’s crew chief. His team was Stewart’s team. All parties did their level best to make the arrangement work, but in the end, the message was always the same.
“Gee, Joey, that’s not the way we did things when Tony was here…”
During the off-season, Logano made a move of his own, joining the potent Penske Racing stable as a teammate to 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion, Brad Keselowski.
At Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano earned his chance simply by being next in line. At Penske, however, he was the team’s first choice. Team owner Roger Penske rebuilt the No. 22 Ford team around him, rather than simply hammering a square peg into a round hole. The on-track results were disappointing at first -- 21st at Daytona, 32nd at Phoenix and 21st in Las Vegas – but even while struggling, Logano showed a level of confidence unprecedented in his NASCAR career. He was a contender for the win at Bristol two weeks ago before a dump-and-run move by Danny Hamlin left him with a damaged race car and a disappointing, 17th-place finish.
|Logano stood his ground against Stewart|
At Auto Club Speedway Sunday, he was once again a major player. Logano raced near the front of the pack throughout the day, and when the chips were down, he made it clear that he is no longer the timid 18-year old known – sometimes derisively -- as “Sliced Bread.”
On the day’s final restart, he blocked a charging Stewart all the way to the infield grass in an effort to protect his lead. Moments later, he used Hamlin’s Toyota as a guardrail while racing for the Auto Club 400 win, displaying a level of aggression seldom – if ever – seen in his previous five years on the circuit. Both he and Hamlin crashed, but after limping his battered Ford home in third place, Logano said he is no longer going to be pushed around within sight of the checkered flag.
“After the way (Hamlin) raced me last week, that’s what he gets,” said Logano, without a hint of remorse. “It was the reverse of last week, the opposite of what he did.”
After the race, an angry Stewart came calling, fists raised and ready to rumble. Logano did not back down, throwing at least one punch in the resulting melee before rifling a water bottle in Stewart’s direction.
“I had to throw the block,” said Logano of the final restart. "I was racing hard, trying to make sure I protected my spot. I knew if he put me three-wide, that would be the end of my race. I wouldn’t win (and) I was smart enough to realize that. I had to do what I had to do to get to the front and try to win the race.”
“He has that right (to block),” said Stewart in response. “He has the choice to do that. He’s in control of his car. But if he ever turns down in front of me again, I don’t care what lap it is, he won’t make it through the other end of it.
“I’m tired of guys doing that stuff; especially out of a kid that’s been griping about everybody else,” Stewart said. “He’s sent Denny (Hamlin) to the hospital and screwed our day up. He’s talked the talk, but he hasn’t walked the walk yet. He’s always got his crew guys walking the walk for him. It's time he learns a lesson.”
While it’s a stretch to say Logano intentionally wrecked Hamlin on the final lap Sunday, he clearly drove his car past the edge of control, knowing that his rival was alongside and likely to pay the price for any mistake. Logano did the competitive math, then decided to race Hamlin as aggressively as Hamlin had raced him just seven days before. That’s a different, more aggressive Logano than we have seen in the past, and after the race, team owner Penske made it clear that he has his driver’s back, every step of the way.
"I'm 150% behind my driver,” said Penske to USA TODAY Sports Sunday evening. “I think he's a real star on the team.” He called Stewart's criticism "unwarranted,” adding, "I've watched him from the spotter's stand quite a bit, and I think Stewart is one of the best in the business at blocking. Anyone is going to protect the bottom."
In the last two weeks, Logano has stood his ground with a combative former teammate, proving that he’s willing to give, as good as he gets. He has stood up to a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion, trading haymakers both on and off the track.
If the last 14 days are any indication, it appears that Logano is finally coming of age in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.