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Joey Logano is on the hot seat in a contract year

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The uncomfortable question came barely five minutes into Joey Logano's first interview of the 2012 season: How does it feel hearing your name mentioned as a driver on the hot seat?

"You try to block it out," he responded. "You try to not think about it, but when you turn on the TV and all you see is them talking about you – saying you're out or you're in or this and that, whatever it is – you start to think, 'Huh, I wonder if that's true.' "

When your sponsor is spending $15 million to $20 million a year and getting a 24th-place finish in return, it has to be. So as uncomfortable as it may be, Logano is going to continue to hear his name in "hot seat" conversations as long as his results – mediocre to this point – remain the same.

Logano, who will turn 22 in May, is already entering his fourth Cup season. While he doesn't regret his decision to move up to the big leagues as an 18-year-old – "Who wouldn't do that?" he wondered correctly – he readily admits he wasn't prepared to handle everything that came with being a Cup driver.

"Dealing with people, how to keep the team motivated, being a leader – that was all stuff as an 18-year-old I didn't know how to do," he explained. "It was a lot bigger jump than I thought."

Team owner Joe Gibbs and, by extension, sponsor Home Depot knew they were promoting Logano too quickly at the time. But they were left with no better options when Tony Stewart bailed to start his own team. Because of that, they took a patient approach once Logano was promoted.

A 20th-place finish his rookie season was respectable; a 16th-place finish the next year showed improvement; and ending that 2010 season with five top-seven finishes in the final six races teed up great expectations.

And then … he fell flat on his face in 2011, posting just six top 10s the entire season and none in the final 14 races.

And now … the hype first created by Mark Martin some five years ago? Gone.

The "Sliced Bread" nickname? Stale.

The doubt? Plentiful.

Logano is in a contract year, as is Home Depot. Though the crop of potential free agents isn't the bumper one of a year ago, it could include some intriguing prospects – Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch foremost among them.

So now it's on Logano to prove he's worth three more years in the No. 20. For the first time, it will be his team. Greg Zipadelli, a holdover from the Tony Stewart days, is gone, replaced by 44-year-old Jason Ratcliff – who as a rookie crew chief has less Cup experience than his 21-year-old driver.

"With this crew-chief change now, it allows it to be your team, allows you to be a leader," Logano said. "That's a really good deal for me."

He hopes anyway, but he'll remain on the proverbial hot seat until he proves it.

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