Logano working hard to settle in

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

LONG POND, Pa. – Standing inside his hauler, the one with his name splattered on the side of it, everything appears rosy for Joey Logano. He's barely 19, has already reached the pinnacle of his profession, is making a lot of money, and because of all this he doesn't have a care in the world, right?

It would seem that way. But rewind things to April 5.

There's Logano, maybe the most hyped rookie driver NASCAR has ever seen, with the nickname "Sliced Bread" because he was supposed to be the best thing since, the kid who was handed the keys to Tony Stewart's car – Tony Freaking Stewart's car – wondering if he hadn't lost it all only a few weeks after it was handed to him.

He'd just finished a miserable 30th in the Samsung 500 at Texas, which came on the heels of a 32nd at Martinsville and a 38th at Bristol. He's sitting 35th in points, a standing that won't sit well for long with sponsor Home Depot, which has spent 10 years and millions more than that building a winning brand with Stewart.

And now, just seven races into his Cup career, there are rumors flying around the garage that he's on the hot seat; that if things don't turn around, Martin Truex Jr., a free agent at the end of the season, will take his place.

"To a kid that just ran 30th, he's basically got tears running down his cheeks," Greg Zipadelli, Logano's crew chief, said Friday at Pocono Raceway, site of Sunday's Pocono 500. "Answering questions to that nature – what would you think?"

What rushed through Logano's mind was a wave of doubt. Am I ready for this? Am I good enough? Do I belong here?

If he talked to Jeff Gordon, Logano would find that the four-time champion went through the exact same thing.

"My rookie year was my worst year ever from a personal standpoint," Gordon said. "I had no confidence in myself. I was excited I was offered a ride to be at this level, but I was still shaking my head wondering how I got here and do I have what it takes to be here. I was told I had what it takes, but you question that constantly."

That's where Logano was following the race at Texas. Zipadelli was there, too – captain of a ship that was used to running up front; that was used to winning races; that had won multiple championships.

When Stewart, the only driver Zipadelli had ever known in the Cup Series, decided to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to run his own team, and Logano was pegged as his replacement, Zipadelli knew there would be a learning curve. He just didn't think it would be this steep.

"It wasn't pretty," Zipadelli said, recalling what was going through his mind following that race in Texas. "For me, it was a real eye opener. You know, this could be a real long hard year. … We really needed to put the pressure on [Joey] to do the things he's capable of doing."

Zipadelli knew he had to do something, so he told his driver to drown out the questions about his future, to stop listening to the critics – especially the television commentators who Zipadelli feels were overly harsh – and start focusing on what earned Logano the ride in the first place. He reminded Logano that he'd earned Joe Gibbs' confidence not because of the hype, but because he had consistently run fast laps every time they tested.

"I think he got away from that because of the pressure," Zipadelli said. "All he's worrying about is when the media is coming to him and saying Martin Truex is going to be in his car."

Zipadelli assured Logano his job was safe. From that point on, it's been a different Logano.

After "hitting everything but the lottery in the beginning of the season" – Logano's words – Zipadelli says there came a new commitment from his driver. Logano realized that to succeed he couldn't just show up to the track and hope that his talent was enough, not at this level.

He started watching more film, trying to figure out the best line around the track. It's something Zipadelli didn't have to worry about with Stewart behind the wheel. But because Logano has never been to most of the tracks they race on, Zipadelli had been left to wonder if their lack of speed was a result of the car not being set up right or Logano not running the correct line.

The results reflect the work. Logano has finished on the lead lap in each of the last five races – something he did only once in the first eight – and in that time he's recorded three top 10s, which have catapulted him from 35th to 23rd in the standings.

"We're walking now, whereas Daytona through Texas we were crawling," Zipadelli said.

The truth is no one on the outside was willing to give Logano time – not even a few weeks. But that's how it is these days, when the only thing more saleable than hype is breaking down those who "don't" live up to it.

Maybe Logano got where he is today as quickly as he did in part because of what Mark Martin unleashed a few years ago, when he declared the then 15-year-old Logano was already good enough to compete in the Spint Cup Series. But hype can't help him now, not on the track. That part of the deal is up to him.

"Getting here is one thing; staying here is another," Logano said. "I guarantee you 90 percent of the guys out here are digging as hard as they can. We're all out here for the same reason. Everyone is trying their guts out. … I just want to stay here."

What to Read Next