DAYTONA, Fla. – If it weren't for serendipity, the Sprint Cup Series may not have had a rookie class in 2009.
But Tony Stewart decided to drive for himself, opening up a seat for 18-year-old Joey Logano, and Red Bull Racing opted to shift its support from A.J. Allmendinger to Scott Speed, bringing yet another former Formula 1 driver into the Cup Series.
Considering that at this time last year Logano wasn't even old enough to compete at the Sprint Cup level and Speed had zero experience in stock cars, neither could have expected to be where he is today, preparing for the 51st running of the Daytona 500.
Long odds or not, this rookie class is highly anticipated – if only to see what Logano, the phenom, will do, and hear what Speed, the character, will say.
Those descriptions alone offer a little insight into how different these two are.
Logano comes into Sprint Cup racing on a path that's been laid out for him ever since Mark Martin touted him as the next big thing – three years ago. Under the tutelage of Joe Gibbs Racing's developmental program, Logano quickly made his way through the stock-car ranks, always with one eye on the present, the other on the Cup Series, which was always the goal.
At 19, Speed found himself living on his own in Europe, trying to make it to the world's premier open-wheel series. He wasn't thinking about NASCAR; he was focused on competing in Formula 1, something no American had done in a decade.
Only when he was dropped by his Formula 1 team, ending a contentious relationship, did Speed start thinking about NASCAR. He views it as a step down from Formula 1 – a consolation prize. If he can't be in the world's No. 1 racing series, No. 2 will have to do.
Speed is as un-NASCAR as they come – he dyes his hair and paints his toenails – but his kind of unsanitized honesty will endear him to even the old-school race fan.
Last year, Speed competed in the ARCA series. His goal wasn't to win, but rather to gain extra seat time in a stock car. Still, entering the final race of the season, Speed found himself with the points lead, 85 ahead of Ricky Stenhouse.
Less than halfway through that final race, Stenhouse got into the back of Speed's car, sending him into the wall. With his car all but destroyed, Speed limped into the pits, called for four fresh tires, went back on the track and got his revenge, tagging Stenhouse and ensuring that neither would win the series championship.
"That was a no-brainer," Speed said on Thursday, not trying to hide anything, which is normally the case. "My car got destroyed because the second-place guy tried to take me out to win the championship. No one in their right mind would not do something about it.
"It's not like I went out there and crashed him and I could have still won the championship. The car was done, and it wasn't even going to barely run. I made them put the tires on and let me go back out. It was very Cole Trickle-ish."
Speed, 26, is hardly the punk Tom Cruise portrayed in "Days of Thunder." He knows he doesn't have all the answers, which is why he's not afraid to follow Jeff Gordon around the track or approach Jimmie Johnson for advice.
"It'd be really foolish of me to go out there and piss off anyone," he said. "Right now, I'm at the point where I'm not going to be fighting anyone for wins right now, and I'm certainly not going to be fighting for a championship, so I'm here to learn. The more friends I have out there, the more respectful I am to people, the more they're going to want to help me, and that's just beneficial for me."
Logano is being thrown into the deep end almost out of necessity. Stewart's departure accelerated Joe Gibbs' schedule for the 18-year-old by at least a year.
Though Logano showed very little in his three Cup starts last season – his best finish was 32nd at New Hampshire – he fared well in his half season at the Nationwide level, winning a race and posting 14 top 10s in 19 starts.
Ready or not, the time is now for the kid they're already calling "Sliced Bread."
"Things like that go through your mind," Logano said of his readiness for the Cup level, "but then you have to think, J.D. [Gibbs, team president] and Joe [Gibbs, team owner] aren't going to put you in if you're not ready. They know what they're doing. They've won championships. So if they say you're ready, you must be ready."
Logano has to be the favorite to win the NASCAR Rookie of the Year battle, if only because he's got a stronger team than Speed. But it's probably too early for either to have a real impact up front. That won't happen for another season or two, when it would have happened otherwise if kismet hadn't stepped in to speed things up.