The next big thing

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

Before Mark Martin retired (for the first time) from full-time Nextel Cup racing, he was asked who he would like to see take over driving duties in his No. 6 Ford.

"I'll tell you exactly who I would put in the 6 car in a heartbeat," Martin said. "Joey Logano."

At the time, not many had heard of Joey Logano. And for good reason. He was only 15.

"I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely, 100-percent positive, without a doubt that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR," Martin said that day. "I'm positive. There's no doubt in mind."

Was Martin crazy or just trying to make some noise?

Well, since then all Logano has done is prove Martin correct. He won in just his second USAR Hooters Pro Cup Series start, signed a development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing, beat Kevin Harvick in a stock-car race less than 24 hours after Harvick won NASCAR's All-Star Challenge, become the youngest champion in the history of any of NASCAR's touring divisions, and recently won the Toyota All-Star Showdown – a race that included all of NASCAR's top developmental drivers.

No longer is Logano's talent just a figment of Martin's immagination, but a bona fide reality.

The only thing stopping him now from breaking into NASCAR's two premier series is his age. Drivers must be at least 18 to compete in Nextel Cup and Busch Series racing, and Logano won't get there until next May.

"It kind of stinks because my birthday is right in the middle of the year," he said. "Probably in the beginning of [next] year we'll run some more Busch East races, then get some Busch races in once I turn 18."

So how is he handling all the hype, attention and back-patting?

"He's still a kid," said Tom Logano, his father. "He loves life. He's goofing around all the time, but he's mature. He's still a kid by heart, but man, when it comes game time, he's serious."

Racing wasn't in the Logano family. Tom owned a garbage business in Connecticut. When Joey was 4, Tom bought him an eight-horsepower go-kart, moved the pedals up, put a roll cage on it and told his son to go play.

Joey drove the go-kart day and night, spinning donuts in the yard.

Tom tried getting his son into the traditional stick-and-ball sports, coaching both the baseball and basketball teams, but that didn't really work out.

"He sucked at both of them," Tom said, bluntly.

One of the mechanics at Tom's garbage company had a son in quarter-midgets. Joey wanted to try it, and his racing career was born.

Still, he wouldn't be in the position he's in today if it weren't for a little serendipity.

Eight years ago, the family packed up and moved to Georgia – not to facilitate Joey's racing, but for their daughter Danielle's budding figure skating career.

The relocation allowed Joey Logano to avoid age restrictions for racers in Connecticut, and three years later, at age 12, Joey won the Southeast-based Pro Legends national championship, and Mark Martin called.

"I was like, 'Holy cow, I guess we got something,' " Tom Logano recalled.

With Martin in Joey Logano's corner, it looked like the phenom would roll right into the Roush Racing organization. And why not? Martin was the one who predicted Matt Kenseth would be a champion before anyone knew who Kenseth was, and now here Martin was predicting Logano not only to be better than Kenseth, but one of the best of all time.

"I'm more sure of it than I was sure of Matt Kenseth," Martin said at the time. "I'm more sure of it than anybody I've ever seen turn a wheel."

Tom Logano felt a certain loyalty to Martin and thus the organization he drove for, Roush Racing. That's where he wanted his son to go, Tom said. But it never happened.

According to Tom, the Roush organization dragged its feet for more than four months in signing Joey to a developmental contract. One day two years ago, Jack Roush walked into the Logano's race shop in North Carolina – where they've since relocated, this time for Joey's career – and, according to Tom, said he didn't know if Joey was as good as advertised. (Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith couldn't be reached for comment.)

As soon as Roush stepped foot out of the race shop, Tom got on the phone and called several major racing organizations, including Joe Gibbs Racing, and informed them that his son was a free agent.

The next day, Tom and Joey met with Joe and J.D. Gibbs. Four days later, J.D. Gibbs called to say he had a contract ready.

"I had heard of Joey, and it was a good point for us, because we were looking for the best way to get young drivers in our program," J.D. Gibbs said. "Looking back, it was a great decision on our part."

After signing the contract with Gibbs, Joey and Tom hopped on an airplane and flew to Mark Martin's home in Florida.

"I said, 'Mark, listen, I want you to understand everything we went through and why we did this,' " Tom said. "He was upset, but he wasn't upset with me."

"If it wasn't for Mark Martin … " Tom Logano continued. "You know, Tom Logano can come out and say, 'My kid should be in the 6 car in '06' and everybody would laugh at me. Well, when Mark Martin says he's going to the 6 car in '06, everybody's like, What?"

They're not saying that anymore.

Not only has Joey Logano made himself known, he already is scaring his future Nextel Cup competition. Denny Hamlin, who finished third in last year's Chase for the Nextel Cup, openly jokes that Logano is a threat to take his seat in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs car.

J.D. Gibbs plans to "turn [Logano] loose in the Busch Series" once he turns 18 on May 24. Logano also will continue to test in the Cup cars.

"The bottom line is, he'll be busy," Gibbs said.

"We're testing probably once a week or so," Logano said. "I enjoy it. That's what I do – I drive race cars, and anytime I can get in one, I love to do it."

Seeing how quickly things have developed for their son has been both exhilarating and scary for Logano's parents. They're ecstatic about his future, but worried about how fame and fortune might change him.

At the same time, they have a tremendous amount of trust in their son, because they've watched first-hand how hard he's worked and how driven he is to be the best.

"It's not sinking in," Deborah Logano said, staring at a semi trailer with her son's name plastered on its side. "I'm sitting here sipping my Diet Coke, and I'm looking at the trailer for the first time with his name on it, and it's just like, it's not sinking in."

It's understandable. Joey is still her little boy. It's just that to the rest of the racing world, he's the next big thing.

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