Rain doesn't water down Logano's feat

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

Mother Nature helped hand Joey Logano his first career Sprint Cup victory and made him the youngest driver to win a Cup race. And some will criticize him for that.

They'll say he didn't earn the win in Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301, which rain halted on lap 273 with Logano in the lead. And they're right. He didn't earn it, not completely.

But this shouldn't overshadow the fact that over the last two months Logano has begun to bridge the gap between hype and reality.

When he took to the track in February in Daytona, Logano hardly looked like the kid who would win a ton of races, multiple championships and become the future star NASCAR could hang its hopes on, all of which had been predicted of him. He bounced off walls then bounced off a few more before wrecking out of the Daytona 500 after only 79 laps.

By the time he left Texas in April after a 30th-place finish, Logano was flirting with falling out of the top 35 in points, which would have been a devastating blow for a team that was in the Chase a year ago.

The easy critique was that Logano wasn't ready for the big time, that he'd been brought up too soon to fill Tony Stewart's vacancy.

But were similar criticisms made of Sam Hornish Jr. or Juan Pablo Montoya or most other rookies?

Logano's problem wasn't that he was 18 and still living at home with his parents. It was that he needed more seat time, just like every other rookie who has come into the Cup Series. On top of this, NASCAR decided in November to ban testing at all sanctioned tracks, which wasn't a factor when team owner Joe Gibbs decided to put him in the car.

"At the time we thought we were going to test a bunch and that got taken away from us," explained Gibbs. "So then you're putting Joey out there with the best in the world. This is the best people in the world doing this, and he's having to compete at places he's never seen really.

"We were really looking for just constant improvement, and that's really what we've seen."

This has been obvious over the last nine races with Logano finishing in the top 10 four times, and is what helped put him in a position to win on Sunday. Instead of toiling around 30th, which is where he spent much of the first two months of the season, Logano spent most of Sunday's race around 20th. As the leaders in front of him pitted, he cycled closer and closer to the front. And when rain started to close in, he and crew chief Greg Zipadelli began devising a plan that would keep them out on the track until the rain arrived.

Both Logano and Ryan Newman, who was leading at the time, were playing the rain strategy, but Newman ended up running out of fuel, putting Logano in the lead. A few laps later, rain started to fall, NASCAR halted the race and eventually called it, handing the victory to the rookie.

"Obviously it's not the way you want to win your first race, in the rain," said Logano, who turned 19 in May, "but 20 years down the road when you look in the record books, no one will know the difference."

No. Instead, if the hype surrounding Logano pans out, his first win will be a trivia question, a difficult one for those not figuring win No. 1 for the driver challenging records set by Gordon, Earnhardt and Petty came thanks to rain.

For everyone involved, this is all about the long haul. It's why Zipadelli, who'd spent the previous 10 years as a perennial championship-contender crew chief for Stewart, was willing to start over; it's why Gibbs gambled on a teenager; it's why Home Depot kept its name and its multi-million dollar sponsorship with the 20 car.

"We figure we can keep this going, ride this thing for about 20 years," Gibbs said.

The window is large, which is a good thing because Logano still has a long way to go to live up to expectations. But barely five months into Logano's career, the gap between the hype and the reality is already starting to narrow.

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