At just 26, Middletown’s Joey Logano on cusp of a NASCAR title

Joey Logano

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Joey Logano still has a youthful exuberance — the kind of guy who would watch “Boy Meets World” to relax the night before a championship race. He is still as goofy as he was when he broke into NASCAR as its next big phenom the day he turned 18.

His carefree demeanor off the track belies the fact that, eight seasons later, he has developed into a cutthroat driver with a win-at-all-costs approach.

Logano is so different now from the wide-eyed kid who was unexpectedly promoted into Tony Stewart’s ride with Joe Gibbs Racing for his first full season. He’s raced for and lost a championship, he’s feuded with top drivers, he’s worked hard to shake the label as a spoiled daddy’s boy who coasted to the top.

It took a second chance at only 22 given by Roger Penske for Logano to flourish, in and out of the race car. He doesn’t care who is mad at him, he’s not here to make friends. Logano is here to win races, and he lets very little get in his way.

“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t mature for my age, but I’ve got more experience now doing what I’m doing and racing up front and racing the best,” he told The Associated Press. “As you get older, you go through stages, right? You get married, and then you are married for a while and are getting your life going, then you take the next steps after that.

“Not only from a racing side of things, but from a business side of the sport, I’ve become way more involved in that and understanding what it takes. I think that’s kind of changed my attitude at the race track. I’m still Joey, though. I still like watching funny TV shows, I still want to get my mind off of things. But I am more aware of what’s going on in my mind, what I’m conscious about, what am I thinking about and how to become the best.”

Logano made it to the 2014 championship race and withstood a barrage of needling from Kevin Harvick to have a shot at the title. But a slow pit stop ended his championship chances. He would have made it back to the finale last year, but he was adamantly unapologetic about his role in an accident with Matt Kenseth that virtually ended Kenseth’s Chase.

Viewed by Kenseth and many of his peers as arrogant over the incident, Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano weeks later and that stopped Logano from advancing to the finale.

The experience eventually became a lesson for Logano (who indeed did watch “Boy Meets World” the night before the 2014 championship).

He knows now that he should have called Kenseth to triage any bad blood. In fact, Logano uses everything as a learning experience, part of the playbook that has shaped him into the husband and racer he is today.

Penske marvels at the leader Logano has become.

“We moved on, and quite honestly, I think Joey and Matt have worked it out on the racetrack, and hopefully personally and professionally they know how to do their jobs,” Penske said.

Far from the most dominant driver in this Chase, Logano twice won elimination races in these playoffs to advance to the next round. Rescued last week by a late caution in a race that could have eliminated him,, he went on to win and earn the spot Sunday against defending series champion Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. He is trying to become the first Ford driver to win the title since Kurt Busch in 2004, the first year of the Chase.

“Joey is phenomenal about elevating,” Penske said. “There’s very few professional athletes that can elevate to that level when the pressure comes on, and Joey has done it time and time again.”

He’s the example for his No. 22 team and sets the tone for crew chief Todd Gordon.

Like Logano, Gordon has lost a championship and that 2014 experience has allowed for a far more relaxed approach to this weekend. But it’s Logano who has told the team this race is no different than the other 37 on the schedule.

“It’s a normal race weekend,” Logano said. “We go to win every weekend, and I’m not going to change what we do just because what’s on the line.”

He credits heavily his experience in the 2014 finale for his current mindset, and flatly dismisses the idea that someone has to lose a championship race to win one.

“I’m very different, in a good way, though,” he says.

His experience, the infectious work ethic and leadership of Penske and that confidence — he believes he’s the best driver on the track.

“It’s no secret in NASCAR racing that experience means a lot. Being able to go through Homestead once, being able to race for a championship, I think is key,” he said. “I’ve talked a lot about that race, and said, ‘I hope I’m in that position again someday,’ because I know how to handle the race, I know how to prepare for the race, I know how to race in the race.

“We’ve done one before. Any time you’ve been somewhere before, you feel more confident, you feel like you are ready for the situation ahead of you, you know what’s coming at you and you are ready to deal with it.”