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Monday, September 8, 2008
LAGANO BACKLASH


Soon Joey Lagano will have to face down the somewhat annoyed competition.

Poor Sliced Bread.

Joey Lagano has yet to race one lap in the Sprint Cup Series and the 18-year old is already dealing with Logano-Lash.

Publicly, NASCAR vets are wishing him well. Privately, they're griping about having to answer so many questions about the one whom they have christened with that backhanded compliment of a nickname.

Over the last year, as the countdown to Logano's debut has grown louder and louder, the resentment of his fellow racers has quietly warmed to a boil. During the first '08 race at Richmond, Cup drivers were pelted with questions about Logano as he blistered the field to win his ARCA debut at Rockingham. Two weeks later they were asked to glorify him again, as his handlers called a press conference at Charlotte to watch team owner Joe Gibbs cut the cake on his 18th birthday. No, seriously.

Two weeks after that they were hit again, this time as he made his first Nationwide Series start (quipped one rival when the race was interrupted by rain "Just have Logano wave his arms and make the clouds part."). He finished sixth.

By the time we got back to Richmond this past weekend, Logano Watch had reached near-ridiculous proportions. His scheduled Cup debut got off to great promise as he was among the top ten in both Friday morning practice sessions, but his chances were washed away when Tropical Storm Hanna cancelled qualifying.

The Arrival of Sliced Bread completely overshadowed the Chase. He was featured on ESPN's E:60, SportsCenter, NASCAR Now and in the Chase preview issue of ESPN The Magazine (on newsstands this week!). Speed Channel's Friday all-day coverage from Richmond might as well have been named Lovin' Logano.

When the rains came and PR reps started sending their drivers to the Richmond media center to talk about their chances in the Chase, they each became visibly irritated when the talk to turned to the Chosen One.

Those guys were nice enough to pull their punches. Others weren't.

"I think he's a great kid," says one veteran driver. "And I don't think all the hype around him has been his fault. But damn, he hasn't done anything yet that any of us in here haven't already done."

In all fairness, that statement is accurate only depending on what Cup driver we're using to make the comparison, but it's a fair assessment. For decades a huge part of NASCAR's unwritten garage code was that a driver had to spend at least five years driving junk before he was even somewhat considered for a top-shelf Cup ride.No, it isn't Logano's fault that the current way of doing NASCAR business has him in a Cup car—a championship-winning Cup car—ten or fifteen years earlier than it would have happened in the 1980's. But it's Logano that will now have to combat the backlash that the still-new system has created.

Dale Earnhardt drove a bunch of secondhand washing machines for ten years before he was finally given a consistent Cup gig in 1979 at the age of 28. Even after winning his first championship the following season, he still had to pound the pavement to land a ride with then-superpower team owner Bud Moore.

The earn-your-keep code was so burned into Ironhead's racing DNA that he made his son Dale Junior work on his own late models and get his nose bloodied on the Carolina short tracks before finally putting him into a Busch Series car at 21, refusing to give him a full-time gig until he was 23 and not letting him into Cup until two years later. (That debut was the previous record-holder for most-hyped Cup arrival.)

Bobby Allison had to drive junk, so did his son Davey. Lee Petty made Richard wait until he was 21 years old to race. Sterling Marlin piloted jalopies for ten years and didn't win his first race until he was 36, twice Logano's age.

To them—along with plenty of 20- and 30-somethings in the Richmond paddock—Logano being put in Tony Stewart's ride next year, a decision made before he's even completed a Sprint Cup parade lap, is like a 45-year old corporate bank VP being forced to share his corner office with a kid who just graduated community college.

"It began with the Young Gun deal," says one team owner, also choosing to take the I-don't-want-to-diss-the-kid-in-public-so-don't-use-my-name route. "Fifteen years ago I wouldn't even look at a driver until he was in his late 20's. Then Jeff Gordon came along and all the sponsors wanted the next Gordon. Then they wanted the next Tony Stewart and the next Kasey Kahne. The next thing you know the whole hiring deal completely changed. You don't have time to wait and see if a kid is going to be good. You sign them on potential. You just hope they're as good as the hype."

No, it isn't Logano's fault that the current way of doing NASCAR business has him in a Cup car—a championship-winning Cup car—ten or fifteen years earlier than it would have happened in the 1980's. But it's Logano that will now have to combat the backlash that the still-new system has created.

How does he make it go away? The same way an uber-hyped NFL rookie gets the veterans to stop complaining about his big signing bonus. The same way a guy that's been traded into a hostile NBA arena gets angry fans to forget that their favorite player, the one that just got shipped out.

Just win, baby.

He's done it his whole career, from the time he won his first quarter midget championship at the age of seven to his first Nationwide Series win, which came in just his third try.

Win the races. Justify the hype. Slice the bread.