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Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Updated: September 12, 12:53 PM ET
BF … F?

By Melba Newsome

The future face of NASCAR blends in with the throng of other teens roaming North Carolina's Concord Mills Mall. Not only does Joey Logano go unrecognized, he's practically invisible. As he heads for the adjacent NASCAR SpeedPark karting track with friends Chase Austin and Marc Davis, Logano stops short at the entrance to the track's store. There, displayed prominently in front, is a T-shirt sporting his likeness and the words "First Win. No. 20." It takes him completely by surprise. "Wow, that's kinda cool," Logano says, smiling broadly. The win, on June 14 in a Nationwide Series race at Kentucky, is a milestone in his quick ascension from development driver to budding Sprint Cup star. It proves that the 18-year-old Logano can race alongside the best.

Logano, Davis and Austin started racing before their feet could reach go-kart pedals, and they've developed a friendship cemented by passion for the sport and their quasi-outsider backgrounds. They come, respectively, from Connecticut, Maryland and Kansas—hardly NASCAR strongholds. They are the first in their families to drive professionally, encouraged by parents who upended their lives and sank a lot of their money into getting them here. And let's not forget the ridiculous nicknames the boys call each other: Logano is Sliced Bread, as in best thing since; Davis is WHUR the Blur, in honor of his sponsor, Howard University's WHUR radio; and Austin, who's biracial, is the Flying Oreo.

Inseparable? Yes and no. A year ago, the three squared off at Dover International Speedway in the final race of the Nationwide East development series. Logano, runner-up that day, became the first rookie and youngest driver ever to walk away with the championship. (Davis was ninth and Austin 15th in the standings.) Now Logano is in the big leagues, and the 6'2", self-described string bean is being called the best pure racer since Tony Stewart, his current Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. In his first NNS start, also at Dover, Logano finished an impressive sixth, ahead of seasoned Cup drivers Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick. Two weeks later, he was standing in Victory Lane at Kentucky Speedway, survivor of a brutal race that devoured 14 of the 43 cars entered, including this year's It duo of Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. "I expected to win the first one because I go into every race expecting to win," Logano says. "That's the attitude you've gotta have." In the weeks since, he has punched out so many top-10 NNS finishes (nine through Sept. 7) that Cup vets no longer question his promotion to Sprint Cup, which is scheduled to happen on Sept. 14 at New Hampshire.

Watch him race, and it's easy to forget that Logano has had his driver's license for only two years. But hang out with him and his friends away from the track, and it's easy to see they're just a bunch of goofy kids who still can't believe they get paid for driving fast. "I don't even care about making money," Logano says. "I just want to race. Getting paid to do something you love? That's freaking awesome!"

"As long as I'm winning," Davis chimes in. "Winning is fun. Coming in 15th, 20th place … that ain't fun. That ain't racing. That's just riding around."

But as tight as these guys are, the question lingers: What happens when friends are no longer in the same league? Or what happens if they end up battling at the top of the sport? As history shows, they may face some unexpected turns.

The noise inside Chase Austin's Huntersville, N.C., apartment is off the charts, with music blasting, cell phones ringing and video games blaring. And then there's the giggling. Austin shares the two-bedroom digs with his 22-year-old sister, Jessica, but right now he's just hanging with his boys, chattering about late models, restrictor plates, road courses, engines. "If you like racing, that's all you want to talk about," Logano says. "We relate everything to racing—girls, food, I don't care what the freak it is!"

Logano logs on to Austin's computer and starts up rFactor, a racing simulation game. Instantly the chatty teen is gone, replaced by the serious young man who exhibits laserlike focus and fierce intensity on the race track. Austin plays this game daily to hone his driving skills—and yet in one try, Logano beats his all-time top score on one of the tracks. When Davis takes his turn, he crashes after a few laps. Austin tries repeatedly to best Logano's score but can't. Finally he gives up. "Joe, you got me on that one," he yells to Logano, who has moved to another room and is engaged in another game. "I can't catch you, man. I can't catch you."

The moment is a metaphor for their careers. Davis and Austin are solid, promising drivers; Logano is a prodigy. They are Salieris to his Mozart. Three years after receiving a go-kart for his fourth birthday, Logano won his first Eastern Grand National Championship in Junior Stock Quarter Midgets, followed by back-to-back titles in the Stock and Mod Lite divisions. His career trajectory has been straight up ever since Gibbs beat out Jack Roush and Chip Ganassi to sign him, four years ago. His friends have traveled rockier paths marked by fits and starts. Austin has spent most of his career in equipment built, maintained and paid for by his family and getting deals that never lasted long enough. Davis was rescued from racing obscurity in Newton, N.C., where scouts from Gibbs watched him drive back-of-the-pack cars to the middle of the field. Despite some impressive stats and performances, Davis still draws attention mainly because he is a black kid trying to make it in an overwhelmingly white sport.

Still, Logano is central to the friendship, the guy who brought them all together. He and Davis met 10 years ago, racing quarter-midgets, Legends and Bandoleros in Atlanta, then reconnected at Gibbs. They see each other and work out together every day, never easing up on the trash-talk. By contrast, Austin and Logano, who first met at an industry trade show in December 2005, didn't exactly become fast friends. "Joey was as personable as this table," Austin says. "He was really shy, and I was outgoing, and it didn't seem like we had a lot in common." Adds Logano: "I was like a turtle. I wouldn't come out of my shell. I would drive, do my interviews, go home." They challenged each other in the Hooters Pro Cup series for a year before becoming pals almost out of necessity. "We were both homeschooled, so we didn't have much chance to get to know anybody else," Austin says. "We both loved racing, and we're video game nerds, so we started hanging out."

"I know Joey's got my back," Austin says. "If it was me, I wouldn't want my friend to be jealous because I'm doing good. If Joey doesn't do well, it's not going to help me any."

Having grown up with racing at the center of his life, Logano is both more worldly and more sheltered than other kids his age. He has missed out on many things most teens take for granted: school dances, football games and after-school activities. But he's also less brash and has a guileless quality that makes him seem much younger than 18. His friends often bail him out in social situations. "I'm, like, constantly telling him what he needs to do," Austin says. "We went to a teen club one night, and I was his Hitch. Joey doesn't know how to dance, so I was telling him, 'Just move, and keep your elbows at 90.' "

But for every girl he missed out on in high school, there are two more at the track. And a lot of them know what to do, like Joey's new girlfriend, who approached him at an event and already has the Mom-Chase-Marc triple seal of approval. Even so, her presence (he won't reveal her name), along with Logano's packed schedule, means even less time for friends.

While Austin and Davis are still fighting for their first chances in Nationwide, Logano is acknowledged as the heir apparent to Stewart's soon-to-be-vacated seat. JGR employees appreciated Logano's Smoke-less style of handling the garage's recent cheating controversy, as he stepped up to take his public lumps even though he wasn't in on the scheme (in which magnets were placed on the bottom of his gas pedal). "I think it's made us stronger, more of a team," Logano said a week after the incident. Stewart, whose car was also magnetized, simply turned invisible.

If Austin and Davis can handle the adulation heaped on Logano, it will be a testament to their friendship. They point to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, whose bond survived the crucible of the Chase last year. Then again, brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch square off against each other every week, and their estrangement is no secret. The NASCAR scrap-yard is full of BFFs who ended up wrecked (see Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt), so maybe it helps that Logano, Austin and Davis became buds before they started shaving.

"Whatever happens, I know Joey's got my back," Austin says. "If it was me, I wouldn't want my friend to be jealous because I'm doing good. If Joey doesn't do well, it's not going to help me any."

Adds Davis: "Joey gives me incentive to win. I know I'll be there soon. I'm not worried about it. I'm happy to see him do good."

Davis, currently fifth in the Camping World East series, considers himself lucky to be with Gibbs, this year's team to beat. And his latest success—securing the No. 81 Randy Moss Motorsports ride in the Craftsman Truck Series—is just the opportunity to harness that incentive. (He finished 16th in his first race, on Sept. 6.) Meanwhile, Austin is back where he was two years ago, driving the family-built car on the family dime. No one wants to discuss the reasons for his recent split from Rusty Wallace Inc. ("Just didn't work out," Wallace says), but other owners are snooping around for the story as they make plans for next year. While Austin waits for a call, he spends most every Friday and Saturday traveling around the Carolinas, competing in late-model races in places like Hickory, Rockingham and Asheboro. "You have to take the good with the bad," he says. "I'm a racer, and I'm happy just racing anything."

And what happens if the day comes when the three friends find themselves battling in Cup? "If we were coming to the finish line, going for the checkered flag, and I had to run Joey over? I'd take him out," Austin says.

"No hard feelings," Logano adds. "I'd do the same. I'd take out my mom! When you're on the track, you have zero friends. That's the way it is."

So here's to the dream of racing on Sundays … and staying friends on Mondays.