Nothing cookie-cutter about Logano

1/27/2010 - NASCAR

HARRISBURG, Ark. -- The driver of the black SUV parked next to the drive-in speaker, then turned to his four passengers for food requests before pushing the order button. Before "What do you want?" was out of his mouth, the 19-year-old kid in the backseat had rolled down his window and was telling the muffled voice in the box what he wanted.

The kid proceeded to order for everyone, oblivious to two women taking pictures of him from a gray minivan a few feet away.

"This is so going to be screwed up," he said, seemingly taking pleasure in the confusion of the order.

The kid was in such a hurry to get home for a minor league hockey game that he ordered water for everyone even though at least one passenger carrying a reporter's notepad suggested the fruit slushy was pretty good.

"You look like you like fruity drinks," the kid said with a devilish grin.


The kid, Sprint Cup driver Joey Logano, didn't put on any pretenses during this eight-hour trek from North Carolina to Arkansas to surprise 8-year-old Gavin Grubbs for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He acted as goofy as if he were hanging out in his "barn" with friends, even though he knew everything he said and did was being documented.

He was himself.

It was refreshing in a world where drivers often seem like they come out of a mold.

"I just enjoy things, period," said the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Toyota, now settled in the plane for the trip home. "It's my personality. If you're going to be grumpy all day, that takes the fun out of life, doesn't it?

"I'm serious at the racetrack. But as long as you have the right balance, why not have fun? This is me."

Logano appears unspoiled by his first year in NASCAR's premier series. He hasn't let the pressures or expectations that came from Mark Martin's comment four years ago -- "absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR" -- go to his head.

"He doesn't take himself too seriously," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "He has fun with life."

He should. At an age when most kids are trying to figure out their future, Logano knows exactly what he wants.

He's off to a good start, too. He took the checkered at New Hampshire last season to become the youngest winner in Cup history at 19 years, one month and four days. He finished 20th in points despite a horrendous start to earn rookie of the year.

He has the world at his feet.

But what makes him special is he doesn't think on those terms.

"I met Joey when he was only 10," Martin said. "He impressed me back then with how mature he was. I remember thinking that he would make any father proud of how he carried himself on and off the track.

"He of course has grown a lot since then, but all in good ways."

Balancing act

Logano barely had settled into the plane when he uttered, "I read ESPN.com all the time."

Yes, the kid can be a suck-up, but with an innocence one would expect from one his age. Over the next few hours things spurted out of his mouth that you'd never imagine -- or expect -- any other driver to say.

"Ever try balancing on a tire cart?" Logano asked. "I'm really good at it. I'm freaking awesome at it."

A tire cart? Really? Not a skateboard?

"Hell yeah!" he said. "I'm pretty sure I can't ride a skateboard. Just tire carriers."

He later talked of trying to drive up a snowy hill without four-wheel drive while in Lake Placid, N.Y., competing in Geoffrey Bodine's Bobsled Challenge.

"I couldn't do it," he said. "I sucked at it."

When Logano got hungry, he talked about McDonald's and how "cool it used to be when I could get Happy Meals."

You didn't know what was coming next, whether it was talking about an old-school Volkswagen van he wants, the '60s and '70s music he grew up listening to, flying with the Thunderbirds or how he met his girlfriend, Sabrina Simpson.

"She happened to come by the barn one night to watch football," Logano said. "My pickup line was, 'Do you want a water?'"

Corny for sure. It got cornier when the SUV driver referred to Simpson as "butter," a play on Logano's nickname "sliced bread" (as in the greatest thing since).

Before the SUV arrived at Harrisburg High to surprise young Gavin, who has muscular dystrophy, butter had become "butta" and the Connecticut-born Logano was talking with a Southern accent almost as good as the locals.

When Gavin wondered if Logano was the real deal or just an actor pretending to be him, Logano laughed and said, "They can't make somebody as goofy as me."

Go-karts and stuff

Thirty minutes into the flight, Logano was asked if he wanted to stay in Las Vegas between the second and third races.

"I can't do nothing in Vegas," he said, reminding us he is below the legal gambling age of 21. "I successfully did all that last year."

A lot of 19-year-olds would be itching to spend time in Sin City. Not Logano. He doesn't drink and has no desire to. The same with gambling. His idea of fun is going to dinner and returning to the barn behind his parent's Concord home to play ping-pong and video games or watch movies.

A crazy day might include riding go-karts with 13 of his closest friends.

"We can go 10 minutes in a go-kart and have hours of stuff to talk about," Logano said.

While Logano doesn't want for much, he doesn't want much either. He doesn't spend large amounts of money unless it's on an old car. He has no plans to move out of his parents' house, in part because he doesn't know where he wants to live, in part because he doesn't like being alone and in part because he doesn't want to pay rent.

"I'm a cheap-wad," Logano said. "I'm a cheap SOB."

Not your typical teen

Logano was trying to think of what it is like to be 19 and flying around the country with millionaire stars and meeting in boardrooms with the CEOs of large companies such as primary sponsor Home Depot.

He was wondering how his life is different from that of a typical 19-year-old college kid who sleeps late, goes to classes and then stays out late doing whatever he wants.

"I don't know," Logano said. "It's like if you never had a piece of cake, you never want it."

A deep thought from one so young. The deepest moment of last year came when he walked down pit road with his father, Tom, before the start of the Daytona 500. Until then he simply was doing everything he'd been prepared to do since nearly childbirth.

Now it was real.

"It was, 'Holy crap! I'm starting [ninth] in the Daytona 500! The youngest one to start it! Whoa!'" Logano said. "That's when it hit me."

Reality really sank in 79 laps in. Logano crashed and finished dead last.

"At Daytona, I didn't know what I was doing," Logano admitted.

It looked that way for much of the first eight races as Logano had an average finish of 29.1. Then came a ninth at Talladega, a 19th at Richmond and two more ninths at Darlington and Charlotte.

All of a sudden he looked like the "real deal" Martin dubbed him to be.

"Joey did spectacular in his first year," Martin said. "We all need to remember that this kid is only 19, and he was thrust into this super-competitive world of adults. He was extremely mature throughout the season. He was very impressive."

Truth or consequences

Gavin leaned forward in his wheelchair and whispered that it scared him when Logano's car went into a barrel roll last fall at Dover.

"Me too," Logano said.

Honesty. That is what strikes one most when he meets Logano. He shared something many drivers wouldn't even if they felt that way, because they know how it might be perceived.

"You want to go for a ride and see if it freaks you out?" Logano asked. "That's how I felt at the time."

Some wondered if this would have a long-term impact on Logano, if it might slow him down. Logano answered that by winning the Nationwide Series race the following week at Kansas, one of five victories on the season.

"I'm going to say the truth no matter what," Logano said. "That's how I felt at the moment. I won the next week to shut everybody up."

Livin' life

Logano let out a big yawn as he unraveled his tall, lanky body from the plane after the 90-minute flight home.

"I'm getting too old for this," he said.

Ah, to be 19.

It had been a good trip, though. Logano gave Gavin one of the best days of his life, had fun with a drive-through employee and beat the computer at solitaire, the latter followed with a fist pump.

"I tried other sports before," Logano said. "I sucked at all of them. If you're as competitive as me you can't suck."

Logano doesn't know if he'll ever achieve the greatness Martin predicted, but he would much rather be expected to win championships than labor in mediocrity.

"That's pretty much where Jimmie Johnson is now, right?" Logano said of the four-time defending Cup champion. "Well, you want to be that guy."

Meanwhile, Logano plans to enjoy life. He might change some along the way, but he hopes not to the point that he can't maintain the youthful enthusiasm he showed on this day.

"I'm 19 years old," he said. "I just kind of go with things. I don't know any better. I'm not being something else for somebody. This is the way I've been my whole life. That's pretty much how it's going to be."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.