Commentary

Teen rookie Logano a year ... wiser

He's known as "The Natural." And "Sliced Bread," as in "the greatest thing since ..." The nicknames are cool, but can Joey Logano live up to the hype? Give him time, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: January 28, 2009, 3:45 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Joey Logano is hungry, wandering around in the back lot of a Home Depot store looking for rations. Fried catfish is the special on the catering truck, but he goes with a handful of egg rolls, a salad and a softball-sized lump of mashed potatoes.

It's lunchtime on Day 1 of a two-day commercial shoot for his new primary sponsor, his debut as poster boy for the Fortune 500 company that signed on to foot his bill for the next seven years. He co-starred in a commercial with former Home Depot driver Tony Stewart this past fall, so he has an idea of how the dog 'n' pony show works.

Joey Logano
AP Photo/Robert E. KleinThe new poster boy for Home Depot: Joey Logano.

Food in hand, he ambles back to the rented motor home, where he goes into the standard lunchtime holding pattern when, just before that first bite of potatoes, there's a knock at the door.

A member of the production crew peeks in the doorway with a request.

"Can you please take off your sweatshirt?"

Good catch.

"You know me pretty well," Logano says.

He's 18 years old. Murphy's Law prevails. If he were to wear the commercial's signature sweater while dining, the next take almost certainly would include a thousand-island stain.

He's ahead of schedule, a natural actor. Or so the director says.

"Must want tickets," Logano quips with a sly half-grin.

The kid is quick-witted. A natural, indeed.

For years, Logano has been "The Natural."

He is undisputedly the most-hyped young talent in stock car racing history. His driving ability has been frothed over for years, which is interesting, considering he's had a driver's license for only two of them.

He's been profiled on "E:60" and in ESPN The Magazine as "NEXT."

He soon will be in your living room often. The commercial he is shooting today will be on national television within the month. But he doesn't plan to change much, plans to keep the same company he keeps now -- family and racers' kids.

Most of his closest buddies were reared in the sport, so they share a similar passion and understand the nuances of the game. Recently, he and four other racers' sons -- Coleman Pressley, Brandon McReynolds, Kyle Grissom and Corey LaJoie -- went to the local go-kart track and raced. For 12 hours.

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Yep, they put on their fathers' old-school fire suits, open-faced helmets and bubble goggles, and staged their own half-Rolex 24.

"Got our butts handed to us, too," Logano says. "I was pissed."

Shortly thereafter, he went to Lake Placid, N.Y., to race bobsleds.

"It just looked fun," he says. "And we got a lot of nice clothes."

He just wants to race. He's not caught up in the other stuff, doesn't seem to be, anyway. It'd be hard not to get swept up by the whirlwind, but Logano is grounded by his buddies and his folks.

The discussion of his Cup series future began last spring, when Joe Gibbs Racing officials started trying to piece together a fourth team to complement those of Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. But when Stewart jumped ship to start a self-owned program, Logano was catapulted into the big time.

He was pushed to Cup quickly to get experience. It was a rude awakening. Most folks blamed the equipment -- his best finish in three starts was 28th -- and Mother Nature foiled several weekends for the youngster. But no matter where the fault lies, for a young man who's done nothing but win his entire life, running 34th was a humbling experience.

"I've been through down parts in my life, but it makes you a better person," Logano says. "It makes you realize how nice the top is. It makes you realize that you have to do whatever it takes to stay up there. Everyone goes through it -- except Tiger Woods."

Mark Martin helped build up the youngster. So did former Gibbs driver Mike McLaughlin and crew chief Dave Rogers. They reminded him that he was there for a reason. Don't change a thing, young man.

As we sit and chat, I wonder whether Logano is able to live in the moment. I couldn't at 18. I still struggle to do so today. He says he can and cites this commercial shoot as an example.

Commercial shoots can be maddeningly tedious. You say and do the same thing over and over and over again. Then you hurry up and wait. And wait. And wait.

But when you think about it -- a huge company is investing in your face. That doesn't suck.

"Who doesn't want to see themselves on TV?" Logano says. "I try to think about all the people who'd love to be where I am."

He's more mature than most 18-year-olds, which he says comes from having always hung out with people older than him. His chosen path, too, demands it.

"In this sport, you have to be more mature about it than other sports," Logano says. "Sponsors spend millions of dollars on us."

And here Home Depot has chosen to spend millions on him. It is immense pressure, although he seems immune. Pressure to Logano is a formal dance.

Logano attended his girlfriend's prom last spring at an area high school.

He knew no one but quickly was noticed by other kids in attendance.

"There's Ricky Bobby!" they hollered.

"'Talladega Nights' lines," he says, chuckling. "That's what they think I am."

Live in the moment, young man. Relish it. That tune soon will change.

On to the year's first installment of The Six.

Marty,

What's your take on Elliott Sadler suing to get his job back? I think it was you who reported that he was out of the 19, so you probably know more than most people do about this. Doesn't he know he'll be a lame duck in that car? If they didn't want him, why go back?

-- Anthony Ziegler, Minneapolis

Dang straight, Anthony. That was precisely my initial thought as well. How could anyone possibly want to be where he's unwanted? (That type of treatment fills a man with vengeance.) Simple: the market.

In any other market, Sadler would have taken the buyout and moved on to another ride. But with teams closing and jobs limited, there are no other rides. Believe me, he tried to find one. When he was informed by GEM officials that he was out and AJ Allmendinger was in, he called around looking for new wheels. There were none to be had.

Therefore, seems to me he was left with no other choice but to threaten legal action. His career was at stake.

My hope for Sadler is that this lights a fire under his rear end. Don't want me? Don't think I can get it done? OK, I'll show you. Somewhat like Donovan McNabb after Andy Reid benched him. Don't think I can lead this team? OK, I'll take you to the brink of the Super Bowl.

The big thing is equipment. Will the team now invest in Sadler? Will it give him what he needs? It would behoove GEM to do so. Running badly only makes things worse.

Song of the week: "Carolina," Eric Church. My boy is bringing the heat on his new album, due out March 24. Buckle up …

Marty,

I'm a huge Smoke fan. Will he make the Chase? Say yes, Marty. I need you to say yes!!

-- Tammie Sutherland, Terre Haute, Ind.

Yes, Tammie, Stewart will make the Chase. It won't be easy, but he'll make it.

The 12 teams that made it in 2008 show no signs of slowing down, and throw David Ragan into the mix, and Stewart has one hell of a challenge ahead.

Look at the teams that were down in '08 and still made the show: Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth failed to win last year, but both will rebound and enjoy more successful campaigns in '09. Ragan will make serious noise this year, too.

The teams that made last year's Chase were the super teams. That trend will continue. It would have anyway, but the testing rule only exacerbates the performance gap. Teams with the latest technologies will further separate themselves from the rest. And Stewart Haas officially has reached super-team status, given the relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, that relationship hasn't been so fruitful in the past, but that will change this season.

Rick Hendrick helped facilitate the Stewart-to-Haas deal. He won't let it fail. Installing Darian Grubb and Jeff Meendering -- both Hendrick disciples -- into the No. 14 team mix is of huge assistance. Both are engineers and can read and implement the information transferred from HMS.

Many folks to whom I've made that argument rebut with the 25 car -- i.e., the fourth Hendrick ride. It's a HENDRICK TEAM, they say, and it hasn't won consistently since Tim Richmond drove it. Fair argument, but an entirely different argument. Maybe I have delusions of grandeur about Stewart, but I think he'll do rather well.

Marty the Super Bowl Party!

I saw where you went to Fort Bragg with Rocket Man. I bet you were the only dude with a tie on!

-- Billy Mauer, Johnson City, Tenn.

That's a negative, striker. You, William, are wrong!

(The local TV guy was wearing one, too. Mine, however, was the only one that was something akin to lavender.)

That's my time this week, Six. I'm off to Cozumel on Royal Caribbean. Destination: wedding. The calm before the storm.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.