Logano shows he's the real deal with a masterful debut at Dover

5/31/2008 - NASCAR
AP Photo/Rob Carr

DOVER, Del. -- Joey Logano wowed everyone but himself.

NASCAR's highly touted prodigy lived up to his billing in the rain-delayed Heluva Good! 200 Saturday, finishing sixth in his first Nationwide Series start.

But the 18-year-old phenom wasn't happy about it. He felt an early pit-road mistake cost him a chance at a victory in his coming-out party.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin won it, and his payoff for the day was padded by $200 because of Logano's effort.

"I bet Kyle Busch and Michael Waltrip that Joey would finish in the top seven," Hamlin said. "So he won me some money."

Hamlin spoke with Logano immediately after the race.

"He congratulated me, but a sixth-place finish ain't much in my book,'' Logano said. "I had a decent car, but I screwed up in the pits and put myself in a position I didn't need to be in."

Logano clipped the car in front of him as he left the pits during a caution, damaging his left-front fender. Logano had to come back to pit road before the green flag for the crew to pull out the fender.

Logano entered the pits in sixth and restarted 28th.

"At that point, I was pretty ticked off at myself," Logano said. "But we knew what we had to do."

What Logano doesn't know is some of the best drivers in NASCAR history have lost races from a pit mistake at Dover, which has the most difficult pit road in the sport.

But few drivers could have overcome it as well as Logano did, patiently working his way through the field like a seasoned veteran. He moved up 14 spots in 30 laps.

When I was 18, I was still crashing my street car into trees in the snow. There's a lot of pressure on that young man, but I think he did a great job.

-- Carl Edwards

Eleven laps later he reached the top 10, only 68 laps into the 200-lap event. Logano made it as high as fifth, but Greg Biffle passed him for that spot with 15 laps to go.

"I was really hoping for that top-5," Logano said. "But we got a little too tight at the end."

Carl Edwards, who finished second, was impressed with Logano's poise and driving skills.

"When I was 18, I was still crashing my street car into trees in the snow," Edwards said. "There's a lot of pressure on that young man, but I think he did a great job."

Of the five drivers who finished ahead of Logano, four of them are full-time Sprint Cup competitors. And David Stremme, who finished third, was a full-time Cup driver last season.

"He's a very smart racer and he did almost everything right today," Stremme said of Logano. "I don't want to take anything away from him, but that's a very good team he's racing for. The Gibbs cars are very strong right now in this series."

The No. 20 Toyota Logano drove has won six times this season among three drivers. The No. 18 Camry Hamlin drove won for the third time this year. That's nine victories for the two Gibbs cars in 14 Nationwide events.

But these cars don't steer themselves. A lot of experienced drivers couldn't have done what Logano did in his first start.

"He proved he's worth the hype," Hamlin said. "He really battled back from a pit-road incident. Joey was hard on himself for that, but I told him that's just part of it out here."

Hamlin, 27, and in his third Cup season, has become a big brother to Logano.

"You want to be the person he can turn to for advice," Hamlin said. "I know I needed that, but he's way beyond where I was when I came into the sport. I want to be someone he can look up to, ask questions and try to show him the right way to do all the little things you have to learn to do."

Despite waiting through a three-hour rain delay, Logano said he wasn't nervous before the race, but team owner Joe Gibbs was a nervous wreck. Gibbs closed his eyes and said a prayer on the first lap, hoping nothing bad would happen to his rising star.

"We're in this for the long haul," Gibbs said. "We're keeping Joey in cars as much as we can and taking this one step at a time."

Logano was happy to get this first step out of the way. No teenager in NASCAR history ever has experienced the media buildup that has surrounded Logano.

"I'm definitely glad to get this behind me," Logano said. "This has been coming for Lord knows how long. Now we can just focus on racing and not all this other stuff."

Hamlin told him to enjoy the moment.

"You only get to have your first race once," Hamlin said. "I think he'll look back on it and be proud."

Hamlin proudly took $100 each from Busch and Waltrip. Jason Ratcliff, Hamlin's crew chief, has a wager in mind for next weekend: "I'm betting on Joey to win at Nashville."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.