- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Mark Martin was holding court with a group of reporters in the airplane hangar that doubles as his Daytona Beach, Fla., office four years ago when he pointed to a short, dark-haired kid standing next to his father.
"That's the future of this sport," said Martin, who at the time said he thought he was preparing for his final season in the Sprint Cup series. "If you didn't have to be 18 to drive in NASCAR, I'd put him in a car right now."
The kid was Joey Logano.
He was 14.
The future is now.
Logano turned 18 last Saturday. He will begin his quest to reach NASCAR's premier series on Saturday when he makes his debut in the No. 20 Nationwide Series car of Joe Gibbs Racing at Dover, Del.
He'll drive in 18 to 19 Nationwide races the rest of the season. There are those who say they believe he's on a fast track to replace Tony Stewart in JGR's No. 20 Cup car next season if the two-time champion leaves the organization before the final year of his contract.
Logano, who at 6 feet tall now looms over Martin and many of his new peers, would accept that challenge if called upon.
"I can be ready," he said. "I've got 4,100 miles logged in a Cup car within the last year just testing. I can run fast enough. Racing experience is what I'll get this year. We'll just have to see when that day comes.
"But I don't wait for much."
Inexperience may be a factor for Logano, but confidence certainly isn't. He'd step into a Cup car today if JGR president J.D. Gibbs would let him.
"I'm confident I can hang with the guys now," Logano said.
He doesn't sound cocky like points leader Kyle Busch has been accused of being. He's not arrogant like Stewart sometimes gets labeled.
He's simply a kid who wants to compete, who wants to fulfill a childhood dream.
"He's a pretty good shoe," said Busch, who was in Logano's shoes five years ago. "I like the way that he's been able to go out there in pretty much everything you put him in. Winning the championship in the East division last year, that certainly helps his stature."
Beating Cup star Kevin Harvick last season at Iowa Speedway didn't hurt, either.
"That kind of goes back to what Mark Martin told me several years ago when he was still 15, that he could go out there right now and drive these cars," Gibbs said. "I thought he was crazy at the time, but Mark has good wisdom because he really wasn't that far off."
Logano owns a razor, but he uses it only once or twice a week.
"Can you tell?" he asked with a boyish grin.
Don't let Logano's age fool you. He's mature well beyond his years. Gibbs jokingly said his young star may be more mature than JGR's Stewart, Busch and Denny Hamlin combined.
There may be more truth to that than anybody knows. Logano says he definitely feels like "I'm an old man now."
"Hey, I just turned the big one-eight," he said.
Much of the credit for Logano's maturity goes to his parents, who have been preparing for this moment since their son was 4. That's when Tom Logano put his son in a go-kart, moving the pedals up so he could reach them.
Logano was racing karts when he was 6 and in quarter midgets at the age of 7. At 12, having moved from Connecticut to Georgia so his sister, a talented figure skater, could compete, Logano won the Southeast-based Pro Legends national championship.
From there he began racing Late Models, where he met his childhood hero, Martin. It didn't take long for the Cup veteran to realize this kid was the "real deal."
Martin was so convinced of Logano's potential that he convinced former team owner Jack Roush to sign him.
"I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely 100 percent positive, without a doubt, that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR," Martin said when Logano was 15. "I'm positive. There's no doubt in my mind."
With such expectations comes pressure. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has dealt with more pressure than most, has no doubt Logano will have more than he deserves.
"He just has to not worry about the pressure," NASCAR's most popular driver said. "Just concentrate on his job, do your job. Be blue-collar about it and you'll be fine."
JGR is doing all it can to take the pressure off. Gibbs already has turned down opportunities -- marketing and otherwise -- to keep his young star focused on racing.
He also is surrounding him with people he trusts will help make the right decisions.
"I'm more concerned with all the stuff that comes with a driver off the track," Gibbs said, " That's where things get hard these days, a lot of travel, a lot of appearances and a lot of things. We know on the track he'll be fine."
But being patient won't come easy. JGR owner Joe Gibbs has been so anxious for Logano to turn 18 that he jokingly told him to "cheat, pay something, move it up, find another birth date."
Nobody was more relieved when NASCAR chose not to extend the minimum age limit to 21, which it considered earlier in the year.
"He's had about 32 tests this year in our cars," the elder Gibbs said of Logano, " We all feel the same way, that we want to get him in everything as fast as we can, but at the same time we want to make sure that we don't put undue pressure on Joey.
"The last time I called him and talked to him he was at the test and I said, 'Hey, no pressure. We'll take a first or second every time.'"
Logano was trying to talk to his friends outside of Busch's hauler before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, but fans kept interrupting for an autograph.
He didn't mind.
Obviously they're great drivers to be where they're at. But it's been my dream to get to this point and to race with these guys. It's going to be a blast.
-- Joey Logano
"It's cool," Logano said. "Any 18-year-old kid would love to be where I'm at, signing autographs and stuff."
Logano knows he doesn't live the normal lifestyle of many of his friends. He knows there are things he's missed, like stick and ball sports, because of long hours at the racetrack.
OK, maybe not high school sports.
"I tried the baseball thing and I sucked," Logano said. "I don't have any fun unless I'm good at it."
Logano is so good that Hamlin doesn't believe he'll face the learning curve most rookies do in the Nationwide Series. He expects Logano to be a contender to win immediately.
"He's one of the guys I'm going to have to beat," said Hamlin, who will drive the No. 18 JGR Nationwide car at Dover. "If any other rookie was getting in the car I wouldn't even consider them a factor."
Equipment certainly won't be an excuse. Logano steps into a car that has won six times this season.
"I'm confident in my ability I can go out there and run out front," he said.
That he'll be facing other Cup stars doesn't intimidate him. He calls them "normal Joes, same as me," although most will agree there's nothing normal about Logano.
"Obviously they're great drivers to be where they're at," Logano said. "But it's been my dream to get to this point and to race with these guys. It's going to be a blast."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joey Logano doesn't lack for confidence, and why would he? The 18-year-old has been the can't-miss kid for four years. He finally gets to show his stuff to a nationwide audience in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, writes David Newton.