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Sliced Bread Prepares His Sandwich

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Joey Logano was born in 1990.

Take a minute to let that sink in, as it makes most of us, myself included, feel older than we thought we were.

He broke into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the age of 18, and his prodigious status earned him the nickname "Sliced Bread," as he was considered the best thing since it's invention.  However, his performance in the first four years of his career with Joe Gibbs Racing was anything but.

He more resembled a freezer-burned piece of bread that was tossed in the microwave to thaw and had that weird soggy/chewy combo that no one enjoys.  Logano managed just two wins in those four seasons and finished no better than 16th in the points standings.

But, he was still very young, probably too young.  By comparison, this year's top rookie of the year contender and a two-time Nationwide Series champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 25.  Logano is still just 22, and he spent a good portion of last season beating Stenhouse in Nationwide races, amassing a jaw-dropping nine wins in 22 starts (Stenhouse had six in 33).

Jeff Gordon, the one Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) degradingly called "Wonder Boy," was 21 when he broke into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.  Logano started three years younger and with his recent progression, it's not outlandish that his team owner, Roger Penske, said yesterday, "I think he's going to go down as one of the greatest drivers to ever race."

After four disappointing seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano made the move to Penske Racing this past offseason and has immediately taken a step toward becoming one of the series prominent drivers.  That transition, however, hasn't come without the ire of fellow competitors.

A week ago at Bristol, Logano was running second in front of his former JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin.  The No. 22 of Logano held its ground as Hamlin closed in, and eventually, the No. 11 took the "move or be moved" adage and spun Logano to get around him.

In years past, the nice kid with the big smile from Middletown, Conn., might have slinked away, disappointed to have been pushed around by a more experienced driver.  Not at Bristol, not anymore.

Perhaps he's been inspired by his new teammate, a fiery champion in Brad Keselowski that acts like he owns the place and backs the attitude up on the track.  Perhaps he was tired of being treated like a boy among men after four seasons in that role.  Perhaps it was an increase in confidence that comes from a new team, a new car and, most importantly, a new outlook.  Whatever the influences, Logano had had enough.  He stormed over to Hamlin's car after the race and told him off for spinning him out.

Hamlin responded afterward with an apathetic comment that he never sees Logano during the race.  The statement was in regards to the No. 22 running much farther back in the field than the No. 11.  The two spurred on Twitter throughout the week.

It came to a boil on Sunday.  During the final restart of the Auto Club 400, Logano was running side-by-side for lead with Kyle Busch and he moved down low to block a pass from Tony Stewart.

After wrestling the lead from Busch, Logano looked in the rearview mirror to see Hamlin chasing him for the checkered flag.  The 11 had caught the 22 by the time the white flag came out and the two went door-to-door for the final lap.

Through Turn 3, Logano was down low, Hamlin was holding him there and Busch, not to be forgotten, was making a strong run on the outside.  Heading through Turn 4, Logano was forced to lift in front of Hamlin, but with little space, the two made contact.  Logano hit the wall and coasted across the finish line, where he was scored in third.  Hamlin was not so lucky.  His car went for a spin, cut toward the center of the track and hit head on against an unprotected wall.

In regards to the last lap action, Logano said in a post-race interview: "He probably shouldn't have done what he did last week, so that's what he gets."  Unbeknownst to Logano, Hamlin had suffered a compression fracture in his back as a result of the collision.

On Monday, he apologized for the comment.  "You don't ever want anyone to get hurt; you don't ever want anything to happen, especially to Denny ... I wish I knew before I made any comments on TV."

While the end of the race might have been enough for Logano, it was not enough for Stewart, who was still bitter about the block on the final restart.  The driver of the No. 14 confronted Logano on pit road and came out of his car swinging, to which the 22-year-old did not back down, trying to take a few swings of his own through the crew members that were quickly separating their drivers in the melee.

Logano's role in the end of the Auto Club 400 shows one thing: the young boy is all grown up.  Sliced Bread looks like he's fresh out of the toaster and ready to make an award-winning sandwich.

While Stewart might have been mad by the Logano move, it's one that Stewart himself would have pulled in the same situation, one that he's taken with him to three Sprint Cup championships.  Few drivers race as hard as the No. 14, and I wonder if some of his frustration came from the fact that the block was made by easy-to-maneuver-around Logano.

The matured driver of the No. 22 flashed the same attitude in the final lap with Hamlin.  In the past, Logano probably wouldn't have stuck with Hamlin like he did, just like he wouldn't have dared block an aggressive Stewart on the restart, but things are changing for this man.

Joey Logano has come of age and is prepared to be a contender in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for decades to come.  He might be ruffling a few veteran feathers on the way, but respect is not given in this sport, it's earned.  While Hamlin wasn't willing to admit it after Bristol and Stewart wasn't willing to do so after Fontana, sooner than later, they will be forced to view Logano as their competitive equal on the track.

Get the pickles out of the fridge and break open the potato chips, this Sliced Bread sandwich is ready to go.