It took nearly eight years for Joey Logano to go from the winner’s circle at Greenville-Pickens Speedway to the winner’s circle at the Daytona 500, but the champion of Sunday’s Daytona 500 hasn’t forgotten from whence he came.
Logano’s second NASCAR stock car victory came in a K&N East Series event at Greenville-Pickens on April 28, 2007, and jump-started a season in which he claimed five victories and the series championship.
“I remember a lot about it — it was fun,” Logano said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Greenville News. “I qualified second, but in the first five or six laps I fell back to eighth. I just chilled the whole race.”
The strategy of saving his tires worked wonders that day for then-16-year-old Logano. He gained ground quickly in the second half of the race and won going away.
“I finally drove it hard the last couple of laps,” said Logano, a Connecticut native who lives in North Carolina. “I was a full second faster (than the second-place car) and I thought that was the coolest thing because it’s so hard to hold yourself back as a race car driver; to get the reward from that was pretty fun.”
Logano also bided his time at Daytona on Sunday. He led just 31 laps, but was out front when it counted most — when a caution and then a red flag followed with five laps left. After a restart, Logano held off a hard-charging Kevin Harvick to virtually clinch a spot in The Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.
“It’s all about winning in the Daytona 500,” Logano said. “In that race, people don’t think about points or having a solid finish; you’re always thinking about winning. And to have your name on the list of guys who have won that race is pretty neat.”
The victory, which was his first on a restrictor plate track, also helped him erase memories of his Daytona 500 debut in 2009, when he crashed mid-race and finished last.
“Yes, that happened. Thanks for the memory,” Logano said, laughing. “That was several years ago, so we’re getting better. Now we can say we’ve been on both ends of the finish order.”
Indeed, the finish order has been good for Logano the past two seasons. Cast to the wayside by the Joe Gibbs Racing Team in 2013, the driver known as “sliced bread” — as in the greatest thing since — has emerged as a key player on the circuit.
He has flourished since joining Team Penske two years ago.
In his first four Sprint Cup seasons, Logano had two wins and 16 Top 5 finishes; in the past two seasons, Logano has six wins and 27 Top 5 finishes. He was a finalist in The Chase last season and finished fourth in the winner-take-all finale.
Now he’s off to a pretty good start in 2015 as well. With a career-defining Daytona 500 victory under the belt, expect the seemingly always-upbeat Logano to keep on smiling as he pushes his Ford Fusion to its limits.
“We can be aggressive because we’ve already got that win,” Logano said. “Knowing we’re in The Chase, we can go out there and go for it with less to lose. There’s a little less risk. You may see us go for chances where we can go for the win or finish 20th. And if we finish 20th, it’s not the end of the world anymore.”
Logano, whose crew chief, Todd Gordon, is a Clemson University graduate, holds the distinction of being the youngest winner on both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series.
Now he’s the second-youngest winner of the Daytona 500, which has a pretty good ring to it as well.
While his union with 72-year-old owner Roger Penske has undeniably been a boost, it’s far from the only factor that has him riding high.
He married his longtime sweetheart, Brittany Baca, in December, and his victory Sunday has only continued the honeymoon swoon.
“It’s the culmination of a lot of different things that add up,” Logano said. “I grew up, I got older, I got married. It’s no more change than anyone else goes through, but when you grow up and become more mature you also become a better race car driver.”
Logano hopes the momentum carries over to the next race on the schedule — the Folds of Honor Quicktrip 500 on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“We’re already talking about getting ready for Atlanta,” Logano said. “I lived down there for six years and got my butt kicked a few times. We’ve had some fast starts and a couple of chances to win. It would be special to pull into victory lane there.”