DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Joey Logano was just 14, longtime Cup star Mark Martin was ready to race him.
They’ll get to do that plenty this year as the 18-year-old begins his first full season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series.
Logano is replacing two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota.
Stewart is about to make a debut of his own, competing at Daytona for the first time as owner/driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. But he likes JGR’s choice to take over the seat he had for the last 10 years.
“I feel like Joey is ready,” Stewart said earlier this week. “For his age, he’s a very smart kid and a very good race car driver. I don’t think he’s going to have any trouble getting used to this series and he’s got a team and definitely a crew chief that’s got a lot of experience. He’s got all the tools in place that he needs to be good.”
Logano, who will be the youngest driver to race in the Daytona 500, wasn’t even allowed to drive in a NASCAR-sanctioned series until last May, when he turned 18.
He drove in a Nationwide Series event just seven days after his birthday, starting ninth and finishing sixth. He won the pole at his second race, then won in his third.
The phenom went on to win two more poles and post five top-fives and 14 top-10s in 19 races in NASCAR’s second-tier series.
None of that success is very surprising.
Word of the multitalented youngster began reaching NASCAR’s highest series when Logano was a 12-year-old racing — and beating — much older drivers in late model sports cars.
“I’m certain that he will be a Cup champion, so my biggest concern was for him to stay humble, because when you’re as good as he is it’s not always easy,” Martin said. “He appears to be hanging on to that fairly well. I was very proud of him in his recent interviews. He appeared to be humble, and that’s not always easy.”
The Sprint Cup is a different level of racing, but competing against older, more experienced drivers is just business as usual for Logano.
“The way I look at it, I started off so young and I kept moving up at a really young age, maybe when I wasn’t quite ready,” he said. “When I moved to Late Models, maybe I wasn’t quite ready at 12 years old. I think that has made me improve and made me better.
“Racing against someone that is better than you is the only way that you’re going to learn. … Coach (team owner Joe Gibbs) and (team president) J.D. (Gibbs) feel I’m ready for it. It’s another learning curve that I’m going to have to go through.”
Logano says the best advice he has gotten so far came from the Gibbs family.
“They said just go out there, work hard, do your best, but have fun with it,” Logano said. “It’s a long season. If you’re to beat yourself up every time, you’re going to end up killing yourself. You have to have fun.”
Logano has three Cup races already on his resume from last year, finishing no better than 32nd. But that exposure to NASCAR’s top competitors at least gave him an idea what to expect.
“I think those races helped me out a lot, both on and off the track, learning what you need to do with all that stuff, getting used to how long the races are, when to race and not to race, how to race,” Logano said. “It was a humbling experience, that’s for sure.”
The fun will begin for Logano on Saturday when he runs the season-opening ARCA race and NASCAR’s Budweiser Shootout, a made-for-TV invitational race that will feature a record field of 28 Cup cars. He qualified third for the ARCA race and drew the 19th spot in the Shootout.
He’s looking forward to getting some experience in the draft on Daytona’s high-banked 2.5-mile oval.
“When they told me I was going to be in the Shootout, I was like, ‘Great!’ All the top dogs around me. … It’s going to be good for me to get that experience, get out there and gain some respect from those guys,” Logano said. “Maybe I can get some partners for the 500.”