What on earth has gotten into Joey Logano?
He used to be such a nice kid, walking around with a toothy grin that made him look like a long-lost Osmond brother. Remember how he used to give guys room to race around him as he focused on improving his consistency in a seemingly never-ending quest to become a fixture in the top five?
So what happened to the phenom, the kid who was dubbed “Sliced Bread” and crowned as the future king of NASCAR before he was even old enough to shave?
In short, he got laid off.
After four seasons behind the wheel of the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano lost his ride to Matt Kenseth. Gibbs was hoping to add a fourth seat to keep the 22-year-old at JGR, but sponsorship never materialized and Logano found himself on the outside looking in.
That had to be extremely frustrating for a kid that went out of his way to groom a squeaky clean image and do everything in his power to keep his various sponsors happy. Meanwhile, another driver who entered the Cup series on a full-time basis the year after Logano was busy making waves and riding the ensuing storm surge all the way to the top of the sport.
If Logano was NASCAR’s version of Donny Osmond, Brad Keselowski was the sport’s version of Johnny Cash. While Logano smiled, Keselowski sneered. While Logano adhered to the give-and-take gospel of NASCAR racing preached by the likes of Mark Martin, Keselowski’s golden rule was to do unto others before they did unto him.
And while Logano spent the 2012 season taking the straight and narrow path to the unemployment line, Keselowski was busy bulldozing a crooked one to the Sprint Cup championship.
As fate would have it, Logano landed with Penske Racing over the offseason, making him teammates with Keselowski. Now, before we start jumping to conclusions here, there is no evidence that I can find that Keselowski took Logano aside and talked him into adopting a life of rough-and-tumble racing.
But given the way Logano’s efforts to be Mr. Nice Guy blew up in his face, I don’t think he needed much of a push to stop being the bread and start being the knife. From the moment the 2013 season started, Logano hasn’t given an inch, especially to former JGR teammate Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin started in on Logano following the Daytona 500, complaining about Logano’s tactics during a late-race restart. The hard feelings finally boiled over in Bristol, where Hamlin wrecked Logano and Logano recovered to give Hamlin a hard shot on the final restart before confronting him in the pits following the race.
Then, of course, there was California. With an off week coming up for the series, the debate about Logano’s actions during the final laps of the race will unfurl across our Twitter timelines until the teams roll into Martinsville late next week.
The last couple laps can be chalked up to hard racing. While it was unfortunate that Hamlin ended up getting injured, both drivers made the decision to mix it up in an effort to win the race, and as a result, Kyle Busch sneaked by them both to grab the checkered flag.
As for the block Logano threw on Tony Stewart on the final restart, a move that ultimately led to Stewart’s 22nd-place finish and a near fistfight in the pits, that issue isn’t so black and white. Technically, Logano didn’t follow proper racing etiquette, and predictably that got Stewart hot under the collar.
In Stewart’s mind, blocking is only acceptable in restrictor-plate races and (presumably) buffet lines. And as Brian Vickers found out the hard way in Sonoma back in 2011, Stewart doesn’t mind wadding up one of his race cars while wrecking yours if that’s what it takes to get his point across after you block him.
Logano’s new attitude is one of the more interesting developments so far this season, but it remains to be seen whether it will lead to more success than he enjoyed at JGR. Keselowski may have been rewarded for his take-no-prisoners approach last season, but his is not an easy path to walk.
On one hand, Keselowski is a Cup champ, but on the other, he had to total a lot of race cars and develop some thick skin in order to make that happen. Whether Logano is up to the task has yet to be determined.
For now, all we know for sure is that Logano has developed quite a bark. But starting in Martinsville, we will likely find out whether he has the bite to go along with it.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.