Joe Gibbs did his best to enjoy a rare off week during NASCAR’s grueling Sprint Cup season, playing the role of genial host along with wife Pat during his family’s annual Easter egg party at their North Carolina home.
While he tried to join in the fun, Gibbs – along with sons JD and Coy – kept ducking into a family room to watch Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide team in Nashville, Tenn.
The disappearing act kept getting longer and longer as the night wore on, particularly after Joey Logano took the lead from JGR teammate Kyle Busch, then held on for his second career Nationwide victory.
Sure, it wasn’t Sprint Cup. Sure, there’s no real carry-over between Nationwide and Cup racing these days thanks to Cup’s bulky new car. But it was a welcome result for an 18-year-old wunderkind off to a slow start in his first season in Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota.
“I thought it was great of the standpoint that it gives Joey a real boost of confidence,” Gibbs said. “Here he is, at the front a big part of the day. He raced against Kyle, raced against Carl Edwards. It gave him, I think with me, a lot of confidence.”
Logano is of a like mind. Being able to stay focused while Busch kept filling up his rearview mirror is no small feat, even for a kid nicknamed “Sliced Bread” because of his precocious talent.
“It’s big for me,” Logano said after becoming the first driver to win two Nationwide races before his 19th birthday. “Looking and saying, ‘Hey, I can do this, I am here for a reason, I can win races.’ That’s big.”
Even if it’s not on the Cup side, not yet anyway.
Logano’s debut season in the Cup series has been bumpy at best. He’s 35th in points heading into this weekend’s race in Phoenix, a slow start that hasn’t been entirely his fault. The youngest starter in the history of the Daytona 500 got drilled 80 laps in and finished dead last. His engine blew in Bristol after a promising start.
More than two months in he’s still looking for his first top-10. It’s hardly time to panic. Gibbs expected growing pains, especially after NASCAR banned offseason testing as a cost-cutting measure. While Gibbs approved of the ban it robbed Logano of valuable seat time. Now he’s having to learn lessons at 180 mph inches from the best drivers on the planet.
“It was a big curveball for us because we planned on testing all offseason,” Gibbs said. “Now he has to go places he’s never really seen and climb in a Cup car. We’re convinced when we get through this first go around here, he’ll be fine. We’re convinced he’s got the talent.”
What he needs is the patience. More than once in the last two months Gibbs has pulled Logano aside and told him not to worry, that he doesn’t need to take unnecessary chances, that JGR is committed to him long haul.
In a way, Gibbs said, it’s like talking to a young quarterback. There are going to be rough spots. How Logano handles them will determine how long it takes for him to find his groove.
“I’ve talked to him a lot and said this is a long-term deal, we need to get you going and we’re going to work our way up the ladder here,” Gibbs said. “It’s a tough, tough sport. It takes tough-minded people to get it done.”
That’s why fellow JGR drivers Busch and Denny Hamlin have taken an active role in mentoring their new teammate. They know replacing a popular – and Cup winning – driver like Tony Stewart isn’t easy. And doing it in the not exactly user friendly new car doesn’t help.
Logano is quick to thank to his teammates, and Gibbs is encouraged by the quickly improving relationship between Logano and Cup crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who guided Stewart to Cup titles in 2002 and 2005.
“Many times the car will kind of fool you,” Gibbs said. “We’re going to do everything we can with him, let him race Nationwide, getting Denny and Kyle working with him nonstop. We’re trying to surround him with all those things. Over a period of time you’ve got to develop that (chemistry), that’s a work in progress.”
So is earning the respect of fellow drivers.
Logano has handled himself pretty well in traffic, even if he’s been a little gun shy about mixing it up.
That’s OK. Once he gets the hang of the car, maybe then he can start going all Kyle Busch on people.
“Joey Logano, good God, I’ve been racing longer than he’s been alive,” Jeff Burton said.
“That’s a lot for someone his age to take on. He’s going to be a better race car driver for the struggles he’s having now.”
Logano hopes he took a major step toward putting those struggles behind him in Nashville.
He certainly proved himself to Nationwide crew chief Dave Rogers for the way he held off Busch in the final laps.
“It was driver versus driver on the racetrack and I’m sure there are plenty of days when Kyle is going to get the best of Joey, but today Joey got the best of (Busch),” Rogers said. “I think he’s really that good.”
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