Joey Logano still out to prove himself

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Joey Logano was on a bar stool in the Daytona 500 Club before a January test session, but he might as well have been on a witness stand in a courtroom the way he was being pounded with questions about how this is a make-or-break season, how if he doesn't make the Chase, his future with Joe Gibbs Racing is in jeopardy.

"Obviously, this is a contract year," Logano responded calmly. "Obviously, I see where you're coming from. [I] better pick it up. I understand that. I see that."

Judging by the weekly questions on ESPN.com chats, the daily emails and comments on Twitter, many don't believe Logano has done that. Many believe he's got a foot out the door even though team owner Joe Gibbs has shown nothing but confidence in his 22-year-old driver in only his fourth year in the Sprint Cup Series.

Some have speculated that Kurt Busch already has been penciled in as the next driver for the No. 20 Home Depot car.

Well, they did before Busch's meltdown with yet another reporter following Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Dover, which landed the 2004 Cup champion a one-race suspension by NASCAR.

That probably swayed the opinion polls of some.

But Logano wasn't worried about Busch in January and he's not worried about him now. He has everything in its proper perspective, understanding his future is tied to him, not the availability of another driver.

"It's pressure all the time, so whether it's a contract year or not, you're always out there to do the same thing," Logano said Tuesday as he prepared for Sunday's race at Pocono. "So for me, I'm out there to win every race, and that doesn't change from what it was this year or three years ago.

"So there's no added pressure to that. Is there something extra in your mind? Yeah, there's something extra on your mind that you have to figure out before the season is over. But at the same time, you go out there and focus on your job."

This is a tough business. Future Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett didn't finish better than 17th in points during his first six full seasons. Kasey Kahne finished 19th in his fourth full season and was 13th or worse in three of his first four.

Kevin Harvick finished 14th in his fourth season and Kyle Busch finished 13th in his fifth season.

People weren't screaming they should lose their jobs.

Logano shouldn't either, particularly if it's a choice between him and adding a second Busch to JGR. Gibbs and Home Depot already know what it's like to be embarrassed by a driver. The sponsor fined Tony Stewart $50,000 and placed him on probation in 2002 after he punched a photographer at Indianapolis.

Do you think the company really wants to win so badly it would take a chance on Busch? Four days after telling a Sporting News writer he would've "beat the s---" out of him if he wasn't already on probation for a May 12 incident at Darlington, he jokingly referenced his failure to reach the main event of Stewart's charity race to "premature ejaculation."

On a pay-per-view HBO event.

Logano may have only one Cup win in 124 starts, he may be 16th in points 13 races into his fourth season, but at least he hasn't embarrassed his sponsor or the sport like Busch or Stewart.

And despite what many might believe, the kid has talent. He's won four Nationwide Series races this season -- including three of the past four -- and 13 in five seasons. Once he and new crew chief Jason Ratcliff get a few more Cup races under their belts, the potential that led Logano to be nicknamed "Sliced Bread" because he was supposed to be the best thing since may surface.

"There's a learning curve between the two of us getting to know each other, Jason getting over here and working with Sprint Cup cars and Sprint Cup races and longer races, all that stuff," Logano said. "There's a lot of difference between all of that. There's two learning curves there that you have to go through to become the best.

"So we are steadily moving through those and getting better every week."

There is progress. Logano has two top-10s in the past three races, including an eighth last weekend at Dover.

Baby steps, yes. But in many ways, Logano's still a baby when it comes to NASCAR's top series.

Remember, he was thrust into this role a year or two earlier than planned because Stewart wanted to go out on his own. Then he was paired with Stewart's longtime crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, which may have thwarted his progress.

As good as Zipadelli was and still is, he was set in his ways. He was used to success, and not struggling.

"Sometimes things don't just match up," Logano said.

Logano's biggest problem is expectations. Mark Martin dubbed him "the real deal" at the age of 15, saying "without a doubt he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR."

"I'm positive," Martin added. "There's no doubt in my mind."

Martin, by the way, won only one of his first 116 Cup races, and he went on to have a pretty good career despite never winning a title.

JGR has invested way too much in Logano to give up on him now. Gibbs was adamant two weeks ago that his objective this year was "getting Joey up there with the other two cars" of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Any talk of Kurt Busch appeared aimed at the possibility of adding a fourth car, not replacing Logano.

Busch may have ended that with his latest outburst that, as Jeff Burton summed up perfectly, was "not good for him, our sport or anybody."

Maybe Busch did Logano a favor. Maybe with his latest public embarrassment, Busch won't be viewed by as many as the heir apparent to the 20 and Logano won't be constantly reminded he needs to look over his shoulder.

Maybe people will remember that handling disappointment with class is more important than being classless in the face of disappointment.

Back to the bar stool at the Daytona 500 Club in January: Logano was handling the barrage of questions about his future with total class.

"I don't really care what people think about me," he said. "But I hope people believe I can make the Chase. I know I can. I feel like I can. That's really all that matters to me and my team.

"As long as we have confidence in ourselves, that's all we need. We'll be fine."