FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) — Joey Logano has even bigger plans for Darlington Raceway this year.
The 19-year-old Sprint Cup star didn’t know what to expect at the track called “Too Tough to Tame,” and one known for beating up rookie racers.
Instead, Logano left NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway after leading 19 laps, matching his best-ever Sprint Cup finish and gaining a boost of confidence that carried him to a rookie of the year season.
“I think it did a ton” for the rest of his year, Logano said Thursday. “This was a place we didn’t think we’d do go and we had a shot at winning.”
At the time, the young racer known on the circuit as “Sliced Bread,” was running more like milquetoast. His No. 20 JGR Toyota had struggled to stay among the top 35 in points as the NASCAR nation wondered if Logano was too young to fill the seat of two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.
“It was bad,” he said with a smile.
And if there was a place any teenager should struggle to drive, it was Darlington, a 1.366-mile monstrosity with misshapen corners, tight straightaways and a history of pummeling even the sport’s most skilled drivers.
“You can’t really pass there,” said Kyle Busch, Logano’s JGR teammate and the 2008 Darlington winner. “It’s so difficult. So, you run your laps until you get to a pit stop and try to get your guys to have a good stop for you so you can jump a couple of guys.”
Logano prepped for the chaos as best he could, touring the raceway last spring with one of its all-time masters in Cale Yarborough — a five-time winner of the Southern 500.
Something must have clicked because there was Logano, leading the Southern 500 with fewer than 100 miles left.
Logano said his team made the smart, safe play not to gamble for the win and leave with a solid top-10 performance.
This time, Logano’s anxious for more.
“I think it’d be different if we were put in the same scenario,” he said. “I think we would go for it this time.”
Logano’s had success going for it the past year. In June, Logano took his first Sprint Cup checkered flag at New Hampshire. He was a respectable 20th in points in 2009 and he proved he was old enough to play on the sport’s biggest stage.
He’s also shown a showman’s touch with fans, many who clung to Stewart’s every move in the Home Depot machine. About 200 or so were waiting outside the home improvement store here for an autograph, picture or a few words with the rising star.
“I think a lot of the fans switched over and were rooting us on,” Logano said.
Logano has taken a step forward this season, standing 17th in NASCAR points. He had four top 10s, including a second place at Martinsville, in his first seven races. However, he fell back with a 28th at Texas and a 36th at Talladega.
Logano bounced back a bit, finishing 16th at last week’s race at Richmond. “Last week was just a mediocre week,” he said.
He hopes he can get the same boost out of Darlington this weekend as he did in 2009.
“We’re trying to make the Chase” for the Championship this fall, Logano said. “It’s just tough.”
Sort of like the “Lady in Black” he’ll race on this weekend.
Logano reviewed film of last year’s race, watching himself navigate the tight corners and tricky turns. Even he can’t believe how he made it tough last spring. This time, though, he feels better prepared to handle whatever comes his way.
“Last year, I didn’t know what I was putting myself up against,” Logano said. “At least now I kind of got an idea what’s going to happen, what’s going on in the race and what I’m looking for in a race car.”
And if he’s on pace for a Darlington win this time?
That will be crew chief Greg Zipadelli’s call. But “I’m going to persuade him to leave me out there,” Logano said.