DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) – It was a sight Tony Stewart couldn’t take his eyes off – the No. 20 Home Depot car running up front late in the race at Darlington.

And it made little difference Stewart was a few car lengths behind watching his Joe Gibbs Racing successor drive one of the best races of his brief Sprint Cup career.

On a night when 50-year-old Mark Martin again proved he’s among sports’ best, teen sensation Joey Logano nearly stole the show.

“I led laps in the Southern 500,” Logano said. “I was stoked about that.”

Plus, he earned praise from Stewart, the man who drove Logano’s machine to two Sprint Cup titles.

“When he was leading the race, I was smiling because I knew those guys have been waiting for this for a couple of weeks now,” said Stewart, who finished third behind Martin and Jimmie Johnson. “It’s just a matter of time before Joey got going.”

Logano, who turns 19 on May 24, led 19 laps – nearly four times as many he had this season – and was out front with fewer than 100 miles left. He ended ninth, matching his best-ever NASCAR finish at a track known for sending rookies into the wall and then laughing in their faces.

Logano was proud of his performance and grateful for Stewart’s words.

“Yeah, to have Smoke happy with the way I ran with his old car, that’s a very big compliment,” said Logano, a wide smile on his face. “They’re hard to get.”

Get ready, Joey, there could be many more on the way if you keep running like this.

A year ago, Logano hung on the pit wall at Darlington watching Stewart and praying his 18th birthday would come simply to drive in NASCAR events. The youngster was nicknamed “Sliced Bread” in the garage because he was considered the best thing to come along since … well, you get it.

Yet, Logano’s been toast more times than not in his first full season with JGR’s championship team. He was dead last at Daytona and had only one finish inside the top 20 in the year’s first eight events.

Slowly, the raw skill and innate timing that so many veterans gushed about in Logano took hold.

He survived the mash-up at Talladega to run ninth last month, but had little hope that would translate to success at one of NASCAR’s most demanding layouts.

“Coming into this place, this was the one place I thought I was going to stink horribly,” Logano said.

He had something up his fire-protected sleeve, though.

A month earlier, Logano toured the track with one of Darlington’s all-time champions in five-time Southern 500 winner Cale Yarborough.

Like Yoda to Luke Skywalker, the three-time NASCAR champ drove Logano around the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile circuit, detailing its quirks and laying out its absolutes: Do not get caught up racing others. Get back on the gas before you come to the wall in turns three and four. Drive the car with the throttle. And never, ever think you’ve got Darlington licked.

Yarborough’s words stuck with Logano, who heard them during his final laps. As more polished and experienced drivers spun and crashed their way around the track “Too Tough To Tame” with a record 17 cautions, there was the kid running at the end.

“I guess Cale knows what he’s talking about,” Logano said.

Those touting Logano as NASCAR’s next big thing may know something, too.

When Martin prepared to give up his longtime ride with owner Jack Roush a few seasons, he touted Logano as his perfect replacement. The only problem? He was just 15.

Nearly four years later, Logano’s grown quite a bit and sounded like a disciplined veteran storing away info for races still to come.

“I felt like I learned a lot for next time I come here,” Logano said.

Martin’s win and Logano’s rise capped a wild Saturday in NASCAR’s top series. NASCAR announced that driver-owner Jeremy Mayfield failed a drug test and was indefinitely suspended. Mayfield said a mix of an over-the-counter drug and a prescription medication produced the positive result in NASCAR’s toughed up testing program. He was working NASCAR officials to resolve the issue.

Stewart didn’t want to discuss the drug test, deferring to Jimmie Johnson’s earlier comment that he didn’t know much other than if you violate the policy, you’re going to face punishment.

Logano’s only worry these days is carrying his Darlington momentum the rest of the season.

“This is a tough series to run good in,” Logano said. “Believe me, I know.”

AP-ES-05-10-09 1606EDT


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