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NASCAR’s Joey Logano finds himself at the center of controversy

Rodger Mallison | MCT
Rodger Mallison | MCT
NASCAR officials penalize Joey Logano (22) for not being ready to join the grid in time before the race, placing him last for the start, during the NRA 500 on Saturday, April 13, 2013, at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.
By Randy Covitz, The Kansas City Star

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway nearly took off without Joey Logano.

Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski’s Penske Racing Fords did not pass prerace inspection, and NASCAR confiscated the rear-end housings and other related parts from their cars shortly before the start of last Saturday night’s NRA 500.

A nervous Logano watched as his crew furiously installed a new rear-end housing. He paced the inspection area until the car finally was approved while the 42 other cars moved into position and the drivers fired up their engines.

Logano, who worked with Andy Santerre of Cherryfield early in his racing career, finally made it onto the track in time to start from the rear of the field and somehow managed to finish fifth.

“It was one of the toughest races I think we’ve ever dealt with,” Logano said afterward.

And that’s saying something, considering everything Logano has been through since he broke into Sprint Cup racing as a precocious 19-year-old in 2009.

Logano, who comes to Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s STP 400 ranked ninth in Sprint Cup points, is in his first year with Penske after four turbulent seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s been at the center of controversy this season because of several postrace incidents with former teammate Denny Hamlin that culminated when Logano, going for the win, put Hamlin into the wall on March 24 in Fontana, Calif., causing a back injury that will sideline Hamlin for at least six races.

The wrecking of Hamlin, combined with Logano’s blocking tactics that helped him finish third at California, drew the wrath of three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, and they had to be separated after the race after exchanging harsh words.

It’s all part of the rite of passage most young drivers go through. Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch — and certainly Stewart — all made their share of enemies on the track early in their Sprint Cup careers, though the black hat certainly doesn’t seem to fit the baby-faced Logano.

“You’re going to have the guys who hate you, you’re going to have the guys who love you, and that’s part of it,” Logano said. “That’s all of sports, all of life.

“My image is important to me. My friends and my family . . . the guys I work with on the team know how I really am. I know I’m a good guy. I’m out here to race. People can have their opinion on what happened. Denny and I are the only two who really know what happened. It’s part of our sport. It’s cool everyone gets to have their opinion. That’s fine. That’s great for our sport, it’s great for attention. It brings out great crowds. ”

The ill will between Hamlin and Logano began after the Daytona 500, when Hamlin had some harsh words for Logano on Twitter, and he sent Logano into the wall at Bristol a week before the California race.

“We don’t want anyone to ever get hurt,” Logano said. “That’s never the intention of anybody in a race car, to get anyone hurt. Unfortunately he did. I reached out to him to make sure he was getting better and to see how he was doing after California.

“All of our prayers and hopes are for him to get better. . . . Denny is one of the best race-car drivers out there, and we want to be racing against the best.”

Veteran driver Jeff Burton, often the conscience in the Sprint Cup garage, gave Logano the benefit of the doubt.

“All in all, Joey is not a bad guy,” Burton said. “He can be a little more receptive to listening rather than arguing. Joey is not a dirty driver. Some of it is piling on (by others), and some of it he brings on himself.

“I do think Joey has been in a position where people have been pushing him. He needs to stand up for himself. At the same time, when he does get confronted with issues, I don’t think he’s handled it well. I think he is a good race-car driver and is a young person growing up in front of us.”

Logano’s move to Penske Racing couldn’t have come at a better time. He admits too much was expected too soon when he moved into Stewart’s ride after Stewart left Joe Gibbs to form his own team a year before his contract was up.

Though Logano won two races in four years for Gibbs, including at New Hampshire — when at 19 years and 1 month, he became the youngest driver to win a Sprint Cup race — he never qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and seemed to be the third wheel in the organization behind Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

“I didn’t have much experience behind me,” Logano said. “That’s where I was the weakest. I ran eight or nine Nationwide races when they threw me in the Cup car. I was 18 . . . but I wouldn’t change anything. If I had the same opportunity again, I would say yes again.

“Going to Penske Racing is a fresh start. It’s something I really needed in my career. It’s a restart, time to regroup, new people, and it’s been really good for my career.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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