Before a recent supercross race at Angel Stadium, driver Joey Logano hopped into his No. 20 stock car and briefly spun around the dirt track to promote the upcoming NASCAR season.
The spin was not unlike the “burnouts” that NASCAR drivers perform after a win. But it has been a long time since Logano had reason to celebrate on his way to Victory Lane.
Perhaps no NASCAR driver arrived in the sport’s big leagues with higher expectations than Logano did in 2009. As a mere 18-year-old, he joined the sport’s premier Sprint Cup Series full time with one of its best teams, Joe Gibbs Racing, in one of its best cars, the Home Depot Toyota formerly driven by champion Tony Stewart.
Yet, three years later, Logano has only one win, at New Hampshire in 2009, and he limped out of 2011 after his worst season, a 24th-place finish in the Cup standings that included a paltry four top-five finishes in 36 races.
Now, the pressure is on Logano and his new crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, to start winning or at least get close — and fast.
Beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday, the lanky Connecticut native said he has his marching orders from team owner and Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs: “We got to pick it up.”
That’s especially true because Logano is in the last year of his contract.
“We do need to jell really well, really quickly,” Logano said recently. “But I feel like I’m ahead of where I was last year before the season started.”
The struggles were an abrupt change for Logano, who was so successful in NASCAR’s minor leagues that he was nicknamed “Sliced Bread,” as in “the best thing since,” when he reached the Cup series.
He acknowledged he probably was too young when he jumped into NASCAR’s biggest show and took on its best drivers.
“Throughout my whole career growing up, every race car I got into I won,” Logano said. “Then [entering] Cup was like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on here?’ ”
As the top-10 finishes grew harder to come by, “you start doubting everything,” he said. “And when you start doubting yourself, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”
So Logano began seeing a sports psychologist last summer.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot,’ and I learned a lot from it — just the way to deal with people, the way to communicate in a positive way, and in a motivating way for other people,” Logano said.
“You’ve got to be confident [to race], you’ve got to be somewhat cocky, but you’ve got to be humble enough to learn from other people.”
Logano also needs a fast car, and that’s where Gibbs hopes Ratcliff makes a difference.
When he joined Gibbs, Logano inherited Stewart’s longtime crew chief Greg Zipadelli. But as Logano’s slump worsened, he and Zipadelli struggled to stay in sync.
“When stuff goes bad, it goes bad in a hurry, and it’s hard to pull yourself out of the hole,” Logano said. “Yes, we weren’t fast enough. Was it all of us not getting along good enough? Yes, it was that too. Everyone was pretty tense, obviously.”
So when Zipadelli left after last season to rejoin Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Gibbs promoted Ratcliff, who was crew chief for Gibbs’ highly successful No. 18 car in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series.
“Sometimes it’s just taking a different approach” that works, Ratcliff told reporters recently, adding that he wants to “build a team for Joey.”
That suits Logano.
“I’m excited about us working together,” Logano said. “We’ve got new energy, new life.”