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Logano making huge strides at start of 2nd season
Jeff Gordon (24) crashes as Bobby Labonte (71), Kurt Busch (2), Scott Speed (82), Joey Logano (20), Tony Stewart (14) and Elliott Sadler (19) drive past during the final laps of the NASCAR Daytona 500 on Feb. 14. at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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LAS VEGAS — There was nowhere to go but up this season for Joey Logano, who had a roller-coaster rookie season as the youngest driver at NASCAR's top level.

He bounced off the walls at Daytona and barrel-rolled his car at Dover. He struggled with setups, didn't understand the language his teammates used to describe their cars and often dreaded going to the track.

That he finished the year with one victory, seven top-10s and a 20th-place finish in the final standings was nothing short of a small miracle.

"There were a lot of weekends last year where we were in nothing more than survival mode," crew chief Greg Zipadelli said.

So Logano's solid start to his second season has not been lost on anyone. That 43rd-place finish in his inaugural Daytona 500 was improved to a 20th-place this year. And he was 26th last season at California, but upgraded that last week to fifth.

It took Logano 17 races last season to notch his first top-five.

Much of it is credited to just how much Logano, now 19, learned over that rocky first year. But there's also a new confidence that comes with the teenager getting comfortable in NASCAR.

"I feel more excited to come to the race tracks," he said. "Last year, oh boy, California, we stunk there. I didn't know if I wanted to go there. Now, you look at these places and you're excited to go back to the race track because you think you're going to have a good race car. We're going to be good.

"That's the biggest thing. You're more pumped up about coming to the race track."

Logano came into Las Vegas Speedway ranked ninth in the Sprint Cup standings, higher than teammates Kyle Busch (13th) and Denny Hamlin (22nd).

"I think it's cool," Logano said. "I was excited, ninth in points. Last year I would have been happy with 20th in points at this point in the season. so ninth is cool. I was joking around because I wished they'd start the Chase now. But we still have a long ways to go."

First up is Sunday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Logano will start sixth. Kurt Busch, a Las Vegas native, will start from the pole as 18 drivers beat the qualifying track record.

Logano isn't thinking about a win for Sunday. Those come every day, away from Victory Lane, in the gains he makes with his No. 20 team.

The hype surrounding him was at surreal levels long before he ever got to NASCAR, and by the time he made his 2008 debut with Joe Gibbs Racing just days after his 18th birthday, he'd already earned the moniker "Sliced Bread" as in "he's the next best thing since ... "

But the plan was to ease him into the top level, give him a year or two in the Nationwide Series to adapt to stock cars and learn his way around the circuit. That was all fast-forwarded when two-time champion Tony Stewart opted out at JGR and the team had an open seat to fill.

"Remember, Joey wasn't even supposed to be driving that car last season," said JGR president J.D. Gibbs. "Tony was supposed to be in that car. So now we've got him in a car ahead of schedule, there's no testing for him to get any additional seat time. It was a rough start. The first few months were really rough."

So rough that Zipadelli believes there were times Logano feared for his job security.

It seems rather implausible that a driver with so much promise and potential, backed by a huge investment from JGR and sponsor Home Depot, would be in danger of losing his seat so early in his rookie season. But Zipadelli can understand Logano's worries.

"The kid was learning, but it wasn't easy and when you're four laps down at Texas and two seconds off the pace, your confidence can get rattled," Zipadelli said. "He had the speed, but there were other areas where we struggled."

One of them was communication.

As open and eager as Logano was to listen and learn, a lot of the conversations could have been spoken in Greek and he'd have had the same ability to understand the message.

"It's not like a light switch. I remember last year at this point, Kyle and Denny were telling me something, or Zippy was telling me something and I couldn't make sense of it in my mind," he said. "It was like 'I don't feel that. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm always like this, why can't I get my car to feel like the way you do if my car is similar to yours. What's different?'

"I think as I kept going with time, and kept thinking about what they said to me when I'm on the race track, I'll think about it and then eventually I made sense of that. If it didn't make sense at the time, I wouldn't throw it out of my mind like it wasn't there. I'd keep thinking about it."

Zipadelli can see the difference, not in on-track results, but in how Logano communicates in the car and a sense of relaxation that didn't exist last year.

Do they think they can stay ahead of Hamlin, the preseason pick to dethrone Jimmie Johnson for the championship, or Busch, a weekly contender?

"Why not?" asked Gibbs. "He could."

Zipadelli doesn't want to throw out a firm goal. Instead, he knows where he'd like the 20 team to be come September when the 12-driver field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is set.

"With two or three races to go, I'd like for us to mathematically have an opportunity to race our way into the Chase," he said. "That would be a success. If we make the Chase, perfect. But to be 13th or 14th or 15th, and a couple good runs could get us in, we'll take that."