DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Comparing the No. 20 car driver to a year ago at this time, there is really no comparison at all. I've talked to Joey Logano since we have all been down here in Daytona and he will all but tell you the same thing.
Let's be honest. A year ago Logano was all but lost. Fortunately, the confidence that he has after a year of racing under his belt is so much greater. With the practices and Shootout last Saturday, he has avoided some pretty big mishaps.
The other night, for example, he started deep in the field but he stayed out of trouble. He kept his nose clean and brought home a seventh-place finish. Now winning at the Cup level is a pretty tall order. If you don't believe me, go ask Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and others that went the entire 2009 season without a single victory.
My point is the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing know that. At the same time, they also know and expect the No. 20 team to contend in a lot of different ways this year. Do I think he can make the 2010 Chase? No. I am not ready to say that just yet. But I will say I believe we are going to hear from that No. 20 car on a pretty regular basis.
Don't forget, Logano is a 19-year-old young man who has one of the premier rides in all of NASCAR and even has a Cup win under his belt. So, it has to be pretty overwhelming to him. If you will remember, right now is originally when his whole Cup career was to start. The plan called for him to run a full 2009 Nationwide series schedule with the possibility of a handful of Cup races towards the end of the season. Then when Tony Stewart left at the end of 2009, Joey was to slide behind the wheel in 2010.
You have to applaud Joe and J.D. Gibbs for being gutsy enough and patient enough to stick with Logano when Stewart made his exit a year earlier than expected. I always said and believed Logano would get there if there were no unrealistic expectations put upon him.
I have been watching Logano for eight or nine years and have seen him come along pretty darn rapidly. The young man figures it out. It doesn't matter if it is a new track, a new series or even a new car, he figures it out. Honestly, it had to be very scary for him a year ago when he had a nearly disastrous 2009 Speedweeks.
To his credit, he kept his head up, stayed focused and stayed humble. Now, it is all starting to pay off for him. I am just proud as I can be. I think Logano might want to use Juan Pablo Montoya's 2009 season as a template for his season this year.
Montoya stayed focused all year. He didn't try to over-extend himself or his equipment. He made a commitment to finish every lap and take the top 10s when he could get them. Using that game plan, Montoya in 2009 made his first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase.
If you look at it, in 2009 Ryan Newman really didn't have that great of a season for his first-year team. He didn't win a race. He did get hot for a brief period starting in late May, but what made the difference was completing all but 24 laps of competition in 2009. He only had one DNF at that was near the end of the race at Talladega last fall. What he did do was make the Chase though.
That is probably the No. 20 team's game plan for this year. They will want to try to be solid every week. They will try to be competitive. If they do that week in and week out, they will get to Victory Lane. That had always been Matt Kenseth's approach to racing. Matt never racks up a ton of wins season to season, but is always there week in and week out.
If you look at last year's other rookie of the year contender, Scott Speed, there is no question that he definitely needs to step it up this year. There is no question that Red Bull Racing has a lot of resources and they hold nothing back. When I see what they did with A.J. Allmendinger after only a year and a half -- when in my book he was farther ahead at that point than Speed -- you can understand how critical a year this is for Speed, who is just going to have to step up his game. It seems like he has qualifying figured out and has even sat on the outside pole for a couple of events. Now, he needs to raise the bar during the actual race.
In all fairness, 2010 will be a pivotal year for a lot of drivers.