Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 3 of 12)
When a racing fan thinks about Joe Gibbs Racing, they often think of the powerful one-two punch of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
The prominent pair frequent Victory Lane, be it on the Sprint Cup circuit or in a Saturday shootout in the Nationwide Series.
However, one name that doesn't immediately come to mind but will definitely get mentioned quite a bit in 2011 will be Joey Logano, the Middletown, CT native who compiled a solid sophomore campaign.
While "Sliced Bread" didn't capture a victory in 2010, he made tremendous strides in terms of consistent finishes towards the front, especially down the season stretch.
As in the case of Jamie McMurray, who won a trio of races but finished 14th in the final points standings, Logano had some races that negated those strong performances.
Notably, the 2009 Raybestos Rookie of the Year winner struggled particularly during a stretch run from the April Texas race to Darlington in early May, as well as the summer, when he failed to finish in the top five until Richmond in September.
Sure, top 10 finishes might garner points that build towards a good season, but an even better championship campaign usually consists of wins and top-fives.
For Logano and his No. 20 Home Depot Toyota team, those moments only happened seven times, with a big goose egg in the "W" column.
Additionally, those struggles were sometimes culminated with four DNFs, all due to crash damage.
While it may not be a great number of mulligans to the casual racing fan, in today's NASCAR scene, those were missed opportunities to capitalize on obtaining the maximum possible amount of points on those given days.
That said, it was a much better effort for the 20-year-old raw talent, who's surely to become a prominent force for race victories and titles in the future.
During his rookie season, Logano made the highlight reel not only for his victory in the rain shortened June New Hampshire race, but for his spectacular crash at Dover, DE in September, barrel rolling between turns three and four.
When the youngster returned to "The Monster Mile," he drove the concrete beast with confidence, placing 10th in the spring race and third in the fall.
Additionally, he showed quite a liking to Martinsville, finishing second in the spring and sixth in the fall.
Both results was quite impressive considering the finesse and patience required to race successfully at the famous paperclip short track.
Perhaps Logano's best moment of the 2010 season was in the fall, when he collected five consecutive finishes of seventh or better, consisting of a seventh at Charlotte, sixth at Martinsville, fifth at Talladega, fourth at Texas, and a third at Phoenix.
Whether it's the Joe Gibbs Racing triumvirate finally clicking in terms of chemistry and communication or Logano maturing as a racer, the fact of the matter is that those on the NASCAR circuit ought to be prepared for an even stronger effort from the No. 20 team.
Will Victory Lane be in the cards for Logano and crew chief Greg Zipadelli? Considering the strong resources readily available at the JGR campus, from their drivers, crew, and equipment, at least two trips to the winner's circle has to be in the cards for this bunch.
Zipadelli is a leader who's not content with "OK" performances and finishes, often looking to get the most out of his driver. His steadfast and strong leadership as the soul of the No. 20 team since 1999 has to be an intangible that'll resonate with Logano, the pit crew, and those working on that all orange Toyota.
In terms of improvements for the upcoming season, consistency is something that they must build upon. They somewhat figured this out in the final races of 2010, but they need to make these performances frequent if they're looking to make the Chase in 2011.
While Logano improved in qualifying and finishing this past season, his average starting and finishing spots (16.2 and 16.8 respectively) need to be a bit higher in order to compete for a Chase seed.
If this team can somehow boost their averages up by three to five positions, they'll certainly be sitting in the top 12, or in this case, the top 10.
Most importantly, the No. 20 group has to reduce its DNF count, perhaps by harnessing that aggressive side of Logano to a calculative, cunning type of mentality on the track.
While it's easy to let a slip up or contact get a driver to the edge of control, learning to pick the right battles as well as maximizing the best finish on any given race day will help tremendously in a long, 36-race schedule.
Sure, it might be crazy, in fact, astonishing to have Logano as a Chase pick over a racer like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Ryan Newman. After all, those are past winners and they've certainly had a taste of battling for championships as "Young Guns."
However, stats don't lie and when a team builds momentum during the final portion of the season, that confidence often transcends and carries over to the next year.
Watch for this exciting team to put on an entertaining and solid season despite their car's rather pedestrian look for 2011.
Yes, their Toyota Camry will carry an all orange scheme that might not exactly exude fear or hype. Then again, what really matters is how a driver's hands, lead foot, and mind can work in harmony with a team in the pits, guiding that talent on the track to the best possible finish.
A championship may not be in the offing, especially considering the talent that's prevalent in the Sprint Cup Series. Multiple victories and a Chase berth, while requiring this team to be on its toes, are certainly within reach.