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Ryan: A maturing Joey Logano brings the party to Team Penske at Daytona

2015 Daytona 500

2015 Daytona 500

TNS via Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Starched white shirts and creased black pants were out in force inside the stately wrought iron gates of Daytona International Speedway, but this party scene wasn’t Team Penske material.

Roger Penske grabbed a Miller Lite from a blue ice chest. His myriad lieutenants chattered on cell phones and giddily punched in text messages on smartphones. A raucous cheer went up at five blasts of a horn by a Penske hauler that crept past on pit road.

It was easy to miss the guest of honor in Victory Lane. As his typically buttoned-up superiors hung loose enjoying an extraordinary triumph for a storied organization, Joey Logano – the winner of the 57th Daytona 500 -- stood off to the side deftly handling TV interviews and sponsor photos with the graceful aplomb of someone wise beyond his 24 years.

“Hey Logano!,” Penske playfully yelled as the cameras snapped.

Finally taking a break from fulfilling the Penske Way responsibilities that are synonymous with corporate-friendly excellence in auto racing, Logano ambled over to the revelry, threw his arm around his car owner and flashed a toothy grin.

“We won,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “the Daytona 500.”

Celebrate for a while, kid.

Few have been more deserving of being on the cusp of NASCAR superstardom.

“Sometimes, God just throws you situations and you don’t know why, but you just got to roll with the punches and it turns out to be the best,” Logano said. “I think it’s no secret that I got thrown into the series too young (and) inexperienced.

“Obviously, the switch over to Team Penske was the best move of my career. It was an opportunity for me to regroup, be who I wanted to be as an adult, not an 18‑year‑old kid anymore.”

Six years ago, Logano became the youngest starter in Daytona 500 history.

Sunday, he became the second-youngest winner of The Great American Race.

The gulf between those two feats seems massive, in part because Logano has been in the national consciousness for more than a decade.

He was 12 when future Hall of Famer Mark Martin proclaimed him ready to race in NASCAR’s premier series, and he fulfilled that promise while being thrust into a career debut that was accompanied by an inordinate amount of pressure. A leading distributor of NASCAR merchandise ran a countdown clock on its website for several months leading into Logano’s Xfinity Series debut. He was dubbed “Sliced Bread,” an unwanted and outsized nickname that became an easy target for derision.

The hype multiplied when he was promoted to Sprint Cup in 2009 in the untenable position of taking over Tony Stewart’s familiar No. 20. After four disappointing seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano had devolved from can’t-miss prospect to teetering on the edge of irrelevant journeyman. Until A.J. Allmendinger was fired during his first season with Penske because of a failed drug test, there seemed to be no landing spot as JGR readied to cut him loose after the ’12 season.

“I’m so happy and thankful that I went through the times of trying to figure this out, the tougher times worrying about if you’re going to have a job or not,” Logano said. “Worrying about winning a race and having a job are two different things. When you get to the point of worrying about winning races, that’s where you want to be in your career.”

That’s precisely where Logano found himself Sunday on NASCAR’s grandest stage. His ninth career victory was a star-making turn in a name-making event, and Logano’s name will be etched into the Harley J. Earl Trophy with the same worthiness as Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon.

This was no fluke like Logano’s first win as a rookie in a rain-shortened event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Despite having nary a drafting partner for his No. 22 Ford, Logano battled furiously to stay up front for 203 laps and outsmarted the stronger Chevrolets of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick with perfect timing and bravado in the finicky draft on the 2.5-mile oval.

“It took a lot,” he said. “It’s cool to be able to hold those guys back there.”

It backed up the promise exhibited by his breakthrough 2014, when Logano notched a personal-best five victories and reached the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“He’s going to be a guy at the top for a long time,” Penske said.

His team seems just as well-positioned, built on the twin foundations of Logano and 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski. With a pair of Gen Y drivers young enough to be his grandchildren, Penske, who turned 78 this past week, seemingly has rediscovered a vim that was evident during Sunday’s festivities.

“You need youth today in your business, you need youth today on the racetrack,” Penske said. “I like seeing these people compete and elevate themselves in the company. That’s what I look for.

“Seeing these young guys step up, a young golfer, like (Rory) McIlroy, it’s the great thing about sports, it brings the best out of people, brings the best out of our team.”

It also transcends the team. When the NASCAR youth movement of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott et al is broached, Logano rarely is mentioned – even though he was born in 1990 and is more successful than all of them.

“I’m basically the same age as them with seven years of experience,” he said. “I feel like I’m still involved with it. I hope to kind of feel like the leader of it because I’ve been here before, I kind of understand how the sport works a little bit, what I need to do. As a driver, you want to take advantage of that, try to build our sport bigger and better all the time.

“How can we reach a younger demographic more? How can we reach more kids, stuff like that. It’s a role I want to take on as a driver, because I want NASCAR as a sport to keep growing like it is.”

Sometimes, age still betrays the driver whose idea of a fun evening is curling up with his newlywed wife, Brittany, and watching Boy Meets World reruns and old race highlights with milk and a plate of cookies.

The most awkward moment of his Sunday post-race interviews occurred when someone asked Logano if he’d take better care of his Daytona 500 championship ring than his wedding band, which he lost on his honeymoon two months ago.

“This one is harder to replace, I think,” Logano said, eyeing his new jewelry as the media center filled with surprised laughter. “Wait, I screwed that up, didn’t I? What I meant to say, she’s still here with me, (the ring) is just a symbol. She would be impossible to replace.”

Yet another adroit save by the rising star.

“I’m going to stop now,” Logano sheepishly said.

Actually, he is just getting started.