When Bread Turns Bad

CHARLOTTE — The question is: What do you do when you find out that you’re the villain of the story? That’s a jarring discovery because, unlike in the movies, most people don’t want to be the villain. Most people grow up imagining the cheers, applause, promotions, awards and respect. Most people grow up with every intention of being the hero.

Joey Logano certainly did.

And then one day, Logano found himself in his car, driving to the winner’s circle at Talladega, winner of his third race in a row, and it should have been exactly as he had hoped, exactly as he had dreamed ever since he was a little kid sleeping in his little race car bed littered with little Matchbox cars. Here was the conquering hero. Here was the star of NASCAR, the newest Richard Petty, the newest Bill Elliott, the newest Dale Earnhardt, the newest Jimmie Johnson.

Except for this: People were throwing beer cans at his car. They cans were exploding off the windshield like water balloons, and the sound was like gunfire.

“Gosh,” Logano thought. “They really hate me.”

* * *

Joey Logano keeps all of his toys in the garage behind his Charlotte office. His toys, of course, are cars — always have been cars. There’s a car back here that you can drive right into the water. Then you hit a button and watch it convert into a boat — it’s like something Batman would have. There are several huge trucks and cars (“I love big cars,” he says). There is the Thunderbird where he asked Brittany to marry him (“She loves T-birds”). There is the car he used to win his first Sprint Cup race. “All the cars back here have sentimental meaning,” he says.

The two that mean the most to him, though, are the cars he can’t drive anymore. They are quarter-midgets, tiny things, barely big enough to fit two American Girl dolls in. He drove these cars when he was 7 years old. He won in them all the time.

“As I get older,” he says, “those times mean more to me now than ever before. That’s what it was all about, you know?”

That sounds strangely wistful for a 26-year-old man, doesn’t it? Let’s just say that it has been a long 26 years for Joey Logano. He is, now, one of NASCAR’s biggest stars. He has won 11 races the last two or so years, including the Daytona 500, and those don’t even include the Sprint All-Star Race. It was preordained that Joey Logano would someday be a superstar in this sport– you could see it even when he was 7 and driving one of these quarter midgets — and now that it’s happening, well, being a NASCAR superstar is different than he thought.

“Some days you’re the bat,” Matt Kenseth said. “And some days you’re the ball.”

Kenseth said that after intentionally wrecking Logano at Martinsville.

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“He’s nothing but a little rich kid that’s never had to work in his life,” Tony Stewart said. “So he’s going to learn what it’s like for us working guys that had to work our way up.”

Stewart said that in 2013, after he and Logano got into a fight.

“I guess Joey Logano can’t see through his squinty, douchy eyes.”

That’s what Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, tweeted after Logano wrecked Truex in California. This was even after Logano took full responsibility and apologized profusely for the crash.

“The karma train is coming after you,” Kevin Harvick told him after a run-in at Talladega.

And so on. He’s at or near the top of just about every “Most Hated Driver” poll. One NASCAR official says, “I don’t think there’s any question that fans view Joey as the No. 1 villain in the sport right now.” People LOATHE Joey Logano, and here’s the thing: He’s a nice guy. He’s a child prodigy who was nearly drummed out of NASCAR but has worked his way up to stardom through sheer will and aggressiveness and joy of driving. He smiles all the time.

But that smile … that’s just another thing they hate about him.

“We get a lot of reports about fans,” Logano says, and he’s still smiling. “We get a lot of nasty business reports on fans who don’t think I’m genuine. That’s one of the biggest things, I guess. They don’t think I’m genuine. They don’t know me, though. I believe I am a genuine person. I’m genuinely happy. A lot of people think that because I smile a lot, it’s a fake smile. But I’m a freaking happy person. And I have a lot to be happy about. Look at what I get to do. This is awesome.”

He shakes his head.

“Why does everyone hate me?” Logano asks. “Whatever. At this point, I don’t care.”

But, of course, he cares. He just isn’t going to change, not now, not when he’s winning.

* * *

What does it mean to be a childhood prodigy? Logano didn’t grow up in a racing family. His dad, Tom, liked cars well enough, but he had a business to run, a successful hazardous waste-hauling company in Connecticut, and he was focused on that. Tom just saw that his son loved cars from the moment he was born. Every birthday was a car birthday. Every present had to do with cars. When Joey was 6 or 7 years old, Tom bought an old junker Honda Civic, tied some blocks on the pedals, put some pillows on the seat, and told his son: “Go figure out how to drive a stick shift.”

After Joey figured that out — it took almost no time at all — Tom put him in a giant water tanker truck and told him to drive until all the water had run out. “I couldn’t even let out the clutch because it was so stiff,” Joey says. “He’d jump on the door, and he’d roll the clutch for me, and he’d jump off.”

With that, Joey proudly shows a photo of the enormous truck. “Seven years old,” Joey says proudly. “I see 7-year-olds now, and how small they are, and I go ‘Pops, what the hell were you thinking?'”

But Tom could see it. Everybody could see it. Little Joey Logano could drive anything. When he played other sports — baseball, football, basketball, hockey — he was like any other kid. He flashed a little talent, but more so he was awkward — you’ve seen little kids play sports. His older sister Danielle was the physically gifted one; she worked her way up in figure skating. Joey didn’t care much for those types of sports because, as he says, “I didn’t win in them.” Behind the wheel he always won. Something came over him, something even now Joey can’t explain. He could just drive cars, and he could drive them fast.

“You know, sometimes you see a kid pick up a golf club and swing perfectly, and it’s like ‘Holy cow!'” he says. “I can’t swing a golf club to save my life. I suck at it. And I see some of these kids swing, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, that’s absolutely amazing.’ And they’re like, ‘What do you mean? It’s easy.’

“That’s how it was for me. I would just get into a car, and I could drive it fast. I didn’t know it was anything special. I just thought, ‘What’s so hard about this?'”

When the racing began, Logano won and won and won. It didn’t matter the level. It didn’t matter how inexperienced he and his father were (“We had no idea what we were doing,” Joey says). None of it mattered because when he got behind the wheel, he pushed the car harder and faster than anyone else. He instinctively knew the edge. He could feel the car’s rhythms. He won junior championship after junior championship. When NASCAR star Mark Martin first saw the kid racing, he nicknamed him “The Real Deal.” Logano was 15 years old at the time.

When Randy Lajoie — a two-time Busch Series champion — saw Logano at that time, he came up with a nickname, too: “Sliced Bread.” As in: “Best thing since …”

“What did you think when you got the ‘Sliced Bread’ nickname?” I ask Logano.

“Well,” Logano says smiling, “I was just a kid. I thought: ‘Damn right.'”

Yeah, he was cocky. How could he not be cocky? “When everybody — and I mean everybody — tells you that you’re the next big thing, you believe them,” Logano says. Joe Gibbs Racing saw Logano’s future when he was just 15 years old. He promptly made good, becoming the youngest driver to win a Nationwide (now Xfinity) race, and then the youngest to win a Sprint Cup race, at Loudon in 2009. Yes, it was a lucky win involving rain and confusion and just enough gas, but then, Logano seemed a lucky guy.

“We know we were fortunate,” Joe Gibbs said after the race. Then he added, “We figure we can keep this thing going, ride this thing out for about 20 years.”

Sure, it looked like the kid would dominate the sport for decades. But soon there were some bad signs. In baseball, general managers will talk about how they want players to fail long before they get to the big leagues because dealing with failure is a skill. In many ways, it’s the most important skill at the highest level of sports. How do you rebound? How do you overcome? When Logano began in NASCAR, he had never failed. He had always been the fastest. He had always won. He was Sliced Bread.

“It’s one thing to be a natural,” he says, “and then when you get to a certain level, you’re racing against drivers that it came natural to as well. Every single Sprint Cup racer, I think, just jumped in cars, and they went fast because they were just naturally badasses.”

“So,” he asks, “what do you do when you’re not the baddest badass anymore?”

Here’s what you do: You lose. And Logano started losing. In 2010, when he was the most hyped young star in the sport, he led 53 laps TOTAL all year, and did not finish first or second. The next year it was even worse; no victories and just four top-five finishes all year. In 2012, he won at Pocono but managed just one more top-five finish. The “Sliced Bread” tag that had once made him feel a bit sheepish and bold was now a flat-out embarrassment.

“I will always remember,” he says, “I was sitting at home one night, and I was watching Wind Tunnel — it was this show on Speed Channel. And Jimmy Makar (Senior VP of Racing Operations for Joe Gibbs) was on … I don’t remember the exact question, but it was basically ‘What are the plans with Logano?’ And Jimmy said straight up, ‘If he doesn’t start running better, we’re going to have to make a change.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God!'”

After four years of mostly disappointing racing, Gibbs pulled the plug on Logano. They offered him a chance to rebuild his career riding full time in Xfinity. Logano was just 22 years old, which seems young. But he felt old. “A lot of times in professional sports, you take a step back to a lower level, and that’s it,” he says. “That was your shot. There’s a good chance you’re not getting back.”

So he went to Roger Penske, got the No. 22 car and began working with crew chief Todd Gordon. And it turned almost immediately. Gordon proved to be a perfect match for Logano (“I needed someone I could talk to all the time,” he says). Logano’s first year, he had 11 top-five finishes. Then he won five races in 2014 and was one of the final four drivers in the Chase. He won six races last year. The transformation has been staggering.

“I thought I knew everything,” he says of his days with Gibbs racing. “That’s normal though. Most kids at 18, 19, 20 know everything, you know? So I knew everything. But I didn’t know anything.

“With Todd, with this team, I’ll tell you the biggest thing I learned. It’s all about stacking pennies. It’s the minor details that make a difference now. You’re not finding three-quarters of a second (per lap) anymore. No chance. You’re finding a half-a-tenth. You’re looking for the smallest things to stack up — stacking pennies. Nobody could have told me that when I was 18 years old because I had never needed to stack pennies before. I’d always just outrun people. It was easy. It’s not easy now.”

* * *

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Logano admits that, in the past, he has spent too much time thinking about why people don’t like him. He has a hard time letting things go, which has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. He realizes some of the vitriol has to do with the conflicts he’s had with some of the sport’s biggest stars like Harvick and Stewart. “Well, yeah, I am having feuds with people who have been in the sport forever,” Logano says. “They’re more established. They have fans that have been there for a while, and I’m just building my base.”

But, he adds, all NASCAR drivers will have some feuds. Many have been loved for it. Who had more feuds than Dale Earnhardt?

He realizes that some of the vitriol has to do with the whole image of him as a fortunate son, the silver spoon driver who was handed everything. “I look at the perception of me, and I can understand,” he says. “I get it. It doesn’t mean I think it’s right or I think it’s fair, but I understand it. I have been lucky. But my father worked very hard for what he built, and I think I learned from his work ethic.”

He realizes that some of the vitriol has to do with him being a bit of an outsider, a Connecticut Yankee in NASCAR’s court. “My last name’s not Earnhardt or Elliott or Dillon,” he says. “I don’t have racing roots like they’ve got.”

He realizes that some of the vitriol just comes with winning. When he was running 15th or 20th every week, no one particularly cared how aggressively he drove or what his background was. But now that he’s taking checkered flags away from Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and the rest, yes, those fans might get a little angry.

“It’s a compliment,” he says, then he pauses. “I guess.”

Logano realizes … well, enough of that. He doesn’t want to realize anymore. He’s tired of trying to figure out what will make people like him more. “At the end of the day, there’s a select amount of people that really know me and know who I am and know what I stand for,” he says. “I can’t get my story out to everybody. I don’t have the time to sit down with every single person and change their opinion about me.

“And why am I supposed to do that? I know inside who I am, and that’s what we all have to live with. You look at yourself and say, ‘Am I OK with who I am? Did I do the right things?’ I’m not going to lie, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But mistakes are what make you better and what make you grow. There are no regrets.”

When I ask him what story about himself he would like to get out there to change the perception, he shrugs.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’m happy. I’m in the position I’ve always dreamed to be in. I got a great team, I got a great wife, I got a great family. So some people don’t like me. Oh well. The reason they don’t like me isn’t because of who I am, it’s because they just don’t know. I can’ live with that. Would I rather people like me? Sure. But if you don’t, well, OK! Sorry!”

* * *

Let’s go back in the car with Joey Logano at Talladega, with beer cans exploding off the windshield, and the thrill of victory ringing in his head. This wasn’t how he thought victory would feel … but then he felt something. He remembered that, many years ago, this was Jeff Gordon winning at Talladega. He watched the race when he was just a kid. And, yes, the fans threw beer cans at his car, too. They threw beer cans at Jeff Gordon, the legend.

And suddenly, Logano felt this boost of joy.

“Why do they hate you?” he asked himself. “Why? I’ll tell you why: It’s because you won three races in a row! Cool!”

And, for then, suddenly, he realized that the beer smelled like celebration and the explosions sounded like music.

“I’m sitting there,” he says now, “driving the car around, getting blasted in the windshield with beer cans, and it was … awesome! It all changed. I thought ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ Some people, that might piss off. But I’m sorry, this is the ultimate, I feel, in any sport, when you can show up your critics and prove people wrong. When you’re hated, really hated, you know? It’s an unreal feeling.”

Then, Joey Logano smiles that smile again, the one that his haters think isn’t genuine. But they should be here. It’s plenty genuine.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe I’m just a silver-linings guy. I try to find the positive in everything.”

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