DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Thanks to Roger Penske’s keen eye for motor racing talent, Joey Logano’s career went from rejection to redemption on Sunday as he steered one of “The Captain‘s” cars to victory at the Daytona 500.
While it was Logano’s maiden visit to Victory Lane in NASCAR’s showcase event, it was also just the second for team owner Penske, an American motor racing giant known to race fans as “The Captain” who has record 15 Indianapolis 500 winners.
But success has been harder to come by in Florida, Penske and Logano coming together to form a Daytona dream team.
“It feels just like the way you dream it,” Logano said in Victory Lane.
Growing up in Connecticut, Logano dreamt of following in the tire track of four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner of the ‘Great American Race’ who ran his final 500 on Sunday.
Later he would come under the watchful eye of NASCAR driver, Mark Martin, who told tell anyone who would listen that the young Logano was a future champion.
Nicknamed “Sliced Bread”, an American term often used to described the next best thing, Logano was tipped for stockcar stardom.
He was hired by three-time Super Bowl winning coach Joe Gibbs in 2009 to replace three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart who was forming his own team.
Expectations were unrealistically high for then 19-year old and even a victory in his rookie season was not enough to lighten the load.
After four seasons that produced only one more win in NASCAR’s top series he was set loose by Gibbs in favor of veteran Matt Kenseth.
“I think it’s no secret that I probably got thrown into this series too young – inexperienced, didn’t know what I had to do,“ offered a reflective Logano. ”The emotions you go through when you start to think about if you will have a job next year – it is hard.
“Especially for me because I poured all my eggs into one basket. I was banking on this...it is scary and you don’t know what will happen.”
The door opened at Team Penske for Logano when Kurt Busch, who was suspended for domestic violence on the eve of Sunday’s race, was fired.
Logano rewarded the team with one win in 2013 and five more last year earning a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs known as ‘The Chase’.
“Who would have ever guessed three years down the road (after being fired by Gibbs) that we would be Daytona 500 champions,” smiled Logano. “That is just crazy. Life is a roller coaster and you have to roll with the punches.”
Editing by Steve Keating in Toronto.