Joey Logano’s grill does not conform to NASCAR specifications. It never has, not from the day he broke into Sprint Cup racing with all the fanfare of a hotshot high school quarterback who just signed to play in Athens.
And racing prefers that it never does.
For when Logano smiles — which is frequent lately — he exposes a grill that seems to contain twice the legal number of teeth. And then he unleashes one of the brightest and most genuinely joyful looks in his serious-as-a-seven-car-pileup sport.
It’s a smile that’s a little too wide and a little goofy, serving as a reminder that he is, after all, still only 25 years old. But how can that be a bad thing?
On Sunday, the happy winner of the 2015 Daytona 500 returns to the scene of his biggest victory to date as one of racing’s great contradictions.
He is the guy with the high wattage smile and the carbonated personality who spent the end of last season swerving through a hail of beer cans loosed by an unhappy rabble at Talladega and engaging in a mutually destructive feud with a fellow driver.
He appears younger than he is, and probably always will — one of those blessed souls who will be carded into middle age. Yet Logano has an old racing spirit. When he fires up the No. 22 Penske Ford on Sunday, he already will be launching into his eighth Daytona 500.
Fired at 22, teetering on the brink of being one of those sad, fallen childhood stars, he managed to win only three races in his first five seasons before Joe Gibbs cut him loose. But Logano since has won more races these past two seasons (11) than any other driver. Yes, more than Jimmie Johnson (9), more than Kevin Harvick (8), more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7) or Kyle Busch (6).
Speaking last month at a NASCAR Sprint Cup media gathering, Logano took those numbers and applied them as little more than a down payment.
“I look forward to the opportunity to become better this year,” he said. With a smile, of course.
Now, with a Daytona 500 victory in his backpack, about the only thing left on the becoming-better program would be a series championship. His preseason game plan seems foolproof.
“If we win 36 races, we’ll probably win (the championship),” Logano said, grinning. “We want to win them all. We probably won’t, but that’s our goal.
“If your goal is to win three races, you’ll probably never do better than that.”
All those teeth are little pointy, too, apparently. There is a bit of shark in that smile.
You can understand if Logano drives hungry. He knows what it is like to be disposable. Years before he appeared on the Sprint Cup scene at 18, he was stamped for greatness. Veteran driver Mark Martin told us at the time that the kid would “be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR.”
As a teenager, how do you drive fast with all that weight in the trunk? Logano struggled, and when Joe Gibbs Racing let him go in 2013, he was a wash-out before his 23rd birthday.
He found a very soft place to land with Roger Penske. The difference in attitude from one year to the next, from the diminishing returns with one team to the fresh start with another was jaw-dropping.
In the beginning, Logano said, “I thought finishing in the top 20 was a good day. Obviously it’s completely different now.
“With one you’re just trying to keep your job and get the opportunity to be better. With the other, you’re trying to be the best.
“I still look up the mountain and see how much farther we have to go. Being in the middle of that climb is kind of an interesting place to be.”
“Interesting,” was the exact word — a politically necessary word — Logano used to describe his 2015. Victories No. 10 and 11 of his two-year streak were particularly, um, interesting.
First, on Oct. 18, he bumped Matt Kenseth out of the way to get to the checkered flag in Kansas. That set him up in the role of a heavy for the rest of the season and for retribution that was sure, if not swift.
The following week at Talladega, he beat out the uber-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a controversial, crash-filled finish — eliminating Earnhardt from the playoff chase. Fans already peeved at Logano were irritated enough to throw their unemptied beer cans at the winner as he victoriously smoked his tires.
Kenseth would get around to a revenge crashing the next week in Martinsville, a deed greeted by more cheers than jeers at the time and one that fatally damaged Logano’s championship chances.
“Do I understand why fans would cheer for someone to get crashed? No, I don’t,” Logano said, severely misreading the appetites of his audience. “It kind of bummed me out a little bit. I wouldn’t say it made me mad, it just kind of disappointed me.”
A new season opens with a clean ledger. Old grudges are suspended while new ones await conception. “We are grown men — we have some ability to move on,” said Logano’s Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, who has had his own issues in the past with Kenseth.
The defending Daytona 500 champion is all for peace, as long as it does not come with a fundamental change in attitude.
For now we all know what makes Joey Logano smile:
“When you have an opportunity like we have now, when you’re winning races, you don’t know how long it’s going to last,” he said. “You want to take advantage of every opportunity.
“I still walk by that Daytona 500 trophy every morning, and that is awesome. But when you get to Daytona, it’s the start of the year, it’s another trophy to get. The goal is to get another one.”
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