Nov 14, 2:11 PM EST

Logano has new life as title contender with Penske


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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- Kevin Harvick opened championship week by turning Joey Logano into his own voodoo doll. Harvick poked, jabbed and needled Logano so much, it was clear the body part he was really interested in probing was the inside of the Team Penske driver's head.

Logano never flinched, even after Harvick accused him of blocking at Talladega to help teammate Brad Keselowski win the race.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Logano said, smiling

When the public portion of the show was over, the 24-year-old Logano wondered what all the fuss was about. Logano looked at the instigation this way: Harvick must have tried to work his Jedi mind tricks on Logano because he viewed the five-time winner this season as his biggest threat for the NASCAR title.

"To have one of them nervous about you, that means even more," Logano said. "I'm not here to play head games. I'm here to win a race."

The verbal shots were just the opening salvo in an attempt to spice up championship week. There should be more ahead for Logano, Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman as they each try and win their first career Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Logano has emerged as the class of the field, with two Chase victories among the five he's had in his second season driving for Roger Penske.

Logano - or Harvick and Hamlin - could spare one potential embarrassment with a championship-clinching run: NASCAR would have a winless driver as champ should Newman finish first among the four.

"I'm planning on winning the championship," Logano said, "and I have five of them."

Logano's confidence is miles away from when he faced a murky future just two seasons ago once Joe Gibbs Racing decided to dump the one-time phenom in favor of 2003 champion Matt Kenseth. Logano was out of a ride at JGR and his Home Depot sponsorship. Until Penske stepped up, Logano feared his career was over.

"I was on the edge, yeah," Logano said. "Closer than you think. To now be considered a real threat for the championship a couple of years later, just goes to show you're never going to know what life's going to bring you."

The hype surrounding Logano was at surreal levels long before he ever got to NASCAR, and by the time he made his 2008 debut with JGR just days after his 18th birthday, milestone victories and multiple championships were being predicted. Veteran drivers like Mark Martin raved about Logano's promise, and he earned the "Sliced Bread" moniker because he was considered the next best thing.

JGR's planned to ease him into the top level, give him a year or two in the Nationwide Series to adapt to stock cars and learn his way around the circuit. That was sped up when Tony Stewart opted out at JGR and the team had an open seat to fill.

Logano won a rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in his first full season in 2009 and took the checkered flag at Pocono in 2012. But he failed to flash serious championship potential and, suddenly, a driver once considered the future of the sport faced an uncertain one of his own.

Logano left with 41 top-10 finishes in 144 starts in the No. 20. He also won five poles, but never earned a spot in the Chase. Logano latched on with Penske and won a race last season with 11 top fives - nearly as many as he had in his first four years (16).

Greg Zipadelli was Stewart's crew chief at JGR and spent three seasons atop the pit box with Logano before moving into a management role at Stewart-Haas Racing. He always believed Logano could be successful.

"Every time we put him in a car at a young age, he did a really good job testing," Zipadelli said. "It was just figuring the rest of the stuff out. He's finally done a good job with that."

Has he ever.

"I was about going to be out of this whole deal," Logano said. "Now, here we are. I've found a way to really appreciate this moment."

Logano had risen rapidly through the racing ranks with the financial backing from his father, Tom, who used funds from the family's Connecticut waste management company to help his two children pursue their dreams. Logano is now a bona fide championship contender after five wins this season in Sprint Cup.

"Look at me now," he said.

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