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Call Him Baby Driver

June 29, 2009|Shawn Courchesne

LOUDON, N.H. — A 7-year-old stood in his father's garage in October 1997 and sent a message to one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

Already a national quarter midget champion, Joey Logano broke his usual silence by dropping a cocksure prediction about his future in racing.

He promised that someday he would be Jeff Gordon's worst nightmare.

Sunday was that day.

Logano and his Joe Gibbs Racing team rolled the dice on fuel and weather and hit the jackpot when the rookie was declared the winner of the rain-shortened Sprint Cup Lenox Industrial Tools 301 in front of 101,000. Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, was second and Kurt Busch was third.

The race was called after 273 of 301 laps. Logano, who turned 19 on May 24, became the youngest winner in the 61-year history of Cup racing.

Gordon was one of the first drivers to congratulate Logano. While Logano sat in his car on pit road as rain fell, Gordon offered his congratulations even though NASCAR had yet to call the race.

"That's pretty neat," Logano said. "Growing up he was one of my favorite race car drivers. To have him come in your [window] and congratulate you like that, that was really cool."

Logano's Gibbs teammate, Kyle Busch, was the previous youngest winner, finishing first at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Sept. 4, 2005 when he was 20 years and 125 days old.

"To get the win today, this is cool," Logano said. "This is where I watched my first [Sprint] Cup race, where I ran my first Cup race and where I won my first [Cup] race. I couldn't pick a better place."

Ironically, it was Logano's multitude of struggles during the race that ended up putting him in position to win. Logano had spent much of the day deep in the running order, even falling a lap down twice.

On Lap 183 he was hit by Ryan Newman, causing a flat left rear tire that sent him spinning in Turn 4. That sent him to the pits for repairs, which also allowed his team to refuel the car, topping off his tank while most others on the lead lap last filled up on Lap 153.

"I thought we were done," Logano said. "Our day just went bad. We were just trying to finish it off and get the best finish we could. [Crew chief Greg Zipadelli] made the right move at the end. He went for it and I was just lucky enough to be in the seat."

He restarted a lap down but got NASCAR's "lucky dog" free pass back to the tail end of the lead lap when the caution came out again on Lap 191.

When a cycle of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 234, Logano wasn't pressed for fuel. With every car going to the pits, his No. 20 car inched its way up. When Newman, the leader, went in for fuel on Lap 264, it put Logano at the front of the field. The caution came out for rain four laps later.

Even then the storybook tale wasn't complete. Logano had to keep his car running under caution while the rain fell. If he ran out of gas while the field was still pacing under caution the race would have been lost.

For six laps Logano nursed his car around the track, with Gordon behind him, pushing him to keep using fuel under yellow.

"I was trying to get him to use as much fuel under those caution laps as I could," Gordon said. "I thought for sure he was going to run out based on what [my crew] was telling me, and he still made it here to pit road [under the red flag]."

Zipadelli estimated Logano had about four to six laps of fuel left under green flag conditions when the rain started.

"I was saving as much as I could," Logano said. "I was shutting the motor off, coasting as long as I could. Jeff was obviously going to try to make me fire that thing up and burn as much fuel as I could. [Zipadelli] would tell me what to do and I just kept doing it."

On Lap 273 the cars were directed to pit road. Minutes later NASCAR called the race.

"It was a crazy day," Zipadelli said. "Half of this sport is about putting yourself in position to have a chance to win on Sunday afternoons. That's what we did today and everything went our way, nothing more than that. We were lucky, but we put ourselves in position because we were behind, because we had to have the problems that allowed us to pit and top off with fuel and do some of the things that guys up front who were guarding their track position couldn't do."

It was Logano's 20th Sprint Cup start. He made his debut in September at New Hampshire, finishing 32nd, and made two more starts in 2008, finishing 39th at Kansas Speedway and 40th at Texas Motor Speedway. He replaced two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the No. 20 car before the start of this season.

Logano's best finish in 16 starts this year had been ninth, which he had done three times.

"Obviously, it's not the way you want to win your first race -- in the rain," he said. "But to me a win's a win. Twenty years down the road when you look at the record books nobody is going to know different. I'll take them any way I can."

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scourchesne@courant.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Driver standings

NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. The top 12 will qualify for the Chase for the Cup. The first of the 10 races in the Chase for the Cup will be Sept. 20:

*--*

NO. DRIVER POINTS BEHIND 1 Tony Stewart 2,524 -- 2 Jeff Gordon 2,455 69 3 Jimmie Johnson 2,355 169 4 Kurt Busch 2,254 270 5 Carl Edwards 2,157 367 6 Denny Hamlin 2,132 392 7 Ryan Newman 2,127 397 8 Kyle Busch 2,108 416 9 Greg Biffle 2,106 418 10 Matt Kenseth 2,054 470 11 Mark Martin 2,052 472 12 Juan Montoya 2,049 475 *--*

Source: Associated Press

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