DAYTONA BEACH — The current embodiments of NASCAR's long-term future sat about five strides apart, facing each other in directors' chairs during a media session at Daytona International Speedway in February. When foot traffic provided a slot, one would lean to see what the other was doing.
They've been doing that for years, Joey Logano and Chase Austin, on Charlotte kart tracks and minor-league stock car circuits. They hope to take their friendly rivalry to NASCAR's highest level very soon.
"It would be pretty cool,'' Logano said of possibly racing against his best friend for a few more decades. "We always talk about that stuff. We'll race each other clean all day, but if it's coming to the line, I told him, 'I'm going to door-slam you a few times.' ''
Logano likely will get there first. The self-described "string bean" of a wunderkind has spent three years beating adults and convincing drivers such as Mark Martin he's ready for Sprint Cup right now. Today, just days after turning 18 and meeting NASCAR's minimum age requirement, Logano makes his top-three NASCAR series debut in a Nationwide series race at Dover. His first start for Joe Gibbs Racing has been anticipated since he was 15 and became the youngest to win in the minor league USAR series — in just his second start.
Austin, also 18 but eight months older, a former member of the Hendrick Motorsports developmental program (at age 14) still has work to do. While Logano was winning the NASCAR East championship last year, Austin was still trying to recover from the dissolution of the Hendrick feeder system. He languished as other opportunities fell through and relied on his family to fund whatever racing they could afford. A member of the Rusty Wallace Racing developmental program since last spring, he will generate the same level of excitement as Logano if he makes it to Sprint Cup.
Austin would be the third full-time African-American driver in NASCAR's 61-year history. Having made his Nationwide debut last year at Memphis, he's scheduled to run four Nationwide races for RWR this season, beginning in New Hampshire in June, but the family isn't certain of anything anymore until it happens, said his mother, Marianne.
"We just keep digging," she said. The family is paying to subsidize Austin's Late Model career.
Cognizant of how much responsibility the sport could eventually foist upon them, Logano and Austin say they are still just kids. They like it that way. Racing, they say frequently, is more fun than work.
"I love racing," Austin said, "so I would have kept going as long as I could if the (RWR) opportunity had come by or not."
Austin's commitment to racing was tested after his Hendrick experience, but it proved to be no test at all, Marianne Austin said, even after a deal with Star Motorsports vaporized. The family retained a 3,000-square-foot shop in suburban Charlotte, N.C., and continued to run its Speed Racer-like operation from there. Austin lives with his father in North Carolina, where they use their van to haul their Late Model to local tracks while his mother remains home in Eudora, Kan., to work for a medical billing company. Austin admitted that losing the Hendrick opportunity after establishing himself as a dirt Late Model prodigy made him feel "kind of gloomy," as he apparently fell behind.
"Yeah, it's pretty discouraging to have something like that just kind of fall out from underneath you when you thought you were living the good life," he said. "But if you just keep plugging at it, you'll get what you want."
Door-to-door for the next couple of decades.