LAS VEGAS — There was nowhere to go but up this season for Joey Logano, who had a roller-coaster rookie year as the youngest driver at NASCAR's top level.
He bounced off the walls at Daytona and barrel-rolled his car at Dover. He struggled with setups, didn't understand the language his teammates used to describe their cars and often dreaded going to the track.
That he finished with one victory, seven top-10s and a 20th-place finish in the final Sprint Cup points was a small miracle.
"There were a lot of weekends last year where we were in nothing more than survival mode," crew chief Greg Zipadelli said.
So Logano's solid start to his second season has not been lost on anyone. He was 43rd and last in his first Daytona 500; this year he was 20th. And he was 26th last season at California, but last week upgraded that to fifth.
It took Logano 17 races last season to notch his first top-five.
Much of it is credited to just how much Logano, now 19, learned over that rocky first year. But there's also a new confidence and comfort level.
"I feel more excited to come to the racetracks," he said. "Last year, oh boy, California, we stunk there. I didn't know if I wanted to go there. Now, you look at these places and you're excited to go back to the racetrack because you think you're going to have a good race car."
Logano comes into today's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ranked ninth in points, higher than Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (13th) and Denny Hamlin (22nd).
"I was joking around because I wished they'd start the Chase (for the Championship) now," Logano said. "But we still have a long ways to go."
The hype surrounding him was surreal long before he got to NASCAR, and by the time he made his 2008 debut just days after his 18th birthday, the minimum age set by NASCAR, he already had earned the moniker "Sliced Bread" as in "he's the next best thing since.…"
But the plan was to ease him into the top level, give him a year or two in the Nationwide series. That was fast-forwarded when two-time champ Tony Stewart opted out to start his own team.
"Remember, Joey wasn't even supposed to be driving that car last season," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "…The first few months were really rough."
Zipadelli just wants Logano to be a contender.
"With two or three races to go, I'd like for us to mathematically have an opportunity to race our way into the Chase," he said. "That would be a success. If we make the Chase, perfect. But to be 13th or 14th or 15th, and a couple good runs could get us in, we'll take that."