Joey Logano has a perpetual smile on his face, and for good reason.
On Saturday, the motor-sports wunderkind turned 18 - the minimum age required to compete on any of NASCAR's three premier circuits. While he feasted on a 150-pound cake baked in the shape of his race car, Joe Gibbs, the team owner and Hall of Fame football coach, sang "Happy Birthday."
Tomorrow, Logano will make his Nationwide Series debut at Dover International Speedway under the weight of tremendous expectations, some self-inflicted and others placed on his shoulders by people in the know.
Logano was 15 when veteran racer Mark Martin anointed him "the real deal."
More recently, Martin compounded his prognostication by saying, "Joey is magic, take my word for it."
While Logano readily admits that he has a sweet deal driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, which signed him as a developmental driver three years ago, it will take more than a finely tuned machine for him to land in Victory Lane tomorrow.
The entry list for the Heluva Good! 200 (ESPN2, 2:30 p.m.) includes 10 regulars from the Sprint Cup Series, including Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle; the defending Nationwide Series champion, Carl Edwards; and the current points leader, Clint Bowyer.
Still, the self-proclaimed "happy-go-lucky kid" smiles on.
In September, Logano celebrated at Dover when he led a race high of 79 laps and his runner-up finish clinched the 2007 NASCAR Camping World East championship.
Earlier this week, Logano predicted that his No. 20 Toyota Camry, prepared by crew chief Dave Rogers, might be good enough to take the checkered flag at the Monster Mile. But brash forecasts aren't in line for Rogers, who has already recorded six wins this season with Tony Stewart, Busch and Hamlin taking turns behind the wheel.
"I don't want Joey going to Dover expecting to win," Rogers said. "We believe in him, and we believe that we'll have success with him. We're confident Joey will turn a lot of heads. It might take one race, it might take a month, it might take six months.
"We feel Joey is capable of winning [in] our equipment, but so much of this sport is chemistry and getting the communication where it needs to be."
In preparing to begin his 18-race Nationwide schedule, Logano estimated that he had run over 4,000 miles in testing Sprint Cup cars. Earlier this month, his team went to Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway so Logano could work on green-flag pit stops in his Nationwide Series car, and before that, he led 257 of 312 laps in winning his Arca ReMax Series debut on the same track.
Running up front has always come naturally for Logano, who was 4 years old when his father, Tom, plopped him in a go-kart for the first time. His career in quarter-midget racing began at the age of 6, he climbed behind the wheel of a late-model stock car at 12, and the trophy collection grew as he rose through the racing ranks and his family moved from Connecticut to Georgia to North Carolina.
Now, while his high-school-age peers prepare for the pomp and circumstance of graduation, Logano - home-schooled by his mother, Deborah, since he was 9 - already has his diploma as he attempts to take the next step in his career. Logano recently picked up his degree online from the Abbington Hill School, an Internet-based school with headquarters in Manasquan, N.J.
"I've kind of been doing this my whole life, so I really don't know anything different," Logano said. "I'm a highly competitive person, and this is what I've always wanted to do. I don't think I'm missing a whole lot, because I'd rather be racing than hanging out with my friends."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., another driver well-acquainted with hype, hasn't had a chance to talk with Logano extensively, but offered some advice.
"If you go out there and try to impress and try too hard," Junior said, "you get into making more mistakes than you probably should."
The track: Dover International Speedway is north of Dover, Del., on Route 13, about 70 miles from Philadelphia. Take I-95 south to I-495 south, Exit 1. Take Route 1 south, exiting at North Dover, then go left on U.S. 13 south.
Today's on-track events: Nationwide Series practice, 9 a.m.; Craftsman Truck Series qualifying, 10:10 a.m.; Sprint Cup Series practice, 11:30 a.m.; Nationwide Series final practice, 1:15 p.m.; Sprint Cup qualifying, 3:10 p.m.; AAA Insurance 200 Craftsman Truck Series race, 5 p.m.
Television: Craftsman Truck Series qualifying (Speed, 10 a.m.); Sprint Cup Series practice (Speed, 11:30 a.m.); Nationwide Series final practice (ESPN2, 2 p.m.); Sprint Cup Series qualifying (Speed, 3 p.m.); Craftsman Truck Series race (Speed, tape delay, 8:30 p.m.).
Tickets: Call 1-800-441-7223 or check the track's Web site at www.doverspeedway.
- Pete Schnatz