Tony Stewart showed up at Joe Gibbs Racing’s media day last year in desperate need of a haircut and a shave.
His replacement arrived with a short, conservative cut and a smooth, clean face.
Then again, baby-faced Joey Logano might not even own a razor just yet.
The 10-year Stewart era is officially over at JGR, and the team heads into the 2009 season trying to replace its two-time series champion and team leader. They’ll do it with three young drivers who are an average of 23 years old and don’t have a single NASCAR championship among them.
But if management is stumbling along in a post-Smoke hangover, they aren’t letting on.
“I’m excited,” team owner Joe Gibbs said Tuesday night. “We’re pretty young, so this is going to be a different kind of trip for us. And I haven’t had as much a chance to think about Tony, as I’m focused now thinking about all of our guys.”
The focus, for now, is on the 18-year-old Logano.
The kid who earned the nickname “Sliced Bread” (as in `He’s the greatest thing since …’ ) has the enviable task of jumping into the seat for one of the most dominant teams of the past decade. Stewart drove his No. 20 to 33 victories, championships in 2002 and 2005, and finished outside the top-10 in points just once during his run.
But it’s also an unenviable challenge for Logano to match his predecessor’s success rate: Stewart won three races as a rookie and never looked back.
Logano knows the expectations are high, but is focused on his own realistic goals. With only three Cup starts from last season under his belt — and a best finish of 32nd in his debut race in September at New Hampshire — he knows he’s got his work cut out for him.
“I think Rookie of the Year is a realistic goal for us this season,” he said. “I’m going to do the best I can. You never know. There’s going to be a learning curve. I’m with a great team, but where I lack is not having that seat time in this type of car. But you’ve got to figure it out one way or the other.”
JGR will lean heavily on crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who opted to stay put rather than leave when Stewart decided he wanted to own his own race team. Zipadelli showed a saint-like level of patience in working through Stewart’s many trials and tribulations, and that temperament will come in handy this season with the raw rookie.
“I think he’s a really smart guy, a really good guy, and I think he’s perfect for me,” Logano said.
There’s still an overall leadership void to fill, and Gibbs thinks the team has a pair of worthy candidates in Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. The only problem is, the two drivers haven’t shown tremendous maturity through their first several years in NASCAR’s top series.
But Hamlin, now 28 and about to start his fourth full season, appears ready to step into a larger role.
Although he joked during his speech at last year’s season-ending awards ceremony that JGR officials must be terrified that he’s now the senior driver, Hamlin actually wants the job.
“If you are going to be the senior driver, you can’t act like you are 12 years old,” he said. “It’s not going to be on Joey to make this race team better right now. It’s not on his shoulders. It’s going to be on me and Kyle to make this team better and make it a championship-caliber team. We’re going to focus on the things we need to work on, and get our butts back in the shop the weeks we have issues we need to work on to meet with department heads and tell them.
“I think we leaned a little too much on Tony to do that for us in years past.”
Gibbs said Busch and Hamlin are already doing their part, taking time to help Logano while at the race track and speaking to him from experience during a Tuesday team meeting about the things he’ll likely experience during his rookie season.
“Denny and Kyle are both guys that, even though they are young, they have some real good experience in winning races. They know what it takes,” Gibbs said. “They know that you are not going to win a championship unless all three teams are contributing heavily. I’ve been impressed with Denny; he’s trying to help Joey. Kyle, some of the suggestions he has for Joey. That’s where you see it showing up — teamwork — and a lot of it wasn’t focused on them.”