Joey Logano comes into his own at Penske Racing

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOV. 16: Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16, 2013 in Homestead, Fla.

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

At the age of 6, Joey Logano was already wheeling a quarter-midget around New England.

At age 15, Mark Martin proclaimed that Logano would eventually become one of NASCAR’s best drivers ever. Little wonder the lanky kid from Connecticut was nicknamed ‘Sliced Bread.’

At age 18, Logano was put behind the wheel of one of NASCAR’s most iconic cars, the orange No. 20 Home Depot Toyota that Tony Stewart had made famous for Joe Gibbs Racing.

And at the ripe old age of 22, Logano was released from JGR after four mostly nondescript seasons, to be replaced by Matt Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

Finally, in 2013, a funny thing happened: No longer burdened by hype or weighed down by unrealistic expectations, Logano finally came into his own. In his maiden season with Penske Racing, Logano qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time and finished a career-best eighth in the final championship standings.

After posting just 16 top-five and 41 top-10 finishes in four full seasons with JGR, in 2013 Logano earned 11 top fives and 19 top 10s, with a victory in the second Michigan race.

BROOKLYN, MI – AUG. 18: Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 44th Annual Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 18, 2013 in Brooklyn, Mich.

What was especially impressive about Logano’€™s season was that he made the Chase in spite of tire failures and 40th-place finishes in consecutive races at Daytona and New Hampshire in July.

After the tire debacles, though, Logano caught fire. Following his two 40th-place runs, he went on a six-race stretch where he won once, had a worst finish of eighth and an average finish of 5.0.

All told, Logano was pleased with his season, and understandably so. He and crew chief Todd Gordon proved to be an excellent combination and the encouragement Logano received from teammate Brad Keselowski helped a lot, too.

"€œWe did a good job this year and learned a lot about each other, and learned a lot about where we could have done a better job in races and where we need to improve next year and where to work on our cars during the off-season,"€ Logano said of his relationship with Gordon. "€œIt’€™s been a pleasure to work with Todd Gordon and all these guys on this team."

Logano’s performance did not go unnoticed within the team.

"€œSecuring a spot in the Chase for the Championship is a huge accomplishment and a significant milestone in Joey’s NASCAR career,"€ said Penske Racing President Tim Cindric after Logano clinched his Chase spot.

"€œQuite honestly, as it stands right now with how he’s ran over the last I think six weeks, he would be my favorite to win the championship,"€ Keselowski said of Logano prior to the Chase. "€œHe’s definitely got the momentum. His team has got things going for them in so many different directions. There’s a lot of confidence that comes with that."

Still, the year was not without its share of controversies and disappointments. Logano and his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin engaged in some early season histrionics that culminated in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway, with Hamlin suffering a broken back after going head on into the inside wall.

After the race, Tony Stewart charged Logano on pit road and a brief scuffle broke out between the two.

And while Logano was happy to make the Chase for the first time, his championship aspirations were dashed in the very first race, when a rare engine failure knocked him out at Chicagoland Speedway.

Logano ended the year on a high note, finishing third at Texas Speedway, ninth at Phoenix International Raceway and eighth at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"€œI had a lot of fun this year and this was my best season personally,"€ Logano said.

But like all good racers, he’s far from satisfied.

"€œI’d still call it a good season, not a great season,"€ Logano said of his 2013 campaign. "€œWe were just talking about the opportunities we had to win and we feel like we had the chance to win five races and we capitalized on one of them, so that’€™s a good area we can learn from and figure out how to limit our mistakes.  I gave up a couple and we had some other mistakes that gave up a few, too, so we’ve got areas we need to improve and we’€™ll do it."

And if he does, look out for Logano and company in 2014, which could be a very big year for the Penske organization.