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Leonard: Logano's win fuels big dreams
Team Penske driver continues his rapid rise
0224Logano
Joey Logano raises the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race Sunday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. - photo by Terry Renna

Joey Logano continues his climb up the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ladder. His victory in the Daytona 500 on Sunday was the latest proof.

The 24-year-old Logano and Team Penske have proved to be the perfect match.

Fresh off of Brad Keselowski’s Sprint Cup title in 2012, the first-time champion went to bat to bring Logano in as his Penske teammate for 2013. Logano had lost his ride in the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replaced by 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, and embraced the new opportunity.

At the time, it was a bold move. Now it looks like Keselowski was right on the money about Logano’s abilities.

It’s amazing what a change of scenery and some confidence can do for a driver. Logano’s statistics since joining Penske are staggering for anyone, much less a driver who won two races over the previous four seasons.

In his pre-Penske days, Logano scored two wins and 16 top-five finishes in 147 starts and never finished higher than 17th in the Sprint Cup points standings.

In a mere 73 starts with Penske, Logano has amassed seven victories and 28 top-fives. In his two full Penske seasons, Logano has finished eighth and fourth in the standings, 15 points behind champion Kevin Harvick in 2014.

His ninth career Sprint Cup win, his first at the Daytona 500, could end up being the most memorable. It’s the sport’s showcase race, a crown jewel that has eluded the likes of Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin.

Even though it’s the “Super Bowl” of NASCAR, it doesn’t guarantee a championship since there are 35 races remaining, including 25 before the playoff Chase. It just cements Logano as a serious contender again, a year after he was one of four drivers who contended for the title in the final race after scoring five victories in 2014. He’s now likely a lock to make the 2015 Chase.

If Logano could find a way to use this win as a springboard to a title, he would join elite company. The only Daytona 500 winners to win a championship in the same season since 1991 are Jimmie Johnson in 2006 and 2013 and Jeff Gordon in 1997. Johnson is a six-time champion and Gordon a four-time title winner.

Logano’s better bet, statistically, for showing he’s on a track for a championship-caliber year would be winning this summer’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In eight of the 21 years the Brickyard 400 has been run, the winner at Indy has gone on to be the series champion.

It’s all early for such discussion, and Logano would probably be one of the first to affirm that fact. But it speaks to the career transformation unfolding before our eyes.

Less than three years ago, Logano lost his ride at JGR. Now he’s a bona fide contender to win every week and chase a championship. Between him and Keselowski, Team Penske could once again be the class of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Sunday was just a start to 2015, but it’s the kind that justifies big dreams for Logano and Penske.

Clark Leonard: cleonard@gainesvilletimes.com; 770-718-3418; twitter.com/SportTimesClark

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