Joey Logano arrived in Florida last weekend, but it wasn’t to prepare for the 63rd running of the Daytona 500.
The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford’s focus was looking months ahead—to the inaugural Cup race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway. Logano had never raced on dirt and never really had any desire to do so.
After receiving a dispensation from Roger Penske, Logano arranged to run a modified at Volusia Speedway. He made his dirt debut last Saturday against a field of more than 90 drivers from across the United States.
“It probably wouldn’t have been something that I was going to do,” Logano said. “It was a lot of fun. I’m glad I did it either way, but trying to convince the boss man to go play around in something, this one helped a little bit to go play in this dirt car a little bit. I feel like I’m a better race car driver now than I was a couple days ago, before I went to Volusia as far as being a dirt racer.
“It’s funny, you go out there and I was clueless. I was a dart without feathers, mainly because the rear end of those cars move so much, and they say keep it up on the bars. You need to keep that left-rear driven up so forward and you do that by keeping your foot on the gas. That’s easy when you’re by yourself, but then where there were 20 cars around me, I was all over the place. I was just trying to figure it out.”
Among the diehard dirt fans, Logano quickly discovered his NASCAR pedigree didn’t matter. They didn’t care that the 30-year-old former Cup champion had 26 victories on stock car racing's top tour—including a Harley J. Earl trophy for winning the 2015 Daytona 500 at the Birthplace of Speed, about a 30-minute drive to the southeast. He was just another guy in a driving suit making laps.
“I don’t think I realized sometimes how different the dirt fans are compared to a NASCAR fan,” Logano said. “I kind of thought they were two of the same. That’s what I thought, but I will say it’s a different demographic than what we have, and there are diehard dirt fans and they love it.
“It’s funny, when I went out for kind of like the pre-race thing, I went out on the stage and there was zero reaction. I couldn’t believe it. Zero reaction.”
Once Logano figured the modified out, he was able to come from 19th in the feature to finish third. Suddenly, the temperature in the room changed. Logano had earned the respect from the grassroots fans.
“After the race, we finished third, and they’re cheering and laughing and joking,” Logano said. “I’m talking and there was a reaction then, so there’s definitely something that’s not connecting as good as we need to.”
Many of Logano’s peers came up through the dirt ranks and understand the connection between the drivers and the loyal grassroots fans. Prior to Logano’s arrival in Cup, drivers Ken Schrader, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne had already crossed over from open-wheel to stock cars and ended up calling NASCAR home. Current stars Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Tyler Reddick started on dirt—and the numbers keep increasing.
Among the drivers that joined Logano to play in the Volusia dirt were Schrader, Matt Crafton, Justin Haley, Kenny Wallace and Justin Allgaier—who won the feature and the coveted “Big Gator” trophy on Monday night.
During the offseason, several drivers tested their skills in the dirt—many for the first time in midgets—including current Cup champion Chase Elliott and former truck champion Brett Moffitt. The 20-somethings were two of the oldest rookies at last month’s Chili Bowl Nationals.
Elliott enjoyed the experience so much he sought out an opportunity to race Chad Boat’s midget last weekend at Bubba Raceway Park for the USAC season opener. On Monday, he won his first heat race.
“I feel like I made a lot of gains over there this weekend,” Elliott said. “It may not show, but I feel like I’ve gotten better in certain aspects. The biggest one for me is the race craft. I feel like there are times where I can make some decent lap time in comparison to some of the guys who are good.
“I’ve had fun with it. I’m not sure what will translate, but I do think there are things about these different types of racing that I’ve done throughout the winter that will help.”
There was a time when Elliott’s team owner, Rick Hendrick, wouldn’t allow his drivers to race outside of NASCAR with the exception of the Rolex 24 or a one-off race on occasion. But with Gordon taking on a greater role at Hendrick Motorsports, the sentiment appears to be shifting.
“The more we can get those superstars out and get visibility the better off NASCAR is going to be,” Hendrick said. “But that does show you the strength of our sport and what it can do when they show up and what the fan reaction is and interest is.”
Logano was a novice before his weekend at the Barberville, Fla., dirt track. He chuckled as he admitted not knowing there were different types of modifieds before he arrived. Inevitably, Logano learned a lot more about dirt than simply how to drive a different discipline. He learned how accommodating the dirt family can be.
“All the drivers there were very welcoming and had plenty of advice to give me, which was great. All of their advice was different, though, which was very confusing because there are apparently 10 different ways to drive a dirt car and still go fast. It was fun listening to everybody and getting to figure it out as I went along, and I’m looking forward to doing it some more because I had a good time doing it.
“It was cool. We showed up with a little trailer and rolled the car out and just kind of winged it. Apparently, that’s a big race for these guys, so it was a fun way to try and get out there and see where you stack up against the big dogs.
“I think the more we race on those things and show that we’re all race car drivers--we all love driving cars it’s just different types--we’ll help kind of cross that bridge. I think the more we can cross over, NASCAR drivers, to race on dirt or vice versa even, I think it kind of blends those two together because it should be one.”