David Ragan is right there, a 22-year-old hanging in with the big boys.
Some are surprised that he is already fighting for a spot in the Chase for the championship, but Ragan is a second-generation NASCAR driver who finished as runner-up for Rookie of the Year in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series and won rookie honors in Nationwide last year.
While enjoying the last free weekend of the Cup season, and with only seven races remaining until the 10-race Chase begins, Ragan is just 98 points behind Denny Hamlin, holding down the 12th and final spot eligible for the stock car postseason.
With three top-fives and six top-10s in the first 19 races, Ragan, who replaced longtime Roush star Mark Martin in the No. 6 Ford, has already surpassed his totals of two top-fives and three top-10s of last year, when he wound up 23rd in the points.
Moreover, his confidence in himself and his Roush Fenway Racing team is growing each week.
“Each time we go back to these tracks, it helps me gain more confidence,” Ragan said. “I feel like I'm driving smarter this year and making better decisions.”
The strategy his team has developed is simple: Try to race smart and earn solid finishes.
“We are big-picture racing and know how valuable points are,” said Ragan, the son of former NASCAR journeyman Ken Ragan.
Roush, who picked David Ragan out at one of his “Gong Show” tryouts, was sold pretty quickly on the youngster from Unadilla, Ga.
“David has met or exceeded every lofty expectation I had set for him,” Roush said. “He has offset his lack of experience by assimilating and applying the experiences and advice related to him by his seniors. It's been great fun to watch.”
Robbie Reiser, a longtime crew chief and now the Roush Fenway team's general manager, echoed his boss.
“When you take a young driver like David Ragan and put him into a Cup ride with limited experience, it's a lot of work,” said Reiser, who previously directed Matt Kenneth's team. “David has really stepped up and improved over last year. … I think the whole (No.) 6 team deserves a lot of credit because they were overlooked in the beginning, but now they are a legitimate top-12 Chase contender.”
SLICED BREAD: Two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy Lajoie saw Joey Logano's potential right away.
“I came walking into his shop one day,” Logano said,” and he said ‘Hey, Sliced Bread.' I asked him what that meant, and he said, 'You're the best thing since sliced bread.'
“I said back to him, ‘Whatever.' From there, we kind of joked about it forever and even made up a cartoon logo, and it stuck.”
And for good reason. Heading into the Nationwide race Saturday at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., the 18-year-old Logano has a win, two top-fives and three-top 10s in four starts for Joe Gibbs Racing.
The young star wasn't eligible to race in any of NASCAR's top three series until he turned 18 in May. He then ran four straight races before having to sit on the sidelines the past three weeks while teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin took turns in the No. 20 Nationwide Toyota that Logano will drive the rest of the season.
“It's been hard over the last few weeks since I'm eligible to run, but I just couldn't because the schedule was set up at the beginning of the season,” Logano said. “It definitely wasn't easy, but I know I will be racing my whole career.
“I even tried to look at it as a bit of a vacation since I'm hoping I will be able to race every week for a long time.”
Now that two-time Cup champion Stewart has announced he will leave JGR at the end of the season to become an owner-driver, there is considerable speculation that Logano will replace him in the No. 20 Cup car. But Logano, who shows unusual maturity, wants to take things one step at a time.
“For now, I'm in Nationwide and I want to learn everything I can,” he said. “When Joe Gibbs Racing says I'm ready, that's when I'm going to go.”
OWNERSHIP GAME: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has dipped his toe into team ownership with JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, so has a bit of understanding of what friend and competitor Tony Stewart is getting himself into by buying into the Haas CNC team that will be known next season as Stewart Haas Racing.
“He is taking such a risk, but that is his style, man,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, a lot of people may look at that team and go, `Well, the caliber isn't correct. It doesn't match up. Why would he do thing?' But he will make it the way he wants it, you know.
“He does has done that with everything. That racetrack he owns (Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio) is superb. The race teams he owns, the sprints and whatnot, are first-class. Everything he does, he gets the right people and he gets them motivated and he is a good guy. He is fun to be with, fun to work for.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Cup drivers better take advantage of the week off because they're not going to get another one until Thanksgiving.
Beginning with next week's race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Cup series will race on 17 consecutive weekends, ending Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That's almost half the 36-race season.