Joey Logano, defending Daytona 500 champ, still has much to prove

Kenseth on Daytona 500: Everybody wants to win it (1:18)

Matt Kenseth talks about qualifying on the outside of the front row for the Daytona 500 and how important it is to win the race. (1:18)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Joey Logano helped turn the dreams of a Make-A-Wish kid into reality when he invited him to the Daytona 500 six years ago.

Today, Gavin Grubbs, now 14, and Logano remain friends. Grubbs served as a groomsman at Logano's wedding in December 2014.

Yeah, that Joey Logano -- the one who wore the black hat over the final two months of the 2015 NASCAR season -- became friends with a child who was dealt what some would say is a rotten hand: living life in a wheelchair as he battles muscular dystrophy. That Joey Logano, who wrecked Matt Kenseth to win a race and wouldn't hesitate to do it again.

How does this guy, whose friendship with a Make-A-Wish kid is strong enough that the teenager joined his wedding party, also become NASCAR's biggest villain? How does he get defined as the guy who made the mild-mannered Kenseth so mad that he went out and dumped Logano from the Chase with a crash that brought the crowd at Martinsville to its feet?

"You can define me however you want to define me," Logano said. "I am going to define myself the way I want to."

Define him how you wish. He's the defending Daytona 500 champion who saw Grubbs not just as a kid and a one-day relationship but as a fan and a likely lifelong friend.

"I don't do things to get a reaction from people," Logano said. "There are a lot of other things you do in life [besides racing]. It's not what you do -- it's why you do it. Gavin and I are friends. Whether he's handicapped in any way or not, it doesn't make a difference to me. I get along with the kid."

That fans stood and cheered when Kenseth wrecked Logano at Martinsville still irks the 25-year-old Penske driver. He doesn't think fans should cheer for anyone getting wrecked, and it disappoints him that sometimes the passion of fans can turn into callousness.

But he also saw more Logano shirts the following week, and people stood up for him. He already understood the passion of the sport; now he saw it in action more than ever before.

"Look at what we get to do for a living," Logano said. "We get to drive race cars for a living. That is, like, the coolest job of all time -- at least, it is for me. And I look at other families that aren't as fortunate ... and you ask God, 'Why in the heck am I the one that gets to live this way out?'

"Once you understand that and realize that you're here to help other people, that's what our calling is for. Racing is a tool for me to reach out and touch people, and [that] makes you appreciate life a lot more that way."

Logano won more races (11) than any other driver the past two years. He became the first driver to sweep a round in NASCAR's new Chase elimination system, with wins at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega the past fall. He enters the Daytona 500 this weekend as the defending champion.

Despite those accomplishments, Logano is likely to hear a round of boos along with the cheers when he is introduced to the crowd Sunday.

"Nobody wants to be thought of as a villain," Logano's Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, said. "We all want to be thought of as a hero. I think Joey is smart enough and been around long enough to know you have to be the villain in this sport before you can be the hero. Every driver that has had any measure of success in this sport, it has been that way."

That has been a common refrain around the Penske camp. Logano is the first driver since Jeff Gordon to have his car pelted with beer cans at Talladega. Logano thinks about that and can't help but smile -- at least a little bit.

"Jeff Gordon is one of the best there has ever been in our sport and has done so much for our sport -- not just on the racetrack but off the racetrack -- and the same things happen to him," Logano said. "This is one thing I have in common with Jeff Gordon. Holy cow, I have one thing I have in common. That is special."

Gordon, the recently retired four-time Sprint Cup champion, indicated that his boos came for different reasons, and although a source of pride, they will make a driver question his judgment.

"He's on the radar screen, that's for sure," Gordon said. "People are talking about him. ... I took a lot of pride in being booed because I was either beating Dale Earnhardt Sr. or beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. I like those options. They helped me grow.

"At the same time, you're always wondering, 'Why? Why would somebody boo you?' You don't want anybody to boo you. You want to be liked by everybody."

Darrell Waltrip, another driver booed early in his career, said drivers will put on strong façades but still feel the sting.

"It's something you dread," Waltrip said. "You want everybody to be excited about any race you win. ... It hurts, and most drivers kind of cover it up as if it's no big deal [saying], 'Oh, it's an honor.' It's not.

"I'll tell you the honest truth: It's not an honor. You hate it, and you can't wait for it to go away. Something will happen in your career, and it will go away. It will turn. Some other young gun will come along, and he will take the heat, and you will become the hero. And you just have to ride it out."

Is Logano naïve? Is he still that 18-year-old kid who was thrown into Sprint Cup racing at too early of an age, who has matured on the racetrack but still lacks the maturity off it?

No. The 25-year-old Logano has learned more from his Penske brethren. You're a race car driver first -- you're not around to make people happy. Go out there and earn wins. You'll have plenty of time to make friends after you hang up the steering wheel.

So far, some of the unapologetic tone has rankled his peers more than anything.

"When it's something where an incident happens and they're maybe judging you off of the way you reacted, how you handled it, how you didn't handle it, I think that's a little bit tougher," Gordon said of boos. "This is a great test for Joey. He's a great competitor, and he's a heckuva star in our sport, but he definitely has a big test ahead of him of how he handles it moving forward."

Logano said he takes pride in how his team has handled the situation. He knows what he wants to work on, from a personal standpoint, and he won't let some fan who has guzzled beer all day determine whether he has become a better person.

"Whether someone in the grandstands wants to boo you or flip you off, it doesn't really make a difference at the end of the day," Logano said. "It's how you handle the situations and present yourself."

If he faced them again, Logano would handle the situations of the past year in pretty much the same way. Whether locked into a Chase round or not, he wants to win. So don't be surprised to see Logano knock someone out of the way if they try to block his line late in a race.

"There's a trophy there," Logano said. "I want to win it. ... That's what I feel like. Each and every fan, love me or hate me, pays to go to the race to see a race. They don't want to see someone hanging out ... chill out and do nothing. I don't want to do that, personally, and I don't think any fan is going to want to pay to watch that."

That's a true racer, someone who loves racing for the trophy. The start of 2015 -- winning the Daytona 500 trophy -- and the end serve as motivation for Logano.

"I still walk by that Daytona 500 trophy every morning, and I look at it and say, 'That is awesome. That is so cool,'" Logano said. "But that was last year, and there is another trophy to get. I don't want to say that trophy doesn't matter anymore because it will always mean something to have Daytona 500 champion next to your name.

"But the goal is to get another one."