Ron Lemasters Jr., editor of the Official NASCAR Members Club magazine and longtime NASCAR journalist, takes a look past the numbers at the top 10 drivers in the recently completed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
10 – Joey Logano
In his second season aboard the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano found something at the end of the season that propelled him toward the top of this list. In the final six races of the season, he finished seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth, third…and 39th at Homestead-Miami Speedway, thanks to a run-in with Juan Pablo Montoya that left his car in pieces. though he did not win a race in 2010, he doubled his rookie season totals in both top-five and top-10 finishes, a sure sign that the youngster they called “Sliced Bread” was getting a handle on the rigors of the Sprint Cup game.
Logano has been fast much of his time in the car, but there's been a nagging consistency problem, as is common with younger drivers. At the end of the season, however, he was knocking down top-10s and top-fives on a regular basis. In the final seven races, Logano went from 2oth to 16th in the points, and had he logged another top-10 at Homestead, would have made the top 15 in the season-ending points. that was the team's goal, by the way. In 2011, that goal will be 12th or better, and if the consistency stays put, he'll make it.
9 – Kurt Busch
As one of just three drivers in a Dodge Charger this season, the 2004 series champion carried the load for Roger Penske and kept the Chase honest as the lone Mopar among a herd of Chevrolets, Fords and Toyotas. Early in the season, at Atlanta and at Charlotte, he looked as if he were putting together an even better season than just making the Chase.
Busch won at Atlanta, and followed it with a double at Charlotte by winning the Sprint All-Star Race on one weekend and the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day. Once the calendar flipped to the summer and into fall, however, he and crew chief Steve Addington were troubled by mechanical issues and seemed to lose the handle on the Blue Deuce. Not having additional teammates outside rookie Brad Keselowsi and the ever-struggling Sam Hornish Jr. did not help.
Still, he had spurts of competitiveness, finishing second at Watkins Glen and in the top five a few more times, but his Chase chances were stymied by a moribund stretch from Kansas to Texas where he finished 30th twice, 24th and 21st.
Busch switches numbers and sponsors for '11, adding Shell Pennzoil to his No. 22 Dodge while Keselowski takes over the Miller Lite No. 2. He and Addington, if they overcome the late-season wiggles, should be good to roll into '11 with some momentum.
8 – Carl Edwards
Winning the last two races of the season, at Phoenix and Homestead, will do wonders for anyone's outlook. Edwards broke a 70-race winless streak with the former and sent a message with the latter. Of course, Edwards had been in the same situation at the end of the 2008 season, expected to challenge then three-time champ Jimmie Johnson for the 2009 title. He failed to do so, going winless in '09 and for 34 races of this season.
Edwards, like many of the Ford drivers, seemed to have lost his way early in the year with a new engine, the FR9, and lack of testing time, which spawned some procedural problems in the teams (i.e. not having the cars engineered and set up correctly when they rolled off the truck on Friday). But as the season turned to August, it started to turn around for Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne.
He won the pole at Watkins Glen, which is unusual for the oval-track-bred Missourian, and again in the regular-season finale at Richmond. He won the pole at Phoenix, the season's penultimate event, on the way to a weekend sweep.
Edwards' Phoenix and Homestead victories were Ford's third and fourth of the season, showing that the Blue Oval boys might have figured out the new bits for 2011. Edwards is one of those who will line up to challenge for the Chase and the title.
7 – Jeff Gordon
The driver known as “Wonder Boy” once upon a time entered 2010 with a chip on his shoulder, particularly concerning his teammate and protégé, Johnson. The two did not play well together early in the season, racing each other hard and exchanging shots both on the track and off it. Part of it was hubris, because Johnson had tied Gordon with four titles. the other was competitive, because Gordon had not won since April 2009 at Texas and Johnson was heading for five straight.
In the season's first six races, Gordon had a chance to win four of them but fell short. Most notable was at Martinsville in the spring. Gordon inherited the lead with less than 10 laps remaining when leader Denny Hamlin pitted for fresh tires, an unheard of move and one that promised certain doom. But Hamlin somehow got back to sixth before a final restart and shoved his way past while Gordon was dealing with Matt Kenseth.
Not really Gordon's fault, but it set the tone for the season. He was always a bridesmaid thereafter, failing to win a single race. He gets a new crew chief in Alan Gustafson for 2011, as long-time boxman Steve Letarte goes to beleaguered Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit. The new pairing will have to pay dividends early on, or it will likely be another long season for Gordon.
6 – Tony Stewart
Fresh off a stellar 2009 campaign, his first as a team owner, Stewart seemed snake-bit early in the year and lost in the middle sections before finding his stride when the heat of summer came calling. That's typically been his style, earning his 2005 title with an epic five-wins-in-seven-races stint in July and August.
That kind of run never materialized in '10, but he did win at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend and at Auto Club Speedway in the Chase. His Chase could have started with a bang, but he ran out of gas while leading – within sight of the white flag – in the opener at New Hampshire. He finished 24th and was, effectively, out of Chase contention from there.
He made noise, surely, but was never a viable threat for the title after that gamble failed to pay dividends.