5 – Kyle Busch
NASCAR's resident Wild Child did a lot of growing up in 2010, but still continued to win races hand over fist. He was a three-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series, set a series record for the Nationwide Series with 13 victories and won five Camping World Truck Series events. He also locked down owner titles in the latter two series and was a constant threat in the Chase until a blown engine at Auto Club Speedway sent him reeling.
Busch is one of those drivers who makes his own momentum, and that was never more evident than at Bristol in August. The 25-year-old swept all three national-series events that weekend, an unprecedented accomplishment in itself, and, in the process, earned more of the bad-boy boos from the crowd for dumping Brad Keselowski in the final laps of the Nationwide Series race on Friday night.
Keselowski, no stranger to using the chrome horn himself, roughed Busch up on a late restart to take the lead, then got dumped in Turn 3 as the pair raced toward the white flag. Busch was unapologetic about returning the favor, prompting Keselowski to opine during the Cup driver introductions on Saturday that young Mr. Busch resembled a three-letter word for a certain beast of burden.
The crowd roared, but Busch still went about handling the 500 laps and earning his third – and last – victory of the season.
4 – Kevin Harvick
the regular-season points champion (if NASCAR kept track of such things) used consistency to maintain his advantage until the points changed after Richmond, then steadily stalked Johnson and Hamlin until the final race of the season at Homestead. He fell short of the title, but served notice that he was a force to be reckoned with for 2011.
Harvick had his share of run-ins, most notably with Logano at Pocono and Kyle Busch at Homestead. In each case, Harvick grew tired of the constant battle and dumped both drivers. In Logano's case, he triggered what could have been an ugly brawl had Logano been able to reach him through his massed crewmen by sending the youngster with a lap remaining in Turn 3. It also spawned one of the best lines of the season, from Logano, who reasoned that Harvick didn't play nice because his wife, DeLana, “wears the firesuit in his family.”
At Homestead, Harvick punted Busch and sent the latter to the inside wall, where impact knocked the oil line off the engine and it burst into flame before he could get it back to the pits. That promises to be a colorful battle, beginning in February at Daytona.
Harvick won three times, though none were in the Chase, and spent the entire season in the top five in points. He posted 26 top-10 finishes, 16 in the top five, and that was the key to his success. He'll have Budweiser aboard next year, and a ton of momentum to boot.
3 – Jamie McMurray
McMurray, in his first season back with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, didn't make the Chase, but there wasn't a better big-race driver in the sport in 2010. He won the season-opening Daytona 500, the midseason Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte for his three victories.
The first two gave team owner Chip Ganassi an unprecedented triple: McMurray's victories at Daytona and Indy, combined with Dario Franchitti's triumph in the Indianapolis 500, put Ganassi into rarefied air indeed. Had he posted a few more top-10 finishes, he'd have made the Chase and been a factor in it.
McMurray's big-race heroics, at least at Indy, came at the expense of teammate Montoya, who crashed out of Indy after dominating the race for the second season in a row. Had he held on, Montoya would have become the first man to win both the 500 and the 400 at the legendary speed plant.
2 – Denny Hamlin
Based on his strong performance at the end of the 2009 Chase, Hamlin was tagged as the favorite to end Johnson's streak of titles at four. He very nearly did so, losing the title on the final weekend by 39 points. It was at Phoenix, however, where he really lost the momentum.
After leading 190 laps, Hamlin had to pit for fuel with less than 20 laps remaining. Had he been able to make it to the end, as Johnson ended up doing, he would have gone to Homestead with 68-73 points in hand over Johnson, and the title most likely would have gone to him instead of Johnson.
As it was, Hamlin was headed to the front after a poor qualifying effort when he bounced off Greg Biffle's car and spun to the infield, damaging the splitter on the right front and complicating his effort. He finished 14th, Johnson was second; that was that.
That Hamlin was able to send the Chase to the final race with a shot at the title was improbable to begin with. He tore a ligament in his left knee before the season started while playing pick-up basketball. He won at Texas and again at Martinsville before deciding to have surgery on the troublesome joint. After a bitter 30th-place finish at Phoenix, Hamlin reeled off six more victories—including sweep clinchers at Texas and Martinsville – and nearly sealed the deal.
1– Jimmie Johnson
Johnson was the top driver in the series in 2010, and not just because he won an unprecedented fifth straight series crown. He was not the invincible Jimmie Johnson of the past four years, for starters, trailing either Harvick or Gordon for much of the first 26 races. Despite the fact that he won six races (second only to Hamlin), he wasn't the world-beater he'd been the previous four seasons.
Instead, he and crew chief Chad Knaus were able, over the final 10 races, to put enough solid finishes together to stay in the hunt despite Hamlin's triumph at Texas in the eighth round of the Chase. After a 25th-place run at New Hampshire to open the Chase, Johnson finished first, second, third, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, fifth and second to close it out.
At Texas, while Hamlin was racing to victory, Johnson worked through the loss of his regular crew in favor of teammate Gordon's over-the-wall boys in the second half and salvaged a ninth-place finish. Gordon's crew pitted Johnson over the final two races and helped him earn the series championship for the fifth time in five seasons.
To date, Johnson has never finished lower than fifth in the season points. that's a streak that seems to have no end in sight, unless Hamlin, Harvick or someone else can make it stick in the final 10 races.