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.
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.