The Best and Worst of 2010
by Tom Bowles
So Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight championship. What? You don’t want to hear about it?
Fine. Enough about him. But you can’t ignore the record, love or hate, so in honor of it we’ll do a season review encapsulated by the number 5. If this were Sesame Street, I’d add two letters to that so we’ll pull up our two sponsors: C and E. What do they stand for?
Chase Eliminated. If only that could be the case for 2011 … but I digress. Let’s look at a Five Pack of Five Season Snapshots of 2010:
Five Best Races
5. Daytona 500 Sure, the pothole threw a kink in everyone’s Valentine’s Day plans, but those who stuck around saw a fascinating set of green-white-checker finishes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly pull off the biggest comeback of his 10-year career and an upset winner in Victory Lane. Leading the last two laps, Jamie McMurray was No. 1 on the car and in our hearts with a fabulous start that would set the stage for a career year.
4. Watkins Glen Phenomenal racing between two wily road course aces caring about only one thing: the victory. Chase be damned, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose went at it to the point it looked like one or both would end up wrecked, a duel that spawned six of the 10 lead changes in the race – quite a bit for a 90-lap road course. During a nightmare year for both participants, it was nice for them to have one shining moment in the sun; and for Montoya, it was his first trip to Victory Lane since Infineon in 2007.
3. Texas A fight between two of the sport’s veteran leaders. A pit crew swap in the middle of the race between two four-time series champs. A driver in Greg Biffle who led 224 circuits, only to lose track position and the race in the closing laps. And a frantic drive from 30th to first, completed by a man (Denny Hamlin) who took the points lead and put the pressure on a certain No. 48 team that had dominated the Sprint Cup circuit for four years. Easily the best race in the Lone Star State since this track opened up in 1997.
2. Martinsville (Fall) One of the most wide open short track races in recent memory, with Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – yes, that guy – all spending extended time at the front. When Junior took to the point for 90 circuits, the stands turned into a sea of AMP Energy green with so much shouting and stomping you’d think there was a minor earthquake. In the end, though, it was Hamlin fighting back from a bad set of tires that put him outside the top 10 within the first 50 laps of the race. His battle with Harvick was classic, but the real threat was Mark Martin, coming up just short with a car that looked like someone cut through the chassis with a buzzsaw. Add in a little Gordon/Kurt Busch brouhaha, and voila! You have the perfect recipe for 500 laps of success.
1. Martinsville (Spring) The showstopper of the year whose only fault was not enough fans got to see it: the race was held on Monday after a rain delay. The winner, Hamlin, came from ninth to first in the final 10 laps, surviving a green-white-checker where Gordon and Matt Kenseth nearly took each other out going for the victory. And did I mention that Hamlin’s checkers came two days before going under the knife for ACL surgery? This victory could have been the confidence builder that left Hamlin within a whisker of unseating Johnson in the Chase.
Honorable Mention: Both Talladega races. 175 combined lead changes, two nail-biting finishes, plenty of on-track passing. But when Gordon and Johnson can sandbag all race, then magically push to the front in three laps at will you know this whole restrictor plate thing is broken. Not a big fan of a track that specializes in needing a giant catchfence and crossed fingers to hope no one gets killed.
Five Best Drivers
5. Greg Biffle Edwards may have had sizzle, but Biffle had more steak in the Ford camp: 19 top-10 finishes and two victories – his first wins in over two years. Until the rest of the team got its act together, the No. 16 was the only one worth a damn running in the Blue Oval crowd through midsummer.
4. Kevin Harvick Three victories – his first in three years – a third-place finish in the final point standings, and a reported three-year deal with Budweiser were the highlights for this year’s regular season points champ. What a turnaround for a driver who was looking to bail Richard Childress Racing until Pennzoil stuck the knife in his back and left him for Penske in early April. Sometimes, forced remarriages do wind up turning out.
3. Denny Hamlin A season-high eight victories, seven of which came after ACL surgery showcased a year in which this 30-year-old officially grew up. Add in a Chase where Johnson was pushed to the brink, at least laying out a blueprint of how to beat the No. 48 and one word comes to mind for what he’s earned this season: Respect.
2. Jamie McMurray He didn’t make the Chase, but who cares? 20 years from now, you won’t know Kurt Busch wound up 11th with a “postseason bid.” But a man who won both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year, just months after getting released and nearly winding up unemployed? That’s the type of comeback season movie producers drool over.
1. Jimmie Johnson Five straight titles. Regardless of system, you can’t argue with that.
Five Biggest Storylines
5. Schedule Swaps Sure, there were plenty of critics who claimed NASCAR didn’t go far enough. But isn’t any type of change a step in the right direction for a set of 36 races that have been set in stone for virtually five years? Among the biggest swaps, Atlanta and Fontana (intermediates) getting cut down to size in favor of Kentucky’s inaugural race and a second at Kansas.
4. Driver Development Gone Bye-Bye Sure, Danica scored a top 20 … in the season’s last race. Her season was part of a miserable one for rookies across the board, with Austin Dillon’s two-win Truck Series season the lone highlight for driver development that’s slowed to a halt. When Kevin Conway wins the Cup rookie race because of a sexual enhancement pill, well … you know we’ve got a real problem here.
3. Bowyer’s Penalty It was a 150-point infraction … for what? The fact this body tolerance issue is still unclear to the majority of fans, media and mechanics in the garage is proof positive NASCAR needs to do a better job communicating. And that’s assuming all the issues they found were on the up and up. The fact we’re even questioning it shows how far this sport has to go in the credibility department.
2. Declining Ratings and Attendance The racing was better, but better doesn’t cut it after years’ worth of bad decisions. Whether it’s Brian France, Johnson, financial problems, ugly cars or uglier sandbagging early in races, the sport needs to find the answer, and fast. Twenty-plus percent decreases during seven of the 10 Chase races highlight a problem that’s accelerating at an all-too-rapid pace.
1. Have At It, Boys When Burton and Gordon go at it, you know this policy worked like a charm. At times, the aggression got borderline scary – see: Edwards vs. Keselowski, Atlanta – but provided the racing spark NASCAR needed going forward.
Five Winless Surprises
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. OK, so maybe you saw this one coming, but wouldn’t you think he’d cash in on at least a plate race somewhere? Today’s fact that may surprise you is the guy whose old man used to “see the air” at Daytona and Talladega hasn’t won a points race at either venue in six years.
4. Jeff Burton Has more teammates ahead of him in this year’s Chase (two) and fights with Jeff Gordon (one) than victories the last two years (zero). Could a six be in his future after next season? As in, a bid for a six-year term in the U.S. Senate?
3. Matt Kenseth Sitting on a 70-race winless streak headed into next year’s Daytona 500. Carl Edwards had a 70-race drought, too, and then jumped in a lake by sweeping the last two races of this season. If Robbie Reiser comes on top of the pit box, can this 2003 Cup Series champ follow suit? Quirky coincidence: his last two victories came at the first two races of the season in 2009.
2. Mark Martin From five victories and a runner-up points finish to just seven top-5 finishes and missing the Chase. Thirteenth in points was supposed to save face; instead, it just made him unlucky, as Hendrick sends the crew chief castoff – Lance McGrew –his way for 2011. So Much for Martin’s “Best Salute To You Fan Tour Retirement Ever! Year Six.”
1. Jeff Gordon 919 laps led without a victory this season is the most for any winless driver since Harry Gant in 1981. Gordon shot himself in the foot so many times (Las Vegas and Darlington come to mind) he pretty much ran out of toes. New crew chief Alan Gustafson should make an immediate impact, and make the 24 team a very interesting one to watch in 2011.
Five Drivers Who Could Challenge Johnson in 2011
5. Jeff Gordon If Gustafson knows what he’s doing – and history seems to say he does – it could be the pairing that finally puts the Nos. 24 and 48 on equal footing. But can the engineering genius learn the key to teaching his driver how to close out races again?
4. Clint Bowyer Penalty, shmenalty. Two victories in this year’s Chase doubled the win total for his career, showing RCR’s consistent young driver – two top-5 point finishes in five years – can take it to the next level when pushed. With Harvick set to take a step backwards in 2011, don’t be surprised if the No. 33 Chevy becomes RCR’s No. 1 threat for a title.
3. Tony Stewart His Chase expired the second he ran out of gas at Loudon. That may have sapped his team’s confidence, but don’t forget the No. 14 Chevy was hotter than anyone heading into the playoffs with 11 top-10 finishes in 14 weeks. Expect a season filled with more victories, but if he enters the Chase in serious contention, the age-old question will remain: Will a team in Hendrick – who provides Stewart with chassis and engines – shoot its own teams (Johnson, Gordon, et al) in the foot while giving someone else the equipment needed to win a title?
2. Kyle Busch The man who bullies the competition in the Nationwide and Truck Series just doesn’t seem to be mature nor consistent enough to do it in Cup. If only he’d lose some distractions and settle down a bit, this team would be championship caliber.
1. Carl Edwards Ford was on fire at the end of last season, and Edwards proved it with two backflips to cap off an otherwise disappointing campaign. A stronger, more mature driver after recent struggles, Edwards turns 31 in August, and will be entering the prime of his career.