Today we will take a look at my predictions for the middle tier of drivers for 2010:
9. #18 Kyle Busch
10. #17 Matt Kenseth
11. #42 Juan Pablo Montoya
12. #33 Clint Bowyer
13. #47 Marcos Ambrose
14. # 2 Kurt Busch
15. #43 A.J. Allmendinger
16. #00 David Reutimann
17. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
18. #83 Brian Vickers
19. #56 Martin Truex Jr. [was #55]
20. #20 Joey Logano
21. #39 Ryan Newman
22. #29 Kevin Harvick
23. # 9 Kasey Kahne
24. # 1 Jamie McMurray
25. # 6 David Ragan
9. #18 Kyle Busch - I think missing the chase last year was one of the best things that could have happened to Kyle. Certainly he still has farther to go, but I think he learned a lot about himself from that experience. I expect to see an improved Kyle on the track this year, though he'll still probably get into mishaps from time to time.
10. #17 Matt Kenseth - Kenseth should improve along with the rest of the Roush stable. He had several strong runs late in 2009 and I expect to see more runs like that this year. I think he'd still do better if Robbie Reiser were to come back, but he and Drew Blickensderfer (that's a really fun name to say!) should be developing better chemistry by now.
11. #42 Juan Pablo Montoya - This is one of the harder teams to predict for next year. Will he continue his climb or will he sink back down? EGR is still not one of the top organizations, but that didn't seem to affect him last year. He should also have a better teammate situation this year, since Truex was a "lame duck" for much of 2009.
12. #33 Clint Bowyer - Bowyer is one of if not the most underrated drivers in the Cup series, aside from some of those driving for low-budget teams. He is like a new version of Matt Kenseth; he rarely does anything spectacular but he's usually near the front at the end of the day. With RCR's overall improvements this year, I expect Bowyer to have a better season in 2010.
13. #47 Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose surprised just about everybody last year and I think he will continue to impress this season. He genuinely loves what he does and is thankful for the opportunity, and that attitude alone helps with some of his success. (The Busch brothers could learn a thing or two from him!) He'll probably win on a road course and maybe even another track and could make the chase.
14. # 2 Kurt Busch - This team surprised me last year, but I'm not convinced it can happen two years in a row. He may surprise me again, but Penske just hasn't shown that it can consistently run near the front on an ongoing basis.
15. #43 A.J. Allmendinger - Allmendinger had a much better 2009 than his final points position indicated. He had mechanical problems in several races which put him many laps down to the leaders when he had good cars. There is still a lot of uncertainty at RPM, but Allmendinger has had to deal with uncertainty in one form or another since he first entered the sport and he continues to steadily improve. If his equipment is good enough, I believe he has the talent to contend for a spot in the chase.
16. #00 David Reutimann - Reutimann had a lot of good runs last year but still struggled at some tracks as well. I think they will improve a bit in 2010, but with other teams improving as well, I expect to see similar results compared with 2009.
17. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Junior will improve this year; he has to. He has good equipment, a good crew chief, and despite what some critics say, he is a talented driver. I feel like the return of the spoiler may benefit him as well; I believe he is one of the drivers who still hasn't quite adapted to the new car. A chase appearance may still be a longshot, but I still forsee a much better #88 team in 2010.
18. #83 Brian Vickers - As good as Vickers is on the 1.5-mile tracks, once this team got into the chase, I thought they could make a serious run at the championship. I was certainly proven wrong! It's like they completely forgot how to race once the chase began. I think they will get back to their old form as we enter this season, but with so many other teams making big improvements, Vickers may end up a little lower in the final standings.
19. #56 Martin Truex Jr. - Truex starts the new year with a new team and a renewed sense of optimism. I think he has an outside shot at making the chase, but I feel like he will probably come up a little short. Still, for his first season with this team, he should improve upon 2009 and work toward a possible chase appearance in 2011.
20. #20 Joey Logano - Like a typical rookie, Logano showed signs of promise at times and struggled at other times in 2009. I think "sliced bread" had a more difficult season than most others expected, but he is a good young driver with a good head on his shoulders, and I believe he will ultimately live up to those expectations. I believe there will be a tight battle in the points from 10th-20th or so, and he could easily finish several spots higher. A chase appearance isn't out of the question, but I think we'll need to wait one more season for that.
21. #39 Ryan Newman - Newman had a lot of quiet, 8th-12th place runs last year, which was a lot better than I expected. I don't think this season will be quite as good for this team, but he could surprise me again.
22. #29 Kevin Harvick - Harvick's attitude will determine how his season goes. If he starts the year happy at RCR, he could well make the chase. But if he's determined to leave, he will probably have another lackluster season.
23. # 9 Kasey Kahne - Kahne is another driver whose situation will determine his results. He has made it clear that he is unhappy at RPM, and unless that changes, I look for him to have a rough season as well.
24. # 1 Jamie McMurray - McMurray has the potential to finish higher in the points than this, but as I said with Montoya, EGR is not a top-tier organization and its future is still uncertain. McMurray does seem to be happier returning to a Ganassi-owned team (even if it's only partially owned by him), so those feelings may help him to have more success. His best years in Cup were when he drove that #42 car for Ganassi.
25. # 6 David Ragan - Ragan should improve this year along with the rest of the Roush camp, but I'm not sure how much he will improve. He fell way below everyone's expectations last year and needs to have a much better 2010 or he may be in danger of losing this ride and the lucrative UPS sponsorship. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any signs that he will show such a significant improvement.
Check back tomorrow for my top tier, including my pick to win the 2010 championship! I encourage you to leave comments as to which predictions you agree and/or disagree with.
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