The last 3 seasons of the Sprint Cup Series have seemed like reruns. Jimmie comes in as the defending champion, 11 other guys make the Chase hoping to beat him, 11 guys fail to beat him and Jimmie wins the championship. Repeat two more times.
This year is the Cup Series? 4th chance to dethrone Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick 48 team led by Chad Knaus. Only two things have changed after 2009: Jimmie?s going to become a dad, and they?ve already broken the record for consecutive championships with 4 so is there anything left to prove?
About 30 other teams will be hoping that there isn?t anything more to prove and that they can be the ones to end the streak, whether by locking Jimmie out of the Chase entirely or beating him in what has essentially become Jimmie Time.
But there?ll be 43 cars starting every race and about 45-50 attempting every race and the goals and aspirations of the team towards the bottom of the order are far off from dreams of tasting championship victory. So here?s a rundown of the organizations and teams in 2010, major and minor:
Hendrick Motorsports ? With 9 of the last 15 Cup championships and 188 career wins to their credit, Hendrick Motorsports, owned by Rick Hendrick, is the best race team in NASCAR today and will be the favourite to win a 10th championship. HMS will field the 4 time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the #48 Lowes Chevy, 4 time champion Jeff Gordon in the#24 DuPont Chevy, 5 time runner-up Mark Martin in the #5 Go Daddy Chevy and the sport?s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevy.
Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2-3 in the standings last season, first time an owner?s ever swept the first 3 positions in the standings, and it could happen again this season in any order; all 3 are among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time. HMS could get an edge over the competition with the changes to the COT that will be happening as soon as March, including replacing the wing with a spoiler. When NASCAR broke the COT into Cup in 2007 HMS dominated the season with 18 wins in 36 races and Johnson won 10 races that season. They?re the best by far when it comes to adapting to changes so this could turn into 2007 all over again.
While Jimmie, Mark and Jeff go into 2010 among the favourites to win the title, Dale Junior needs to focus on being the sport?s most improved driver. After a solid first season with HMS in 2008 he suffered the worst season of his career in 2009: no wins, 2 top fives, 5 top tens and 25th in the standings. Lance McGrew, who replaced Tony Eury Jr. on top of the pit box mid-season, will return as the CC this season to try and get Dale Jr. back to victory lane and in the Chase. HMS has worked to consolidate the efforts of the 5 and 88 to try and get the 88 more competitive (they?re in the same shop) so expect Dale Jr. to run a lot better than last season. Whether he makes the Chase is another thing, considering how terrible last season was a couple wins and at least contending for the Chase would be good.
Joe Gibbs Racing ? Sporting possibly the best young talent in Cup today, JGR hopes to get Toyota its first Cup championship. They?ll be fielding the #11 Fedex Toyota with 2006 Cup ROTY Denny Hamlin, the #18 M&M?s Toyota with 2009 Nationwide Series champion and 2005 Cup ROTY Kyle Busch and the #20 Home Depot Toyota with 2009 Cup ROTY and youngest winner in Cup Series history Joey Logano.
Denny Hamlin had the best season of any non-Hendrick driver, winning a career high 4 wins and finishing 5th in the standings. If it weren?t for engine failures and a bad mistake while leading on a restart at California during the Chase he would?ve been neck-to-neck for the championship with Jimmie Johnson. Denny Hamlin goes into 2010 as the favourite to dethrone Johnson which could spell his doom as Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have suffered curses from being considered the favourites for the championships that Jimmie ended up winning. Denny?s got the talent but maturity and being able to handle pressure are still question marks.
Kyle Busch has been on a nose-dive on the Cup side since the start of the 2008 Chase. Kyle had a series-high 8 wins and the points lead heading into the 2008 Chase before the team imploded and finished 10th. Despite winning 4 races last season Kyle ended up missing the Chase and finished 13th in the standings which led to JGR NNS crew chief Dave Rogers replacing Steve Addington as Kyle?s Cup CC. Possibly the most talented race car driver in NASCAR today, maturity and ability to handle pressure are even bigger question marks than they are for Hamlin. Kyle won?t be running Nationwide full time but will be starting up his own Truck Series team which will be one more distraction. However he just got engaged last week to his girlfriend so maybe impending matrimony will calm him down some. Nonetheless expect Kyle to continue winning races in all 3 series and make a return to the Chase.
Joey Logano enters 2010 hoping to avoid the sophomore slump and make a bid for the Chase. After Tony Stewart left JGR at the end of 2008 to become a driver-owner it forced Joey Logano into Cup a year earlier than planned. While many were pessimistic about Joey?s chances last year he proved them wrong by getting his first career win (albeit thanks to smart fuel and rain strategy by veteran crew chief), collected 6 top ten?s and met their own pre-season goal by finishing 20th in the standings. He was also great in Nationwide last year, winning 5 times and would?ve contended for the championship had the original plan gone through. With a full season under his belt Joey should be a contender for the Chase and could get a couple wins this season as his development continues. Remember, he?s only 19!
Roush Fenway Racing ? RFR will hope that 4 teams do better than 5 after an off season in 2009 and having to finally cut down to the 4 team limit after being grandfathered in. RFR will field the #16 Ford with 2000 Truck and 2002 Nationwide champion Greg Biffle, the #17 Crown Royal Ford with 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, the #99 Aflac Ford with 2007 Nationwide champion Carl Edwards and the #6 UPS Ford with David Ragan.
RFR suffered a slip in performance across the board in 2009. RFR?s premiere trio of Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth struggled with Biffle and Edwards going winless while Kenseth missed the Chase. Biffle went winless for the first time in his Cup career while it was Edward?s 2nd winless season in 5 years. The one bright spot was that Biffle finished in the top 10 in points in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career and he was the best of the Roush bunch in 7th. All 3 will be hoping to get back to contending for wins regularly and all making the Chase but the mid-season COT change could throw a wrench into things. Jack Roush has been publicly optimistic about the things they figured out about the current iteration of the COT that would make them a lot more competitive this season but the spoiler change as early as March could put them back to square one. RFR enters 2010 as a big wild card and who knows how much better they?ll be, if at all.
RFR also includes David Ragan who went from predicted Chase driver and race winner for 2009 to 2 top tens and 27th in the standings, joining Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the most disappointing drivers of the season. With Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. running Nationwide this year it?s go time for Ragan to prove that he belongs with RFR in Cup or otherwise one of those two young guns will be replacing him for 2011. My money?s on Colin Braun being in the #6 for 2011, Colin?s shown too much while Ragan?s shown too little as of late despite his first two Nationwide wins last season.
Richard Childress Racing ? RCR put 3 cars into the Chase in 2007 and 2008 but was shutout in 2009 after big mistakes were made in the cars they built to start the season. With the mistakes fixed towards the end of the season and their performance improving immensely as a result expect at least one RCR car to make the Chase this season. They?ll be fielding the #29 Shell Chevy with two-time Nationwide champion Kevin Harvick, the #31 CAT Chevy with Jeff Burton and the #33 Chevy with 2008 Nationwide champion Clint Bowyer. The #07 team shut down in the off-season.
Clint was the best of the RCR guys last season despite driving for a brand new team. He came out of the box strong and was 2nd in the standings after 6 races but then a slump dropped them out of the Chase and despite consistent mid-season results he couldn?t get back in. Clint is one of the most dependable drivers in the series who can rack up top 10?s with ease but turn it on when he has to and it?ll give him another good shot at making the Chase this season. He?s never been much of a race winner though, 2 Cup wins in 4 seasons and just 8 Nationwide wins in 6 seasons but the short tracks are his best bet for a win.
Kevin Harvick could leave RCR after 2010 after it became a real possibility that he?d bolt as early as now to go to greener pastures like Stewart-Haas Racing. But he?s back in the #29 this year and his performance will dictate whether he stays or goes. Harvick hasn?t won a Cup points race since the 2007 Daytona 500 (but has 2 Shootout and an All-Star win since) so that will be the most important thing on the agenda, with finishing better than 19th in the standings next. RCR has prided itself on consistency in recent years but you need to be able to win races to win championships and I don?t know if they?re there yet. Harvick is RCR?s best driver in terms of talent and being in his prime so no wins = gone even if he has a good season otherwise.
Jeff Burton ended a long winless streak in 2006 and ended up winning 4 races from then to 2008 before going winless last season. The 16 year vet only ended up 17th in the standings but ended the season on a hell of a run with 4 top tens including back-to-back runner-up finishes in the last two races. It?s hard to judge whether momentum carries over from one season to the next but just like his other RCR teammates Burton stands a good chance of improving on 2009 and competing for a spot in the Chase.
Stewart-Haas Racing ? Formerly just Haas, Tony Stewart left JGR after 2008 to join the organization as a driver-owner. The #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy with Smoke and the #39 U.S. Army Chevy with Ryan Newman return in 2010 to do even better than 2009 when both drivers made the Chase, with Smoke winning 4 times and finishing 6th in the standings while Newman finished 9th.
You could make the argument that Tony Stewart is not only the best driver in NASCAR but the best driver in North America today. The former 2 time Cup champion, IRL champion and IROC champion can, and does, drive everything and does it very well. After a solid start to the season that had Tony in a good position in the Chase, he turned it on in the middle part of the season with 3 wins to lead the standings for the summer and win the regular season ?championship?. He won again in the Chase but lost some steam towards the end and a duel with Montoya at Homestead knocked him out of the top 5 in points. SHR gets their equipment from HMS which helps a ton and crew chief Darian Grubb has proven to be one of the best minds among CC?s in Cup so that combination of talent, equipment and chemistry will put Tony in contention for his 3rd Cup championship.
Ryan Newman enjoyed a renaissance season with SHR, making the Chase for the first time since 2005. However he still went winless for the 3rd time in the last 4 seasons and was somewhat inconsistent, getting hot with a streak of top tens and even top fives and then getting cold. The streaks were timed well enough to get him into the Chase but then hurt him in it. A lot of people are expecting Newman to fall short this season and miss the Chase and I?m leaning towards it too. Only one win in the last 4 seasons is concerning and the #14 team seems a lot more solid overall than the #39. Tony Gibson?s a good CC who worked well with Mark Martin at DEI in 2008 but the #39 is clearly the B to the A of the #14. He?ll be in contention for the Chase and hopefully he?ll finally get another win.
Penske Racing ? With a new CC for their top team, a new and talented driver for their worst team and the development of a 3-time IRL champion ongoing, 2010 is tough to predict for Roger. They?ll be fielding the #2 Miller Lite Dodge with 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, the #12 Penske (technically Verizon) Dodge with 2009 Cup Talledega winner Brad Keselowski and the #77 Mobil 1 Dodge with 3 time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr.
Kurt Busch had his best season since his 2004 championship with 2 wins, 21 top tens and a 4th place finish in the standings to place as the best of the non-HMS drivers. But that could go out the window in 2010 since crew chief Pat Tryson announced before the start of last year?s Chase that he would be moving to MWR for this season. The #2 team still performed admirably well despite a lame duck CC but now Kurt will be working with Steve Addington, his younger brother?s former Cup CC. Addington won 12 races in little less than 2 seasons with Kyle so he?s used to working well with a Busch brother. How well the team gels and how early will be a big factor in how the #2 team performs this year. Also, since Kurt joined Penske the organization has had one bad season, then a good season, then a worse season, then a good one. The dips have affected the #2 the worse in terms of big highs and big lows so it?ll be interesting to see if Penske can stop the roller coaster.
Brad Keselowski has broken into the scene big time in the last two seasons as the best Nationwide regular by far in 2008 and 2009 while winning his first Cup race in dramatic fashion at Talledega early last season. The former JRM/HMS driver decided that the room at the inn was full where he was and jumped ship to Penske for 2010 to replace the mediocre David Stremme. His runs in the #12 in the last 3 races of 2009 weren?t that great but a new crew chief in Jay Guy will bring new chemistry to the team that should improve things immensely. This is the hardest team to predict because Keselowski?s talent is unquestionable but the state of the #12 is just as much the opposite. Even towards the end of Newman?s run the team has struggled to win races but Keselowski is as aggressive as they come so while he might run into issues with other drivers during the season and make mistakes it should also translate into at least one win, hopefully more. He?ll either make the Chase or barely finish top 20 in points, hard to find middle ground here.
Sam Hornish Jr. enters his 3rd season in Cup hoping that he can finally stamp his place in the sport and stay for the long haul. After enjoying tons of success in the IRL he moved over to Cup in 2008 and has enjoyed a lot of lows in the process, struggling a lot in his rookie year and then tempering strong runs with horrible finishes. He had 7 top tens but 18 finishes of 30th or worse to end up 28th in the standings. The good thing was that he showed he can run up front when he has his stuff together but finding consistency will be huge in 2010. Even if he has less top tens and less top fives this season he needs to make a big improvement on the average finish and points position. He?s got the talent to do it and after two seasons he should have the experience. If he doesn?t then at least the IRL will be getting a boost in the near future, but I?m hopeful that he can do it.