2010 produced the best championship battle in years. Now here’s a sneak peek at the drivers to watch next season.
Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick
The result was the same. For the fifth straight season Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. But the road was a lot tougher this time, thanks to Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. The two challengers dogged Johnson through the closest Chase since 2004, right to the final lap of the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And no one appreciated the run they gave Johnson more than Johnson. “I have to give a lot of credit to the 29 and the 11,” the five-time champion said afterward. “Their teams, the effort they put up, it was not easy by any means. After all of the years of the Chase, to have it really come down to this final race was really cool to be a part of. I'm proud to be a part of it.”
The Homestead finale was much like the 2010 season as a whole. Each contender suffered some adversity — Hamlin an early spin that damaged the splitter; Johnson several slow pit stops; Harvick a pit-road speeding penalty — but battled back. In the end, Johnson’s second-place finish (to race winner Carl Edwards) was enough to take the title over Hamlin, who won the most races on the season (eight) and Harvick, the steadiest of the three from start to finish (he would have won the title in a walk under the old format). Given the high level of performance the top three brought to the Chase, there’s no reason not to expect them all to be right back at it next fall.
With Roush Fenway having finally caught up to all the recent technical changes, the organization should re-emerge as a contender. And Edwards should lead the charge. After a slow start in 2010, the No. 99 had just one finish outside the top 20 after June. A win at Phoenix in week 35 ended a 70-race losing streak, and another win in the Homestead finale sent him into the off-season on a two-race winning streak.
After winning a race at age 19 during his rookie year in 2009, Logano went winless in 2010. But by nearly every other statistical measure he showed vast improvement during his sophomore season, particularly down the stretch. He had four top-five finishes in the Chase — one more than he had in the entire ’09 season. He also showed that he can be as feisty as his better-known Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. That could add up to a Chase berth in 2011.
He up just short of his first Cup championship in 2009. He didn’t even make the Chase in 2010. And he’ll be 52 when the 2011 season starts. Is Mark Martin finally past his prime? Not necessarily. After slumping for four months, he closed 2010 with a solid seven-race run in which his average finish was 8.6. Further, Martin is renowned for his ability to motivate himself, and he knows 2011 is his last shot in the Hendrick No. 5.
He tied for the lead in Chase wins with two, and he led the Chase in controversy with his 150-point penalty following his victory in the opener at Loudon. The way the team bounced back — three top-10s, including that second win, at Talladega — suggests that the adversity served as a bonding experience.
With wins in NASCAR’s two most prestigious events, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, McMurray can make a case that he had the most successful season of any driver other than Jimmie Johnson. And he didn’t even make the Chase. That says A) the Chase formula is flawed, B) the “regular season” still has meaning in the Chase era or C) both. Regardless, McMurray will be on everyone’s radar in 2011.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior’s descent into also-ran status coincides with NASCAR’s decline in attendance and ratings. Which probably isn’t a coincidence at all. As the 10th anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona approaches, Junior’s profile will rise again. Will his performance climb along with it?
Patrick and Pastrana
Danica returns for another partial Nationwide schedule in 2011 — and this time she’ll compete with another newcomer for the spotlight. Pending NASCAR approval, X Games and Rally Car star Travis Pastrana plans a part-time Nationwide schedule with his own team, using cars supplied by Michael Waltrip Racing.
Final 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup standings*
Rank Driver Points Behind
1 Jimmie Johnson 6622 --
2 Denny Hamlin 6583 -39
3 Kevin Harvick 6581 -41
4 Carl Edwards 6393 -229
5 Matt Kenseth 6294 -328
6 Greg Biffle 6247 -375
7 Tony Stewart 6221 -401
8 Kyle Busch 6182 -440
9 Jeff Gordon 6176 -446
10 Clint Bowyer 6155 -467
11 Kurt Busch 6142 -480
12 Jeff Burton 6033 -589
13 Mark Martin 4364 -2258
14 Jamie McMurray 4325 -2297
15 Ryan Newman 4302 -2320
16 Joey Logano 4185 -2437
17 Juan Pablo Montoya 4118 -2504
18 David Reutimann 4024 -2598
19 A.J. Allmendinger 3998 -2624
20 Kasey Kahne 3961 -2661
*Drivers 1-12 qualified for Chase
Up to speed
Quote of note
“I was telling them in victory lane, it's going to take us six years to beat that.” — Ford 400 winner Carl Edwards, on Jimmie Johnson’s fifth straight championship.
Chasing a better Chase
Although the 2010 Chase produced one of the closest points battles in NASCAR history and saw three drivers remain in contention until the final lap at Homestead, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France hasn’t ruled out changes to the format in 2011. “If there's one thing we can do to simplify how we crown our champion so the casual fan (finds it) easier to understand, that would be a good thing,” France said before Sunday’s finale, without offering specifics. “The idea is to create big moments by the best teams at the end of the year, (so they) have to put their best performances forward to win it all. If there’s a better way to do that, like every other (sports) commissioner, I’m sure that we’ll consider it.”
Ten different drivers won multiple Sprint Cup races in the 2011 season, led by eight-time winner Denny Hamlin. Beyond the top three, however, there was little correlation between the number of races a driver won and his points finish.
DRIVER WINS POINTS RANK
Denny Hamlin 8 2
Jimmie Johnson 6 1
Kevin Harvick 3 3
Kyle Busch 3 8
Jamie McMurray 3 14
Carl Edwards 2 4
Greg Biffle 2 6
Tony Stewart 2 7
Clint Bowyer 2 10
Kurt Busch 2 11
The gas is greener
Among the changes on tap for 2011 is a switch to an ethanol-blend fuel, Sunoco Green E15, which NASCAR will mandate for the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series. The 15-percent ethanol blend will be produced using American-grown corn. The new fuel is expected to be ready in time for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20. “Everything looks to be great as far as performance goes — probably better than we had first anticipated,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. Pemberton said the new fuel would have little impact on mileage and could actually produce a slight gain in horsepower.
The Sprint Cup schedule will some significant shifts in 2011. Here are the details.
• New Kentucky home
The biggest change is the addition of Kentucky Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, Kentucky, (near Cincinnati) owned by Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports group. Kentucky, which has drawn good crowds for its NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck series events and has also hosted the IndyCar and ARCA series, holds its first-ever Sprint Cup race on Saturday night, July 9.
• Twice the fun
Kansas Speedway gets a second event, in June, to go along with its traditional Chase race in the fall.
• Addition by subtraction
The gains in Kentucky and Kansas come at the expense of Atlanta Motor Speedway, which loses its spring race, and Fontana, California’s Auto Club Speedway, which surrenders its Chase date. Each of those tracks, which have struggled to sell tickets, will now hold just one Cup race.
• Spring … back?
With its shift from April to February, Phoenix will now hold its “spring” race on Sunday afternoon instead of Saturday night. Texas, on the other hand, will switch from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night in the spring, despite holding its Cup race a week earlier.
• Changing the Chase
Chicagoland shifts from a Saturday night race in July to a Sunday afternoon in September in order to host the opening event in the 10-race Chase. NASCAR hopes that the move to a major market will generate a bigger buzz for its “playoff.” New Hampshire, which had held the opener since the Chase’s inception in 2004, now has race No. 2. In addition, Talladega and Martinsville flip-flop their Chase dates in the fall. This seemingly minor adjustment could have major implications. With its ever-present threat of multi-car crashes, Talladega has greater potential than any other track to change the complexion of the championship battle.
2011 Sprint Cup schedule
Feb. 12 Daytona International Speedway* (N)
Feb. 17 Daytona International Speedway* (2:00 pm)
Feb. 20 Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 27 Phoenix International Raceway (W)
March 6 Las Vegas Motor Speedway (W)
March 7 Atlanta Motor Speedway
March 13/14 Open Weekend
March 20 Bristol Motor Speedway
March 27 Auto Club Speedway
April 3 Martinsville Speedway
April 9 Texas Motor Speedway (N)
April 17 Talladega Superspeedway
April 23/24 Open Weekend
April 30 Richmond International Raceway (N)
May 7 Darlington Raceway (N)
May 15 Dover International Speedway
May 21 Charlotte Motor Speedway* (N)
May 29 Charlotte Motor Speedway (N, 5:45)
June 5 Kansas Speedway
June 12 Pocono Raceway
June 19 Michigan International Speedway
June 26 Infineon Raceway (W)
July 2 Daytona International Speedway (N)
July 9 Kentucky Speedway (N)
July 17 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
July 23/24 Open Weekend
July 31 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Aug. 7 Pocono Raceway
Aug. 14 Watkins Glen International
Aug. 21 Michigan International Speedway
Aug. 27 Bristol Motor Speedway (N)
Sept. 4 Atlanta Motor Speedway (N)
Sept. 10 Richmond International Raceway (N)
Sept. 18 (C) Chicagoland Speedway (N)
Sept. 25 (C) New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Oct. 2 (C) Dover International Speedway
Oct. 9 (C) Kansas Speedway
Oct. 15 (C) Lowe’s Motor Speedway (N)
Oct. 23 (C) Talladega Superspeedway
Oct. 30 (C) Martinsville Speedway
Nov. 6 (C) Texas Motor Speedway
Nov. 13 (C) Phoenix International Raceway (W)
Nov. 20 (C) Homestead-Miami Speedway
All start times 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time, unless noted
(W) = West Coast (3:00 p.m. Eastern Time)
(N)= Night race (7:30 p.m. Eastern Time)
(C) = Chase event