NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2010 Season Review

How ironic that in the year when so many people were questioning the falling gates at NASCAR Sprint Cup races and reduced television viewing figures they gave us one of the most thrilling and entertaining seasons we’ve had for a long time.

Whilst all of the attention was on the climactic tussle between Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, with Kevin Harvick threatening to muscle in on their party, the unsung hero of 2010 had to be Jamie McMurray who won the three big ones, the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Bank of America 500 plus came a close second at Talladega – 0.011 seconds close – and the sprint Coca-Cola 600, also at Charlotte. Clearly a man for the big occasion it seems almost tragic that he didn’t make The Chase when winless drivers did. One long-standing NASCAR reporter firmly believes that those three most highly prized race wins deserve double points.

Denny Hamlin was the other hero of the year, coming back from a knee operation to drive to 30th place at Phoenix just days after the surgery and then winning the following week in Texas. Before 2010 he had won eight Cup races, a figure he matched during this year as he held the firm conviction that he was capable of becoming champion and wresting the crown from four-time title winner Johnson. Entering The Chase Hamlin boldly spelled out his philosophy of playing safe for the first five races then going for the victories. He followed the plan almost to the final race but was let down by poor decisions from the pit wall at Phoenix and then poor qualifying at the Homestead-Miami.

Jamie McMurray enjoyed his best season to date, with wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte. But no place in The Chase.

Kevin Harvick, after a miserable 2009 when none of the Richard Childress Racing drivers made The Chase and there were mutterings that Harvick and the team were going their separate ways, rallied well to win three races, breaking a 115 race winless streak with a fine opportunistic drive from a green-white-checker restart at Talladega. He chalked up a massive twenty-six top 10 finishes during the season and was always there or thereabouts in The Chase but never quite seemed to have that extra little bit that would bring him the title.

Another driver to win three times was the enigmatic and temperamental Kyle Busch who had a magnificant season when his thirteen wins in the Nationwide Series and six in the Camping World Truck Series are taken into account. Twenty-two wins in total across the season is impressive and to cap it all Busch won the Owner Points title in the Truck series. But Kyle Busch wouldn’t be the man he is without controversy and across the year there were just too many incidents of Busch taking someone out of a race, or him being taken out by an irate competitor, Harvick at Homestead as an example. And his losing two laps at Texas in November for obscene gestures at a NASCAR official was as unforgivable as it was infantile.

Kyle Busch's 2010 included wins in all three of NASCAR's touring series - Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series and the Camping World Trucks

Big brother Kurt Busch managed two wins across the season in the Blue Deuce Penske Dodge but faded part way through The Chase and dropped out of contention. Other two-time winners in 2010 were Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. The first of Bowyer’s was the win at Loudon where he was subsequently stripped of most, but strangely not all, of the points when the body on his car was found to be a fraction out of the tolerance allowed for its fitment to the chassis. Edwards’ two wins were the last races of the season and bode well for his chances for 2011 as all the Roush Fenway Racing Fords showed increased speed towards the end of the season as they became used to the new FR9 engine.

Those two wins for the driver of the #99 car also went some way towards restoring his battered reputation after he had deliberately taken out Brad Keselowski at Atlanta when the latter was just two laps away from a sixth place finish and Edwards was all of one hundred laps down. It was intended as retribution for a lap forty clash between the two but Keselowski’s airborne ride into the catch fencing was scary and could have had tragic consequences.

That incident between those two drivers was the most powerful test to NASCAR’s resolve to step back from policing drivers’ behaviour with the now well worn phrase, “Boys, have at it!” True to their stated policy they gave Edwards the mildest of slaps on the hand and continued to let drivers figure out for themselves what was acceptable behaviour and what wasn’t.

The other winning drivers during the year were Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann who all won a race apiece. Blunder of the year probably belonged to Marcos Ambrose who cut his engine when coasting behind the pace car during a caution at Infineon to save fuel whilst leading and then couldn’t get it restarted in time. NASCAR decided he hadn’t followed the rules and had to go to the green flag in seventh place, handing the lead to Jimmie Johnson.

Early in the season Kasey Kahne surprised a lot of people with his announcement that he was going to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. There was no mention of what he intended doing in 2011. As the year went on Kahne became vociferously disenchanted with life at Richard Petty Motorsports and left the team virtually mid-race at Charlotte in October. The team almost immediately started to implode as the finances were impossibly stretched following George Gillett’s monetary woes after the enforced sale of Liverpool Football Club. The nadir of RPM’s season was in the aftermath of the late Texas race when all the race haulers were detained at the track and not given the new cars to take to Phoenix until a financial settlement had been paid. RPM are continuing in 2011 but with a reduced two car team.

Kahne, who in the intervening period had announced a one year deal at Red Bull for next year took the opportunity to race for the them for the last few races of 2010.

The Sprint Cup’s elder statesman, Mark Martin had what can only be rated a subdued year after fighting his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, for the title in 2009 finishing second in the table with five wins for the year. He failed to win a race at all in 2010 but nevertheless finished thirteenth in the points table and thus highest placed of the non Chase drivers.

Johnson celebrates title number five on the streets at NASCAR's end of season awards

And talking of Jimmie Johnson, once again he remained the man to beat over the course of a season. The results wobbled a bit mid-term but, as he always does, he managed to do exactly what was needed to win his fifth title once he was in The Chase, even if for the first time ever he needed to come from behind at the final race to secure the championship. Hamlin’s self belief that he was the man to dethrone JJ proved to have some substance to it and Chad Knaus‘s brave and instantaneous decision to swap pit crews with Jeff Gordon‘s men mid-way through the Texas race showed just how hard the title race was becoming.

Based on what we saw this year 2011 promises a tougher fight being taken to Johnson with possibly serious competition from Hamlin, McMurray, Harvick and even Kyle Busch if he can rein in his temperament for a complete season.

2011 sees the introduction of 15% Ethanol fuel as NASCAR shows its green credentials are more than just hot air and a reduction in the guys over the pit wall from seven to six with the removal of the catch can man. The new self-venting cans were successfully tested in the Truck Series and are being mandated for all national classes next year.

With so much inward looking soul searching and navel gazing by people this year pondering the smaller gates and reduced television audiences as NASCAR competes with American Football and the like the solution seems obvious if a tad optimistic. Another season like the one just gone really should reverse the flow of fans. And it all starts again with the Daytona 500 on February 20th.