I want to start out in this, the final Yellow Stripe of 2009, by recognizing the efforts of Jimmie Johnson. Even if your personal flavor preference is not vanilla, any true fan of our great sport should recognize the level of achievement for the entire No. 48 team: a worthy champion, no question. All told, it was a tremendous season for Hendrick Motorsports and its JV partner Stewart-Haas Racing, so as thoughts slowly start to turn to 2010, I’m going to take a look at nine non-Hendrick drivers to watch next year. And being a foreigner, it seems only appropriate that I start with the two full-time Sprint Cup drivers born overseas.
The failure to win a race notwithstanding, 2009 was a fantastic year for the Colombian driver as he announced himself as a bona-fide championship challenger. With a century of Cup races now under his belt, Montoya will only continue to improve in 2010 especially under the expert tutelage of crew chief Brian Pattie. And with two third-place and two fourth-place finishes in the Chase, plus an additional top 10, there’s no reason not to think that if Montoya can make the field again, he could legitimately push Johnson all the way to Homestead. And with all that said, after a season of measured, rational racing from the irascible Montoya; wasn’t it good to Stewart and him go at it during the final race?
Everybody’s favorite Australian stock car racer, Ambrose had a tremendous first full season at the Cup level with JTG Daugherty Racing. So much so that for much of the first half of the campaign, Ambrose was an outside shot to make the Chase. He faded somewhat in the latter half of the year but with four top fives, seven top 10s and just two DNFs, Ambrose fit seamlessly into the Sprint Cup pack in just his third complete season in NASCAR. Don’t be surprised to see Ambrose continue to get better in 2010, and equally don’t be surprised when he becomes the first man from “the land down under” to win a Cup race.
2009 was truly a horrible year on the Cup side for Harvick. In fact things got so bad that Harvick tried to extricate himself from his contract, an idea given short shrift by team supremo Richard Childress. As it is, Harvick still looks a sure bet to move on post 2010 especially given how poorly RCR cars ran all year, but three top 10s, including a third-place run at Homestead, suggest at least some positive momentum headed into the next season. One thing is for sure, if Harvick runs as badly in the pre-Chase portion of the schedule as he did this year, the complaints and temper tantrums will increase exponentially. With the sands of time slowly running out on his chances of winning a Sprint Cup, Harvick needs a win – his last came in the 2007 Daytona 500 – plenty of top 10s and a place in the Chase in 2010. If none of those occur, you can guarantee RCR will not be where Harvick calls home in 2011.
Headed into a first full season at the Cup level, you can’t help but feel the Captain – Roger Penske – will need all of his people skills to reign in Keselowski’s worst excesses and stop his young charge from self-destructing. It’s hard to criticize a driver who wants to win, win, win but the Ricky Bobby checkers or wreckers approach can only take you so far. If the rat-faced Keselowski could learn some patience, some nous and some finesse, he could establish himself very quickly at the top echelon. The jury is out on whether that will happen, however. Clearly, Keselowski is talented, but without give and take and without knowing when to back down, he’s only going to get into more arguments the likes of which we have seen with his feud with Denny Hamlin. He sure should be fun to watch next season… a lot more so than when David Stremme was in the No. 12 car this year, no doubt.
The 2009 Rookie of the Year (and youngest ever to win the award) had what he described as a roller coaster of a season in his debut year as a Sprint Cup driver. There was the horrible start when he looked, frankly, over-matched and out of depth; the rain-assisted maiden win at Loudon with a 20th-place (in the dry) car and the end over end barrel roll at the Monster Mile in Dover. All told, though, Logano showed with three top fives, seven top 10s and an overall 20th-place finish in the final points standings. That hype which greeted his entrance to NASCAR may well not have been over-blown… well, OK a little, but you get my drift – this kid is for real.
The three Chase DNFs aside, it’s been a good year for Hamlin. With career highs in wins (four), top fives (15), top 10s (20) and laps led (1380) the senior Joe Gibbs driver has lived up to his early promise and started to underline why he might very well be a huge threat to Johnson next year. With the win at Miami, he’s now got the cookie-cutter victory out of the way too. One note of caution: Carl Edwards came into 2009 expecting to kick on and make a sustained push for the title. As you know, it never happened. Still, a good year for Hamlin, who proved many preseason predictions wrong by driving strongly all year, making the Chase and winning twice in the playoffs.
The 2009 Nationwide Series champion and four-time race winner at the Cup level had what can best be described as a mixed season. On the one hand he won races for fun at the Cup (four), Nationwide (nine) and Truck (seven) levels, but on the other hand he missed out on the Chase when everyone thought he was an absolute lock; not to mention a potential challenger for Jimmie J had he made it that far. Whether or not the crew chief change will help, with Steve Addington stepping aside and Dave Rogers assuming the hot seat, remains to be seen but one thing is without doubt – Busch expects to win, win again and then win some more in 2010. Expect him to do just that.
There hasn’t been much for the man with the biggest smile in NASCAR to get excited about over the past 36 races. The preseason favorite for the vast majority of fans and pundits – despite the fact that Johnson had won three championships in a row – Edwards struggled throughout much of 2009, finishing winless after nine victories in 2008 and with career lows in top fives and top 10s. Much of this can be attributed by Roush’s failure to make the speed necessary to challenge Jimmie J, but Edwards has suffered with pit road and other issues such as his Frisbee-related broken foot. If Bob Osborne, the Cat in the Hat and the other good folks at RFR can right the ship over the winter, don’t be surprised to see a much stronger 2010 from the No. 99 team.
It will be fascinating to see how the transition to Michael Waltrip Racing benefits (or otherwise) the Mayetta, N.J. native. 2010 will be his fourth full-time attempt at the Cup schedule and after making the Chase in 2007 and missing out in 2008 and 2009, Truex will be keen to return to the Valhalla of the all-important field of 12. He should have a chance to do just that in the NAPA Camry – MWR is improving incrementally and with the experienced and knowledgeable Pat Tryson atop the pit box; the circumstances are set up nicely for Truex to really start showing how good a driver he can be.
And finally, I just wanted to say a special thank you to all those who have read and or commented on my articles this season. I’m well aware that having a weekly column is a privilege and I try, for the most part, to look on the bright side of our sport, not least because it’s always easier to be a hater, and where’s the fun it that?
So thank you, very genuinely, have a great few months off from NASCAR and see you all in Daytona. It’ll be here soon enough, don’t worry….