Tom Bowles
Friday January 8th, 2010

A new year means a fresh start for drivers in NASCAR's Cup Series.

With the points reset to zero, technically anyone from Jimmie Johnson to rookie Kevin Conway starts with the same shot at a championship. To get there, they'll need to make good use of January, the final time to focus on improvements before the season starts in earnest. So let's examine some "New Year's Resolutions" the sport's top teams need to address by the time they set foot at Daytona:

Rebuild Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s team -- without taking the house down with it.

Last season, Hendrick made history as the first team to finish 1-2-3 in the points. But it was hard for HMS to celebrate completely when the fourth member of its stable -- NASCAR's Most Popular Driver -- finished a career-worst 25th.

That left Hendrick's top offseason priority as transforming Earnhardt's No. 88 back into a Chase contender. Erring on the side of caution, crew chief Lance McGrew was retained while subtle changes, such as pulling top engineers from Mark Martin's No. 5 into Earnhardt's camp, were made. But will that be enough? None of the people helping Earnhardt are new faces -- just different faces in new positions within the same shop. Add the claim from insiders that Earnhardt's setup preferences are a better match with four-time champ Jimmie Johnson, and you wonder if synergy with the No. 5 car is the answer.

That leaves a fine line to walk for the sport's biggest car owner. Just because Earnhardt's got a flat tire, you don't want to run your other three wheels off the road -- but you can't assume that the flat will repair itself on its own. So how much deeper will Hendrick dig in his talent pool? That question may make-or-break his year.

Practice makes perfect on pit road.

With just three wins -- and one in the last 34 races -- five-car Roush Fenway suffered through its worst season since 2001. Insiders claim the Ford chassis was the culprit, causing a lot of midnight oil to be burnt at the shop in December. But the little things make a big difference these days, and Roush was buried by a barrage of poor pit stops and untimely penalties that cost them. Only Matt Kenseth's "Killer B's" crew withstood the onslaught, with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle beset by speeding penalties and poor strategy calls. A four-tire stop for Biffle at Darlington when everyone else took two cost him the lead and, ultimately, the race. Meanwhile, Edwards endured agonizingly slow stops in spring and summer that caused multiple personnel changes within his crew.

Promising runs by a next-generation chassis this fall showed that RFR is heading back in the right direction. Now at-the-track personnel need to step up their game and keep their pit road mistakes to a minimum.

Keep confidence high.

All of Gibbs' three drivers ended 2009 on a high note. With a Homestead victory, Denny Hamlin emerged as Jimmie Johnson's main rival for the 2010 title, while Kyle Busch captured the Nationwide championship as a consolation prize for a year in which he didn't make the Chase. Add rookie Joey Logano's two top fives in the final six races, and it's easy to see optimism riding high in the JGR camp for 2010.

The key is to keep it there. All these drivers wear their emotions on their sleeve, with Hamlin quick to deflate in the face of adversity. The equipment is up to the task, but coming to the table with a more balanced attitude is crucial for contending with a Hendrick juggernaut whose drivers almost never get rattled.

Become the short track kings again.

In 2008, RCR's then-three-car team won two of six short track races en route to finishing fourth-fifth-sixth in points. One year later, four cars combined for just two top five finishes, leading just four laps while fading into the background at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond.

Since five of those six events occur during the regular season, it's no surprise that none of the RCR cars made the Chase. So while the fleet's intermediate prospects took a major uptick in the Homestead finale (Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick came home second and thirrd, respectively), they won't be going anywhere without some short track success.

Keep some secrets to yourself.

Owner/driver Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman exceeded expectations in 2009, making the Chase in their first year with a new team. But Stewart's hard-earned regular season point lead evaporated in the playoffs as the Hendrick teams that gave him engine and chassis support ran circles around him when it mattered most.

Insiders claim that the additional help of Stewart and Newman paid major dividends in putting Hendrick head and shoulders above the pack in '09. But all the help from those "teammates" wasn't enough during the playoffs, so you wonder if this year, when SHR gets an edge, they might be better off keeping their mouths shut.

Be open to change.

After finishing fourth in points with one car while the other two struggled far outside the top 20, Penske was unbalanced. It's a weakness that new driver Brad Keselowski hopes to fix by taking over the No. 12 car with a teamwork philosophy preached within Hendrick. Unafraid to speak his mind, Keselowski, in one of his first meetings with team owner Roger Penske, asked for an extra 100 people in order to make the organization successful. It was the equivalent of walking into a new job and asking for a whole floor of the building as your office ... on your first day.

But hidden within Keselowski's push for change is a dichotomy that must be addressed. At 72, Penske is an owner who is very set in his ways; but his IndyCar success has never translated to the Cup circuit. He's fallen short of a title since his return full-time in 1991. Will the youth and enthusiasm of new talent be enough to make him change philosophies? And will the tempestuous Kurt Busch, Penske's top talent, be open to Keselowski's ideas after his team finished fourth in points? It's a storyline to watch as early as the Daytona 500 -- especially since the two crashed into each other at the series' last plate race in Talladega last fall.

Work together.

The atmosphere at RPM was chaotic at best this fall as a merger with Yates Racing caused confusion and a void in leadership. Number one driver Kasey Kahne vocalized his displeasure most of all, threatening to leave the team when his contract expires in 2010.

But two months later, the deal is complete and the new RPM-Yates organization is adjusting to its new fleet of Ford Fusions. With Roush support, the tools are in place for an uptick in performance, as evidenced by promising top 15 runs by A.J. Allmendinger in Fords to end the season. The key will be finding the right man to bring this group together. Since Ray Evernham stopped running day-to-day operations the last two years, Robbie Loomis has struggled to pick up the slack, and the team hasn't placed more than two cars in the top 10 since Infineon in June. Kahne can't be off on an island, especially if he follows through on his plans to test free agency. Teamwork is paramount to bringing the whole organization up to speed.

Help Juan Pablo Montoya manage his aggression.

The Formula 1 convert had a breakout season for EGR, making the Chase on the strength of 18 top 10 finishes while emerging as an early challenger to Johnson for the title. However, Montoya slipped into the playoffs with a philosophy of playing it safe, and once he unleashed his trademark aggression, he unraveled in the face of several accidents that dropped him outside the top five in points.

Don't get me wrong. Montoya's aggression can be his biggest asset. But after a year of playoff experience, he needs to find a balance of when and where to use it to his advantage. Letting the lion out of the cage early a bit more often might help later on in 2010.

Avoid the "one-hit wonder" label.

Both midpack teams surpassed expectations in 2009, winning races while TRB's Brian Vickers made the Chase. But the end of the season was a nightmare for both, with Vickers posting the worst ten-race performance in playoff history while Waltrip's three cars combined for just two top-10 finishes.

Those ugly finishes won't match the raised expectations for both teams in 2010. Both must dig deep and rediscover the chemistry that led to their early season success.

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