Things the top nine teams must do
A new year means a fresh start for drivers in NASCAR's Cup Series.
With the points reset to zero, technically anyone from
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
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
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,
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 (
Keep some secrets to yourself.
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
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
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
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
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
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.