Top NASCAR Drivers to Watch
<i>Fourteen drivers won Sprint Cup races in 2009. Here's a look at their prospects in 2010, beginning with Matt Kenseth.</i><br><br><b>Races won in 2009:</b><br>Daytona 500, California (spring)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> The 2003 Sprint Cup champion and his new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, had a winning percentage of 1.000 after two races last year, but foundered thereafter and Kenseth missed the Chase for the Championship for the first time. Roush Fenway Racing's team-wide problems were the result of wrong ideas, team owner Jack Roush said, and he hired about three dozen engineers to make sure they don't happen again. It won't be Blickensderfer's fault this time. He was shipped off to Roush's research and development operation and replaced by title-winning crew chief Todd Parrott after a sluggish Speed Weeks.
<b>Races won in 2009:</b><br>Las Vegas, Bristol (twice), Richmond <br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> After watching his win total drop by half from 2008 and missing the Chase for the first time since his rookie season, the ultra-talented, ultra-tempestuous one returns as a bit of a broken pony -- perhaps. Broken in a good way, that is. Busch is the owner of a new truck series team (though sponsor woes are likely a worry), and he's settled down and newly signed to a long-term deal. None of his previous employers (Roush, Hendrick) had ever actually given him a new contract. Busch is too good not to thrust himself back into the championship hunt for Joe Gibbs Racing.
<b>Races won in 2009:</b><br>Atlanta (spring), Texas (fall)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> Younger brother Kyle's former crew chief, Steve Addington, has come aboard to replace Pat Tryson, who helped guide Kurt to the best non-Chevy points finish (fourth) last season despite the distraction of Tryson's impending departure. A race-winner in each of his last eight seasons, Busch should be in pouncing position again if he and Addington work well together.
<b>Races won in 2009:</b><br>Martinsville (spring), Dover (both), Indianapolis, Fontana, Charlotte (fall), Phoenix<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> All the important parts remain from his last four championship campaigns, specifically crew chief/mastermind Chad Knaus. At 34, Johnson should be nestled in the heart of the best years of his career, and anyone looking for an obvious reason why he will not at least push very hard for a record fifth consecutive title will have to grope for one. Yes, Johnson's wife, Chandra, will give birth to their first child in July. Right now, that just means they'll have to make room for one more in the championship photo at Homestead.
<b>Races won in 2009:</b><br>Texas (spring)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> Gordon's last serious title run came in 2007, when he was within reach of championship number five only to have Jimmie Johnson snatch it away with an amazing final month. Gordon was part of history last year in a 1-2-3 Hendrick Motorsports finish (he was third) and he certainly has the skill and the team to do well again. But statistically, teammate Johnson and Mark Martin are a crucial, measurable bit ahead of him in terms of championship capability.
<b>Races won in 2009:</b><br>Phoenix (spring), Darlington, Michigan (spring), Chicago, Loudon<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> At 51, his age is no longer an issue. His physical conditioning and bunkered mental makeup will prime him for another chance to finally capture that elusive championship after nearly three decades at NASCAR's highest level. As usual, a bit of luck will be the key ingredient. (Jimmie Johnson retiring might help, too).
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Charlotte (spring)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> The 39-year-old has made major points strides in each of his first three seasons and he broke through with a win -- albeit a rain-shortened one in the Coca-Cola 600 -- last season. Michael Waltrip Racing continues to improve -- adding driver Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Pat Tryson this season -- and has legitimized its entire shop. Another win or two by Reutimann would not be a surprise. The next evolution of his career -- nailing down the Chase berth that eluded him late last year -- will be more difficult.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Pocono, Daytona (summer), Watkins Glen, Kansas<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> The trend line should point straight up considering his amazing first season as a driver/owner, and the talent within the organization. Stewart-Haas officials are more cautious, though, and are even putting off adding a third team (to complement Stewart and Ryan Newman) until they are convinced that there will be no sophomore slump. Still, Stewart is too versatile not to break through somewhere.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Sonoma, Atlanta (fall)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> Back in the Ford fold, Kahne should expand on his two-win 2009 effort. A free agent at the end of the season, he is, says team official Foster Gillett, the top priority of Richard Petty Motorsports. A standout season could help convince Kahne to stay put ... or just up his price with another team. A nice spot to be in.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Loudon (spring)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> Sure, it was rain-shortened, but it counted. "Sliced Bread" got the win in his Rookie of the Year season and will now set about becoming a productive weekly contributor for Joe Gibbs Racing. Logano has been precocious at every level he's raced at and it would not be surprising if he popped through for two or three victories this year.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Pocono (summer), Richmond (fall), Martinsville (fall), Homestead<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> Hamlin assumes the Carl Edwards role of top spoiler after a very strong finish last year. In theory, only two blown engines and a wreck in the Chase kept him from applying a great deal of pressure on Jimmie Johnson. Of course, those kinds of mistakes don't befall champions. Hamlin, seemingly more mature and poised, says he's ready for the grind of dethroning the Johnson dynasty. And that grinding in his left knee? He tore an ACL playing basketball. Not a problem, he says.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Michigan (fall)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> The former Nationwide Series champion punched through with his first Cup win since 2006, and his first with Red Bull Racing. Vickers qualified for the Chase and finished a career-best 12th. Duplicating that campaign should be harder this year as Chase-qualifiers and race-winners Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth figure to reassert themselves.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Talladega (fall)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> He managed just his second win with Roush Fenway in his fourth-to-last start last year. Now he returns for former boss Chip Ganassi, with whom he split before the 2006 season to take a job with Jack Roush. Things look better this time around with Ganassi fielding a strong car for Juan Pablo Montoya and benefitting from support for Chevrolet. That was evident when McMurray won the season-opening Daytona 500.
<b>Races won in 2009: </b><br>Talladega (spring)<br><br><b>2010 outlook:</b> His tap and pass of Carl Edwards was one of the snapshot moments of last season, helping him to Victory Lane for the first time in his young career and, eventually, to a full-time job at Penske Racing. The outspoken Keselowski is a fresh personality...or an idiot, hero or villain. It all depends on your perspective, but his in-your-face behavior makes him interesting. <br><br>Send comments to email@example.com