BEST DRIVER: Jimmie Johnson
This is an article from the Nov. 30, 2009 issue
Johnson's dominance in the Cup series is so complete that he has really left himself no place to go but down ... someday. What can he possibly do in 2010 for an encore? Win a fifth-straight title? Well, sure. But how about the modern record of 13 wins in a season? Or even Richard Petty's 27 in 1967? Don't put it past him.
BEST OF THE REST: Tony Stewart
As an antidote to Jimmie fatigue, Stewart was NASCAR's indispensable man in 2009. His debut season as an owner-driver was stellar from start to finish as he won four races and led the points standings for the bulk of the regular season. Even more startling was the way that the 11-year veteran mellowed into one of Cup racing's more thoughtful—and less combustible—elder statesmen.
BEST ROOKIE: Joey Logano
Red Bull Racing driver Scott Speed, who in 2006 became the first U.S. driver to compete in Formula One in more than a decade, was expected to push the 18-year-old Logano for top rookie honors. Both drivers brought their Toyotas to Daytona last February with comparable résumés from NASCAR's junior circuits: The 26-year-old Speed had 16 starts and a win in Trucks, while Logano had 19 starts and a win on the Nationwide circuit. But it was never close. Taking over Tony Stewart's old ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano established himself as a solid racer, finishing 20th overall and earning his first career victory in a rain-shortened outing at New Hampshire in June. Speed never got out of first gear with his new crew, failing to qualify for three races and finishing 35th in points.
BEST COMEBACK: Mark Martin
While it's true that he never fully left, it was still extremely gratifying to watch NASCAR's ageless wonder compete for a Cup championship in his first season of full-time racing in three years. The 50-year-old Martin didn't just qualify for the Chase—he went in as the top seed after winning four times during the 26-race regular season. And in the closing weeks of the fall he remained the only driver with a realistic chance of overtaking Johnson. Martin came up short in the end, but there can be little doubt that he'll be back just as strong in 2010.
MOST IMPROVED: Juan Pablo Montoya
Cup racing's most fearless bender of fenders was a revelation in his third season on the circuit. For the first 26 races Montoya proved himself a deft and savvy points racer; for the last 10 he showed he could be as downright fast as NASCAR's very best.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Carl Edwards
It's not simply that he failed to win a race; it's that he wasn't even close. The man who won a series-high nine races in 2008—who actually made Johnson sweat during last season's Chase—was the popular choice to win his first Sprint Cup title in '09. But instead of racing to a championship, Edwards was hamstrung by the lack of speed that infected the entire garage at Roush Fenway Racing. He sputtered to the worst full season of his six-year career, failing to win a race and establishing personal lows for top fives (seven), top 10s (14) and laps led (164).