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NASCAR Barometer: The Drive for Five

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Championship weekend got under way with three drivers vying for the Sprint Cup, and Kyle Busch with yet another chance to sweep all three major NASCAR series victories in a single weekend. While Jimmie Johnson was seeking his fifth consecutive title, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were each looking to achieve their first.

Bad luck struck early for Hamlin when he spun through the grass, damaging the front splitter and the handling of the car for the remainder of the day. Harvick had his own contact, this one with Kyle Busch, but put up a valiant effort even though it came up short. In the end, it was Jimmie Johnson who truly stamped his name on the history books of NASCAR Sprint Cup, winning his fifth title.

While the No. 48 team wasn't as dominant as it has been in years past, they were still able to pull together and improve their performance enough throughout the season's duration to claim the championship. The weekend must also be shared with another team that demonstrated how much they could improve, Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing. Edwards won his second race in a row and will carry momentum into the winter as they work to close the gap to Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

UPGRADE


Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson started the 2010 season as the title favorite. He struggled at the season's onset, but remained well within contact of the points lead. As usual, when the races really mattered, Johnson was there with steady determination and solid teamwork. Crew Chief Chad Knaus made the right calls at the right times, along with tough decisions that only championship winning teams would dare make, and they pulled it off. Johnson may have shown that he can be beaten in 2010, but that does not mean that in the future the task will become any easier. He should be on the lips of most pundits when they discuss their preseason favorites for 2011.

Carl Edwards –
Edwards closed the 2010 season with domination, winning his first race of the season then backing it up with a superb performance at Homestead Miami Speedway. Edwards will wonder why that form eluded him the rest of the season, but the momentum the recent performances give him will carry through the offseason. Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing were just slightly behind Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2010. They will not want the same to happen in 2011, and will work their way through the winter to make sure it doesn't. The Roush drivers typically don't dominate at superspeedways, so we may have to wait until the second race of the 2011 season to see where they truly stand.

Denny Hamlin –
After nearly writing off his season before it even began, Hamlin had a career season in 2010. He tore a knee ligament before the season began, delayed surgery, and then squeezed it in during an off-week. That trauma would be enough to knock off almost any competitor, but not Hamlin. Instead, Hamlin won his first race of the year just before surgery, and multiples after returning, all while still healing. Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates might already be one the favorites in 2011, and with good reason. Hamlin is a mature and steady driver who is gaining serious Chase experience, and that will be difficult to overcome in the coming years as he remembers what went wrong in 2010.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger proved once again that he belongs in the Sprint Cup series. He ran in the top five for a good portion of the day Sunday, in a team that doesn't know how long it can survive. Allmendinger has been getting the job done this season, but bad luck and missed opportunities have cost him and the team the strong points finish he might otherwise have earned. If Allmendinger can find a stable team that can compete in every race of the upcoming season, he would be a driver to watch out for. He may not be Chase material quite yet, but his pedigree is obviously strong and he could be in line for a Cup victory in the near future.

DOWNGRADE


Kyle Busch –
Despite having a season a majority of competitors would trade for, Busch will feel disappointed with his Chase effort. He was clearly one of the fastest drivers this season as he rewrote the record books with his chances to sweep NASCAR weekends and actually accomplishing the feat. Busch showed that he still has some ground to cover in the maturity race, and his younger teammate Joey Logano may even do well to lend him some advice, and bad luck, like Sunday's, covered the rest of his poor results. Still, it would be a travesty if Busch were not to win a Sprint Cup championship in his career, if not multiple times, but to do so will require Busch to take one small step forward. That could happen in 2011.

David Reutimann –
Reutimann's day started out of the wrong foot when he hit the wall twice within the first dozen laps. The second impact was the result of a tire failure, and he had to pit for extensive repairs. Reutimann is one driver that has a big 2011 to look forward to. After finding Victory Lane legitimately in 2010, as well as some consistent runs at the front of a number of races, Reutimann and his Michael Waltrip Racing team has the potential to be one that makes a big leap forward in the 2011 standings. The team has continued to improve since appearing on the scene, and more experience will only serve to help.

Jeff Gordon –
Bad luck seemed to follow Gordon in 2010, and he continued his winless streak Sunday at both Homestead and in the season with a sour engine. Gordon has seen his fair share of success, and now a family man, he might have seen his best days. There will always be opportunities, like Mark Martin has proven, but his chances for another championship may be slipping away. Niggling problems, both mechanical and human, cost Gordon wins and potentially a championship this season despite being consistently one of the fastest cars. Next season will mark another chance for Gordon to continue his drive-for-five mentality, but he has yet to show that he can truly outpace Johnson over the course of a season.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne switched teams midway through the 2010 season, and he turned a fresh start with Red Bull Racing into a pole position in Miami to close out the season. If fantasy owners can remember what Brian Vickers was able to accomplish with the Red Bull Toyota, they must be very excited for what Kahne can achieve once he settles into the rhythm of the group. Vickers was in contention regularly for poles and wins, Kahne should be able to match that promise. This is a driver and team combination that should produce results quickly. Kahne is a solid superspeedway racer, and we know Toyota can build a fast engine, so the pairing's first opportunity to show what they have could come as early as the Daytona 500.

Joey Logano –
Logano entered the last race of the season on the back of three straight top-five finishes. He also racked up three DNFs in 2010. The dispersion of results would indicate that Logano is still growing, and judging simply by his age one can understand why. As this driver grows with one of the strongest teams in NASCAR he will surely become as successful as his teammates. Joe Gibbs Racing has a stable of young drivers with plenty of skill, and they continue to provide their men with the best machinery in the series. Look for Logano to play a much bigger part in the outcome of the 2011 season, but it may be teammates Hamlin and Bush who he has to contend with in the 2011 Chase.