Every fall, the Chase for the Championship field carries a different look than the previous season. In 2009, six of the twelve chasers were not among the 2008 class of championship hopefuls.
Though not impossible, it is highly unlikely that the exact same twelve drivers will occupy the 2010 Chase for the Championship field, especially with drivers such as Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr primed and ready for a championship run. You have to consider some other less proven drivers that could pose a threat such as David Reutimann, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose, and Jamie McMurray.
The bottom line is the one or more drivers from the 2009 chase class will be outside looking in once September rolls around.
Brian Vickers is the first driver that comes to mind as one who could miss the 2010 Chase for the Championship. What Vickers and the Red Bull Racing team achieved in 2009 is incredible, as the three year old team earned its first win at Michigan in August. It was a fuel mileage win, but Vickers was a top three car for most of that race.
The win served as a monumental momentum boost for the No. 83 team. However, once Vickers reached the twelve-man chase, he completely fell off the radar. He failed to record a single top ten finish throughout the final ten races. The drive to the chase seemed to suck the life out of the team. Of course, the 2010 season is a new year, and Vickers and company could recapture last year’s midseason vivacity, but they seem to be the least likely to return to the Chase for the Championship.
Kasey Kahne is another driver that could find himself vying for a spot outside the top twelve. Kahne did not fall apart during the final ten races, in fact, he enjoyed some solid showings. For some reason or another, this team has had trouble backing up a solid season. In 2006, Kahne was emerging as a championship waiting to happen. A year later, he was not even in the same zip code as the Chase for the Championship group.
If the pattern remains unchanged, Kahne will again struggle in 2010. Richard Petty Motorsports, new member of the blue oval entourage, continues its succession of changes, and Kahne is entering a contract season. If he is still a free agent by midseason, the constant questions about his future will become an extreme nuisance, and could serve as a distraction. It will be interesting to see what the 2010 season holds for Kahne and the No. 9 team.
Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya could also face tribulations when it comes to repeating their successes of 2009. Newman was consistent, but he did not contend for a great deal of wins. Newman’s chances do appear better than those of Vickers and Kahne, as Stewart-Haas Racing is continually on the rise.
Montoya was perhaps the most improved driver from 2008 to 2009. He led an abundance of laps and contended for several wins. In fact, I can recall about three of four races in which Montoya had the car to beat. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Montoya drives for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, a two-car outfit that does not have access to the same quantity resources as the heavy hitters at Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Clearly, the EGR group found a balance that worked wonders in 2009, but that balance will not be competitive forever. You have to believe that drivers and teams from more powerful organizations will utilize their resources and enrich their performances. The key to continual success for Montoya and the No. 42 team is if they can keep up with NASCAR’s powerhouse teams when it comes to changes with the car and its balance. If they hit on another magic setup or two, expect Montoya to return to the Chase for the Championship.
Kurt Busch is another driver to keep an eye on, as he has yet to qualify for the Chase for the Championship in consecutive seasons since joining Penske Racing in 2006.
Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Burton are three drivers that will likely claw their way back into championship contention.