The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup had a representative cast – three drivers each from Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, two each from Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing and one each from Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.
All four car manufacturers – Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota – were represented. The Chase also had both younger blood – Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch – and veteran drivers like Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon.
What of next year? Will the cast change appreciably? Can the sport’s three top operations – Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush Fenway – continue to dominate?
And, most importantly for those on the fringes, can drivers who had “almost but no cigar” performances in 2010 take the next step next year?
Much of that is an unknown, of course, and there’s another uncertainty thrown into the mix by NASCAR’s continuing discussions about the flavor of next season’s Chase. There is talk, for example, that the Chase field might be expanded from 12 drivers to 15.
So predictions regarding Chase timber 10 months from its start is risky business, at best, but here’s a look at some non-Chasers who seem noteworthy candidates to make runs at the top-level group next season:
-- Jamie McMurray – He won three times this season, easily the most productive of the non-Chasers. Two of those victories were in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, NASCAR’s biggest races. Lack of consistency hurt McMurray, who had only 12 top-10 finishes, compared to, for example, Kevin Harvick’s 26.
-- Ryan Newman – Newman missed the Chase one season after both he and teammate Tony Stewart qualified in the first year of the Stewart-Haas Racing organization. Newman isn’t used to not being fast enough. Look for a rally.
-- Joey Logano – No driver made more impressive gains in 2010 than Logano, who seemed to get faster with each race in the final third of the season. He’s a probable Chaser next year.
-- Mark Martin – Martin missed the Chase this year for the first time in his full-time career. His cars were substandard part of this season and he went winless, but he still finished 13th in points.
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Yes, Earnhardt Nation longs to see its superstar return to the championship-contending fold. It could happen with a crew chief change and new direction at Hendrick.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.