Not surprisingly, the list of most improved NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers of 2010 mostly consists of guys who slumped badly in 2009 but rebounded strongly this year.
It makes sense: If you have an off-year, you have more room to improve in the following season. Such was the case with most of this year’s list of Sprint Cup drivers who made significant headway in 2010.
Following are the year’s big gainers:
1. Kevin Harvick. 2010 points: 3rd. 2009 points, 19th — The man known to his fans as “Happy” indeed had many reasons to smile over the year, as he took the championship fight with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin down to the final race of the 2010 season. In fact, Harvick had the best average finish of any of the 12 drivers in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
As everyone knows by now, the entire Richard Childress Racing organization made a miraculous turnaround in 2010, but from the very beginning of the year, it was Harvick who was the clear leader among the three RCR drivers. Harvick won three races during the season and was the runaway points leader after 26 races in NASCAR’s regular season.
“We came out of the gate strong,” said Harvick. “We ran strong all year. And in the end, we came up a little bit short but from where we were last year to this steppingstone, for us to build on is a whole lot better than where we were a year to go to be consistent racing for championships.”
2. Matt Kenseth. 2010 points: 5th. 2009: 14th — After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career in 2009, Kenseth rode the rising tide that lifted the entire Roush Fenway Racing fleet, especially during the closing stages of the season.
The 2003 Sprint Cup champion had what can best be described as a bi-polar season: In his first five races, he never finished worse than eighth and had three consecutive top fives at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Bristol. But he had just two top fives in the next 23 races. He ended the year on an up note, with top 10s in five of the final eight races, including a runner-up result at Texas.
“We’ve always got along good, but it seems like the whole group right now is moving along,” said Kenseth, who opened the season with Drew Blickensderfer as his crew chief, then Todd Parrott and, finally, Jimmy Fennig. “As an organization, our cars have been getting faster and all of them have been more competitive, so it seems like we’re headed in the right direction.”
3. Jamie McMurray. 2010 points: 14th. 2009: 22nd — In his first year reunited with old boss Chip Ganassi, McMurray did everything except make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, the two biggest races on the NASCAR schedule, and added a fall victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway to boot.
Granted, McMurray had plenty of bad races, too: He finished outside the top 20 a total of 12 times, or one out of every three races. But the bigger the stage, the brighter his light shined.
“Everyone wants to make the Chase,” said McMurray. “Getting to win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 means more to me this year than making the Chase. This year or in 10 years, the guy that won that race one time everybody will talk about. The guy that finished third in the points, nobody cares. I would really like to be in the Chase, but I have no focus on that at all.”
4. Paul Menard. 2010 points: 23rd. 2009: 31st — While it’s true that Menard did not run in the upper echelon of the Sprint Cup teams, he showed solid improvement nonetheless. Driving for his third team in three seasons — and one that is in the middle of fiscal collapse — Menard had the best points finish of his still-young career.
“We’ve had some success and we’ve made some mistakes, but we’ve learned from it all,” said Menard. “There are always some races you’d like to have back and there are certainly several of those I can think of this year, but the folks at Richard Petty Motorsports assembled a really good team and we came out of the box really strong. I’m proud of the way this team performed all year.”
Next year, though, he’ll really get a chance to show what he can do, as he and crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe will move to Richard Childress Racing.
5. Carl Edwards. 2010 points: 4th. 2009: 11th — With victories in the finally two races of the season, Edwards both broke a 70-race winless streak and moved himself back up the charts as a potential threat to Jimmie Johnson’s supremacy atop the Sprint Cup standings.
“I feel a lot better right now going into 2011 than I did going into 2009 and that’s because I feel like we’ve got a lot of momentum, things are getting better, we’ve got a new engine that we’re working on that just keeps getting better,” said Edwards. “ ... We’ve just got a lot of good things going. I can’t tell you guys how much it means to finish the season like this. It’s spectacular for us.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.