There are always some drivers and teams that seemingly rise up out of nowhere, producing surprising performances and upset victories.
Such was the case again in 2010, but the drivers that produced those surprises weren’t exactly shocking. In most cases, they were drivers that had won before, but had struggled a bit in recent years.
But in 2010, some of them bounced back in a big way.
Here’s a look at the biggest surprises in 2010:
At the end of the 2009 season, no one was more down in the dumps than McMurray, who had been released by Roush Fenway Racing and didn’t have a ride until former team owner Chip Ganassi came to the rescue, bringing him back to his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series organization.
Sparked by what he called a more comfortable situation with his old team owner, McMurray had a breakout season to rival all breakout seasons.
With three career victories prior to 2010, McMurray was known as a capable but inconsistent driver who struggled with his confidence. He put those issues to rest in the very first race, scoring a dramatic and emotional victory in the Daytona 500.
After stumbling in the next several races, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver proved his Daytona magic was no fluke, taking runnerup finishes at Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte.
Then the revived McMurray struck again, winning at Indy in the year’s second-biggest race, giving Ganassi a sweep at the Brickyard (his IndyCar team won the Indy 500) and a rare NASCAR sweep of the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
When McMurray won again at Charlotte in October, his status as a legitimate threat and a rising star was cemented.
Though McMurray didn’t make the Chase and his team was too inconsistent throughout the season, his career-high three wins made him one of the stars of 2010.
After finishing 19th in points and going winless for the second straight season last year, Kevin Harvick was expected to improve with a revamped Richard Childress Racing. But no one could have predicted the resurgence Harvick and his No. 29 team would experience in 2010.
With all three RCR teams running better, Harvick was the biggest beneficiary, enjoying perhaps the best Sprint Cup season of his career.
Harvick nearly won the Daytona 500 and then set out on a stretch of consistency that allowed him to lead the points standings most of the regular season. Along the way, he won three races, scoring at Talladega, Daytona in July and Michigan.
Having won just one race in his past three seasons, Harvick’s three victories were a testament to just how strong his team had become.
With remarkable consistency, he was a favorite entering the Chase and did not disappoint, challenging until the very end to finish a career-best third in the final standings.
RCR’s resurgence also was expected to benefit Bowyer, one of the organization’s most consistent drivers. Bowyer took advantage to return to the Chase for the third time in four years.
Then he really stepped up – sort of.
Bowyer won the first Chase race at New Hampshire, but became embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of the season when his car failed to pass postrace inspection. As a result, Bowyer was docked 150 points and his crew chief and car chief were suspended for six races.
The penalties, which were upheld through two appeals, tainted Bowyer’s third career victory and essentially eliminated him from championship contention.
Bowyer wasn’t done, though. He finished second at California and won again at Talladega, beating teammate Harvick in a photo finish.
Despite a poor finish in the Chase – thanks to the penalty – Bowyer’s victories marked the first time he has won more than one Cup race in a season and set him up as one of the sport’s most improved driver over the course of the season.
Reutimann made this list in 2009 after winning his first Sprint Cup race in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. But there was a big question hanging over his head entering 2010.
Could he do it again? And could he win under normal circumstances after the rain-shortened victory at Charlotte?
Reutimann answered with an emphatic yes! He won at Chicago in July, leading 52 laps and beating Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to the finish line.
Other highlights included an impressive runnerup finish at Bristol after challenging Kyle Busch for the win and a fourth-place finish at Talladega.
Though he missed the Chase and was wildly inconsistent, Reutimann had six top-five and nine top-10 finishes for Michael Waltrip Racing to wind up 18th in the final standings.
The biggest surprise with Edwards is that he wound up on this list.
For much of the season, as his winless streak continued to grow, Edwards appeared headed for the “biggest disappointments” list. But once Roush Fenway Racing turned things around in the second half, Edwards was a big beneficiary.
Edwards began to string together consistent finishes in July and August to get off the Chase bubble and earn a spot in the 10-race playoff.
Then, with the season winding down, Edwards finally kicked it into high gear, winning the final two races of the season, including a dominating performance in the season finale at Homestead.
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