CUP: Junior, Jeff Blanks Were Top Driver Stories

I see that some of my media colleagues selected Jimmie Johnson's championship run as the biggest NASCAR story of 2010. I disagree.

As I opined earlier, I think the most significant overall story was the impressive safety record NASCAR continued to amass – but of course safety is a boring subject until something goes wrong.

As for the biggest driver story, I don’t think Jimmie winning a fifth straight title was it. Certainly it was an impressive accomplishment but it’s not like he hasn’t done it before. Four times before, in fact. Last year’s set the record, this year’s was redundant.

When Johnson DOESN’T win the championship it’ll be big news.

The biggest driver story this season wasn’t who did all the winning but who did all the losing. Topping the list were the sport’s two biggest stars, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

Both laid goose-eggs in 2010.

Each shutout is significant for different reasons. In Gordon’s case, he’s a four-time champion who at one time was considered a threat to displace Petty, Pearson and other giants atop the list of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

Jeff couldn’t match their number of wins, of course, but many long-time observers of the sport believed he was equal to their talent.

Then suddenly the glow was gone from NASCAR’s Golden Boy.

Gordon squeezed into this year’s Chase but was never a serious contender. As mistakes compounded and losses mounted, the pressure increased, resulting in an uncharacteristic meltdown and confrontation with Jeff Burton.

Gordon’s winless season extended the longest losing streak of his once-dazzling career. And with each year that melts from the calendar, the question looms larger and larger: will he ever get his groove back?

Earnhardt, unlike Gordon, has no championship legacy to defend, but he has an even heavier burden on his shoulders: The legacy of his name, the great expectations that ride with the son of the Intimidator.

When your name is Dale Earnhardt Jr., when you have more fans than any other driver, when you have a top-flight ride and unlimited resources, you’re expected to win races.

The fact that Junior not only didn’t win this season but was seldom in contention and nowhere close to making the championship Chase was stunning.

Magnifying the slump of Gordon and Earnhardt was the magic carpet ride of teammate Jimmie Johnson to yet another championship. How come Jimmie could drive Rick Hendrick’s cars to victory after victory while Gordon and Earnhardt (and also Mark Martin) went winless in similar rides?

If all four teammates flopped perhaps it could be blamed on slow cars and weak support. But when one soars while the others sag it’s mystifying.

What happened to Jeff and Junior, two superstars who lost their shine? That’s NASCAR’s biggest question and also its biggest driver story.

Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at