CUP: Martin, Earnhardt Jr. Top Disappointment List

Many of the top stars we expected to shine in 2010 came through in a big way – Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

But some failed to produce the same results they did in 2009, or the results that were expected based on their records and history or the history of their respective teams.

Here’s a look at the most disappointing drivers in 2010:

Mark Martin

Mark Martin has had few disappointing seasons in his illustrious 24-year career, but 2010 would have to be one of his biggest.

A year after winning five races and challenging teammate Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup championship, Martin was rarely a factor on the track, going winless and slumping to 13th in points. It was his third-worst points finish when running the full season since 1988.

Martin’s Hendrick Motorsports team struggled early, and then had trouble adjusting to the switch from the rear wing to the spoiler. He scored just seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes, his fewest top-10s in a full season since 2003.

Martin did show improvement toward the end of the year, scoring four top-10s in his final seven races, including a season-high second at Martinsville.

Martin, 51, will have a new crew chief in Lance McGrew in his final season with Hendrick Motorsports next year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It might have seemed foolish to expect vast improvement from Dale Earnhardt Jr.. after he finished 25th in points in 2009, but he does drive for Hendrick Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s elite teams.

But Earnhardt Jr. was expected to be better in his second season with crew chief Lance McGrew, and he was for a while. After a runnerup finish in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. was 12th in points after 11 races.

He was in contention to make the Chase through the first half of the season, but stumbled badly down the stretch and finished 21st in points.

It was the second straight winless season for the sport’s most popular driver.

Like Martin, Earnhardt will get a new crew chief next year, with former Jeff Gordon crew chief Steve Letarte replacing McGrew.

Jeff Gordon

If Martin and Earnhardt Jr. weren’t enough, this should confirm what an offseason it was for every Hendrick team not led by Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Jeff Gordon was strong most of the year, collecting 11 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes and riding second in points for eight straight weeks. He made the Chase for the fifth straight season, but stumbled badly when the Chase began.

Gordon had just four top-10 finishes in the Chase and was never a factor. A wreck and 37th-place finish at Texas knocked him from Chase contention and the four-time champion finished the season with a blown engine and another 37th at Homestead.

After looking like a contender much of the season, Gordon faded to ninth in the final standings and failed to win a race for the second time in the past three seasons.

Like his teammates, he will get a new crew chief next season, working with former Martin mate Alan Gustafson.

Jeff Burton

Like Gordon, Jeff Burton had a solid season and was happy to make the Chase, particularly after missing it in 2009.

Burton, however, spent the latter part of the season lamenting what might have been and what went wrong.

He saw numerous opportunities to win slip away early in the season, but was still in championship contention at midseason. He was third in points just four races from the cutoff for the Chase.

With teammate Kevin Harvick leading the standings much of the year, Burton liked his chances entering the Chase. But the wheels quickly came off.

Burton had just two top-10 finishes in the Chase and had a terrible finish to the season, including an embarrassing fight with Gordon at Texas after accidentally wrecking him under caution.

In his last four races, Burton had finishes of 41st, 36th, 19th and 31st. He wound up finishing last in the Chase, even falling behind teammate Clint Bowyer, who suffered a 150-point penalty.

Burton’s late struggles were magnified by the fact that Harvick challenged for the championship and he and Bowyer combined to win five races.

Few drivers were more frustrated at the end of the year than Burton.

“It’s been a real frustrating Chase,” Burton said. “We have to be better in several areas.”

Kasey Kahne

Despite his worst points finish since 2005, Kasey Kahne wasn’t ready for the 2010 season to end. That’s because he had already left struggling Richard Petty Motorsports for Red Bull Racing.

After winning two races each of the past two seasons and making the Chase in 2009, Kahne suffered through the worst season of his career in 2010.

He had seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, but went winless and had 13 finishes of 26th or worse.

He was able to bear the struggles, however, with the knowledge that he was leaving RPM after the season and joining powerful Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. He will drive for Red Bull next season before taking over Martin’s No. 5 car the following year.

Ryan Newman

Ryan Newman won a thrilling race at Phoenix in April, outrunning Gordon on the final restart. But it was an uphill struggle from there.

Newman had just two more top-five finishes the rest of the season and missed the Chase after making it in 2009.

Newman was in position to make the Chase after 14 races, but stumbled in the summer to just miss the top 12. He hit a hot streak in August and September, but stumbled down the stretch to finish 15th in the final standings.

Juan Pablo Montoya

No one had worse luck than Juan Pablo Montoya, who made the Chase in 2009. He finished 26th or worse in five of the first eight races to find himself buried in the points standings and never recovered.

Though he scored his second career Sprint Cup victory at Watkins Glen in August, sparking a five-week hot streak, it was short-lived. His bad luck continued, leading to eight DNFs.

The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had just one top-10 finish in his final 10 races and wound up 17th in points.

Martin Truex Jr.

Martin Truex Jr. was expected to win and be a Chase contender after moving to Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2010 season. Jeff Gordon even predicted Truex Jr. would make the Chase.

Boy, was he off base.

Truex Jr. scored just one top-five – a fifth at Martinsville in April – and seven top-10 finishes to finish 22nd in the final standings.

Every time Truex got to the front, it seemed something would go wrong, leading to nine finishes of 25th or worse. His best race of the season was the last one, when he led 62 laps at Homestead. But even that would end in disappointment with an 11th-place finish.

Brad Keselowski

Brad Keselowski was supposed to take the Sprint Cup Series by storm. Instead, he just created a storm – a firestorm of controversy.

Highly publicized feuds with Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch kept Keselowski in the center of controversy and led to a frightening, airborne crash at Atlanta.

When he wasn’t running into other drivers, or getting run into, his performance on the track was pretty uneventful.

Though he won the Nationwide Series title, Keselowski had just two top-10 finishes (10th twice) and 14 finishes of 25th or worse to finish 25th in points in his first full season in the Cup series. • Auto Club of Southern California to sponsor Kurt Busch in three races