DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For several drivers, 2010 will be a make or break year.
With blue-chip sponsors slashing budgets or searching for a greater return on investment, a driver finishing outside of the top 25 is simply unacceptable.
Certainly racers can have a run of bad luck. But when a driver's results are in sharp contrast to what his teammates are accomplishing and it becomes a recurring theme, then it's time to reevaluate the program.
Here are four drivers on the hot seat as the season begins.
Scott Speed Speed, 27, has a mere 40 Cup races under his belt. Similar to AJ Allmendinger, this Red Bull racer was thrown into the deep end in NASCAR's Cup pool and expected to swim. It hasn't happened. The glaring example of Speed's lack of proficiency in stock cars was failing to qualify at Sonoma last June, which forced management to purchase a ride for the driver. One would believe a former Formula One racer could at least put on a show at a road course. Speed finished 37th at Infineon and 22nd at Watkins Glen. In comparison, fellow F1 pilot Juan Pablo Montoya won his first Cup race at Infineon.
Speed has just one finish better than 15th – a top five at Talladega last spring. His average finish last season was 28.9 and he was posted 36th in owner points, forcing Speed to qualify on time for the first five races in 2010. Word on the street is he has until Bristol to save his ride. If Speed can't turn his program around, Casey Mears, who worked with crew chief Jimmy Elledge at Chip Ganassi, will be waiting in the wings. Sam Hornish Unfortunately for Hornish, 30, rumors of his demise started just about the time the IndyCar champ transferred full-time to stock cars. After missing the season finale at Homestead in 2008 and falling outside of the top 35, team owner Roger Penske was forced to purchase points from Bill Davis to secure a spot for the No. 77 Dodge in the first five races of the season.
While Hornish had the stability of working last season with one crew chief, Travis Geisler, he was still adapting to someone new calling the shots and finished 28th in the point standings. Hornish showed improvement on flat tracks and venues where he had raced before but overall his bad days were horrid. Seven top-10 finishes in 2009 were overshadowed by six races where Hornish's car ended up on the wrecker. Hornish caught the ire of four-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who recently said of the driver, "He hits way too much stuff, including me, at important times of the year. And then he's never said a word."
Hornish, like Speed, could have benefitted from a full season on Nationwide Series racing before making the jump. Some pundits have Hornish under a three-year plan similar to Montoya, where he would flourish following two seasons to get the kinks out. Despite Hornish's heralded record with Roger Penske in open wheel, there are too many development drivers in the company's arsenal to continue down this path without marked improvement in 2010. David Ragan After barely missing the Chase in 2008 -- Ragan's sophomore season -- the youngest Cup driver in the Roush camp tanked in his third year on the tour. Yes, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization missed the mark; former Cup champ Matt Kenseth missed the Chase for the first time since the program's inception after winning the first two races of the year. But after securing a solid sponsor in UPS for the No. 6 Ford, Ragan suffered two engine failures in the first seven races. The 25-year-old, second-generation Cup driver experienced two additional DNFs over the next 10 events and struggled to remain inside the top 30 in points before settling for 27th.
Roush enlisted veteran crew chief Donnie Wingo to replace Jimmy Fennig for Ragan this season. Wingo led former Roush driver Jamie McMurray to Victory Lane last fall at Talladega -- the company's third and final win in 2009. Wingo has a strong track record with younger drivers and will be an asset to Ragan as the pair works to turn the team around. Ragan finished sixth in the Daytona 500 last season and excels at restrictor plate tracks. A strong run in the Twins and on Sunday could go a long way toward rebuilding momentum for this squad. Elliott Sadler Following Sadler's first season in the No. 19 car, one manager quipped, 'We've replaced Jeremy Mayfield with Jeremy Mayfield'. In his three full seasons with the company now known as Richard Petty Motorsports, he's posted just three top fives. His best effort in the point standings came in 2008 when he finished 24th and team owner George Gillett attempted to release Sadler at the end of the season despite having re-signed him earlier that year.
Still, it's surprising that in 11 Cup seasons, Sadler has just one top-10 finish in the point standings and three career wins. Certainly, Sadler's popularity makes him attractive to sponsors and his stats more palatable. With all of RPM's sponsor and driver contracts up for renewal this season, Sadler could use his relationship with Stanley tools to his advantage when it comes to negotiating.
However, with RPM's alliance with Roush Fenway Racing and the development drivers such as Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse moving up the ranks, there could be other plans for the No. 19 ride.