The new NASCAR Sprint Cup season is officially under way, with a slate of drivers bringing heightened expectations and goals.
Every team in the sport has committed countless offseason hours to gaining ground on the competition. Even four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson's team has been trying to make sure it doesn't slip a step to those battling to knock them out of the top spot.
The individual team changes vary from minor to significant, but each has offered a source of hope and insight entering the new season.
Hendrick Motorsports made some offseason personnel moves with the No. 88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 5 group of Mark Martin. That could help Earnhardt Jr. eradicate the memory of a dismal season in which he finished a career-worst 25th in the standings and help Martin's 2009 runner-up group as well.
"Our goal is to elevate the performance of both cars," Martin says.
Yates Racing merged with Richard Petty Motorsports, with the latter team shifting to Fords and hoping to benefit from the group's technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing. That organization has made some internal moves as well, moving Donnie Wingo into the crew chief role with driver David Ragan and making other shifts designed to ramp up performance overall.
Stewart-Haas Racing, which put both its drivers in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup in its first year with co-owner Tony Stewart and driver Ryan Newman, has added a third pit crew that could help beef up its effort.
Michael Waltrip Racing has added driver Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Pat Tryson while working to continue the growth and pace of last season.
Richard Childress Racing seems confident gains made in testing and simulations, as well as the first full season with Scott Miller taking a larger role in the competition department, will net improved results.
Joe Gibbs Racing, a perennial factor among the elite teams, has an increased year of experience with Joey Logano and its own hot streak -- that of driver Denny Hamlin -- propelling it into the season. The group has crew chief Dave Rogers entering his first full season of competition with driver Kyle Busch, a threat to win at any track.
Penske Racing has added Brad Keselowski to the fold and put crew chief Steve Addington, winner of a dozen races with Kyle Busch, with Kurt Busch this season.
All of the changes have drivers who came close to the championship, or close to making the Chase, optimistic about the coming year.
That seems to be particularly true in the Ford camp, where the Roush Fenway teams and general manager Robbie Reiser have been working diligently to gain ground during the offseason.
Now, all the groups hope that offseason effort can pay dividends.
"Everyone on our team, myself, everyone has to be able to look at ourselves and say, 'What can we do to be better?' and my guys have been working very hard," says Carl Edwards, a preseason championship favorite in 2009 who went on to finish 11th in the standings. "We've got a really great pit crew and that's going to be huge. Our engineering has been working hard and hopefully we'll be better there, but we've just got to go do it."
At MWR, optimism should be high. David Reutimann made a run at the Chase last season, and new teammate Martin Truex Jr. made that field in 2007. Marcos Ambrose, who competes for JTG Daugherty Racing through an alliance with MWR, was also a solid competitor who gained significant ground.
Now the group is poised for even more success.
"Our race cars are better and continue to get better as we go. They continue to refine them," says Reutimann, who finished 16th in the standings. "And that's all due to the engineering support we're getting from our core group within and Toyota Racing Development. Toyota's giving us more horsepower. Every time, as the season goes on, they give us more and more horsepower. They just keep developing things and making things better."
Ambrose also is optimistic and says there's no reason his team shouldn't be able to contend for a spot in the championship-determining field. He ran his first full season in 2009, finishing 18th in the standings, and says that this year his team has to "manage expectations" as it prepares to start the season.
Logano is in the same boat. Like Ambrose, he enters his second full season. Now that he's returning to tracks he saw once or twice last year and has more overall experience with the car and with crew chief Greg Zipadelli, the team expects to gain more ground.
"There's a lot left in Joey Logano," Zipadelli says. "He's not even come close to his peak. That's exciting, that over time we're going to get better, he's going to get better, we're going to be able to make his cars better, because he'll be able to tell us more about what it's doing, how it feels, what he wants, and that's time. That's something you ... can't rush."
Perhaps the most optimistic drivers and crews, though, are those within the Ford camp.
On the RPM side, Kasey Kahne and his teammates believe the new alliance can pay dividends quickly. Kahne points to the strong engines of the group and the technical support that the deal offers.
Teammate AJ Allmendinger sees even larger gains that the partnership provides.
"You don't need to say anything about their driver lineup, you know how good they are and that's something that I feel like there's going to be a lot of guys that I can take a lot of knowledge from and ... try to keep working to keep getting better in and out of the race car and hopefully, at some point during the year, I can come back and help them out," he says. "But I know they're going to be helping me out a ton, and that was something that last year being able to work with Kasey and Elliott (Sadler), I just learned a ton every weekend."
The Roush Fenway drivers are also confident they have gained ground on the competition. While they won three races in 2009, the organization's five drivers had a top finish of seventh (Greg Biffle) in the standings and only two drivers in the Chase.
While the first 2010 race has yet to be run, drivers and their teams are confident this is the year they can mount a true challenge for the championship.
And each has specific reasons why that is the case - and what aspects of the offseason will benefit them the most in the attempt to end Johnson's streak of championships.
"I don't want to sound like a broken record, but we've got our cars lighter a little bit," Biffle says when asked what will help in that quest. "We've got a little more downforce on the car -- 10, 20, 30 pounds of downforce in the car. ... We have revolutionized into a newer, better bump stop that we think is gonna be better. We've been working hard on our pit crew. We've got the FR9 Ford engine coming along.
"So you take all those things and scoop them up, and we say that's what's gonna beat Jimmie Johnson this year."