The 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season: The Most Defining Moments
The season of giving is upon everyone, and now NASCAR has its down time for all the drivers and crews.
The work at the shops continue as the countdown has begun leading to the Daytona 500.
Teams are tearing down cars, rebuilding parts, and waiting for the NASCAR rule book to come out for the 2010 season.
But, so much came out of the 2009 season.
There were controversies, unlikely moments, disappointments, and great achievements.
It was a season of many joyous occasions, while also witnessing some of the greatest downfalls in the sport's history.
The teams expected to run well during the year were at the forefront once again, but new teams emerged as threats to win.
Teams that were expected to follow up a successful 2008 had a season that all would rather forget.
It was a historic year for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Here is my take on the biggest moments of the past year.
Most Controversial: Jeremy Mayfield's Suspension
When I went to Darlington for the Southern 500, the last thing on my mind was a news story that would vastly affect the sport.
I was thinking of who had the best chance to win, not who would be the most talked about driver.
But, there I was, sitting in the grandstands waiting for the pre-race festivities to start.
Jim Hunter comes on the big screen, and, in moments, the talk went from who was fastest in practice to the "OMG" moment of the season.
Jeremy Mayfield had failed the sanctioning body's substance-abuse policy, and thus got an indefinite suspension.
What came in the aftermath was definitely the most controversial story of the 2009 season.
Mayfield claimed that he failed because of a combination of allergy and cold medicine he was taking, however, NASCAR would not reveal what it found.
Then, reports surfaced that it was methamphetamine that caused the failure, and Mayfield began denying.
It got as far as lawsuits trying to get Mayfield back on the track, which Mayfield actually won.
He could return to the track, but no team really had interest in bringing him on.
Then, NASCAR came back with affidavits from Mayfield's own family members saying they witnessed him take meth on several occasions.
That was enough to overturn the original decision and put Mayfield on the sidelines yet again.
Now, he's in a struggle within NASCAR and his own family, a controversy that is long from being settled.
His career is practically over, and it is possible that the former Penske and Evernham driver will never be back on track racing in NASCAR.
Whether what he says is true or not, this was the controversy that was talked about the most as the season continued.
Most Surprising: Marcos Ambrose
It's always a shock whenever a driver breaks out and has a good season, but here's someone who found the right ride and the right team to get it done.
Australia's Marcos Ambrose, nicknamed the "Tasmanian Devil" because of his hometown, had a spectacular year in his first full season for JTG Daughtry Racing, run out of the Michael Waltrip stable.
Despite not making it to victory lane, Ambrose had a very solid season. He ended with four top-five and seven top-10 finishes, with a career best runner-up finish at Watkins Glen.
Not one to shy away from anyone, Ambrose will definitely be a driver to watch for in 2010 as he continues his climb in the Sprint Cup Series.
Most Effort: Stewart-Haas Racing
There is no doubt a lot of effort that goes into preparing a race team for a race.
But, when that team is your own, it means a lot more is on the line.
Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing to create his own identity, his own team, and own brand.
Gene Haas gave him that opportunity, and Stewart-Haas Racing was formed.
Everything was new to him, and he knew the effort would be massive to get this team to the level of a Hendrick or Roush.
But, Stewart had a plan.
He hired fellow Indiana driver Ryan Newman to campaign the other team car.
He went to Hendrick Motorsports to get the best equipment.
Long-time sponsor Old Spice came with him to the team, and then he added the Office Depot and the U.S. Army to his cars.
Expectations were high heading into the season, but it was clear early on that this organization would do well.
Stewart led the point series for a majority of the season, won the all-star race, and followed up with four victories on the season.
Stewart would finish sixth in the final standings, while Newman finished ninth, despite not winning a race.
The team beat all the odds put in front of them, and it could be a sign of things to come as this organization only gets better in time.
Most Improved: Michael Waltrip Racing
Whenever Michael Waltrip entered into the realm of team ownership, he came in at a time where the series was heading in a new direction.
The new car was being introduced, which meant the team had to create more cars in a short period of time.
In two years, the team was not as accomplished as they would have expected.
But, the 2009 season was one that was extremely successful for Michael Waltrip Racing.
The team's long-time driver, David Reutimann, played the rain game correctly and got the team's first win in the Coca-Cola 600.
Reutimann, for much of the season, was in the hunt of getting into the Chase, just falling short when the 12-driver field was set.
Waltrip, himself, made a personal decision to walk away from being a full-time driver to focus on his role as an owner.
But, as he was walking away, he decided to bring on a fresh face to take over his NAPA Toyota.
Waltrip hired Martin Truex, Jr., who was in his last year under contract with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, to take over his ride.
This team showed much improvement in the 2009 campaign, and, with a new driver in the mix, they will have a fresh look heading into a new season.
Most Talked-About: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s Struggles
The old cliche of "when it rains, it pours" could certainly describe the season the No. 88 team of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., experienced.
It was a season of so many lows, letdowns, and disappointments that it could only be described in one word: brutal.
Starting at Daytona with the pit miscues and the involvement in the multi-car wreck, it just went downhill.
Engine blow ups, broken parts, accidents, bad calls, and even family controversy were part of the season.
Following the Coca-Cola 600, crew chief and cousin of Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Eury, Jr,, was relieved of his position and replaced with Lance McGrew.
The team showed improvement, running more consistent and closer to the front.
However, they were unable to finish the deal when they were running well.
Pit mistakes, bad track position, and broken parts kept them from the finishes they deserved.
Earnhardt, Jr., admitted it was a struggle this year, but he expects that next year will be different with the changes they are expecting to make in-house to the crew.
McGrew, himself, will be back with the team and will look to bring his driver back to the front with his teammates.
Each week it was discussed of how this team could not finish races and how the team needed to improve.
It was certainly the most-discussed topic of the entire year.
Hopefully, when the season goes green at Daytona, things turn out different for the No. 88.
Most Gratifying: Mark Martin's Return
It has been said that things only get better with age.
For Mark Martin, he symbolizes that statement.
The 50-year-old driver elected to come back to race a full-time schedule at the helm of the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports.
It was three years since Martin ran the entire schedule, saying he wanted to spend more time with his wife and children.
But, the opportunity felt right, and he decided to go back to running the 36-race schedule.
It was unknown how the team would fare, or whether they would be able to compete with the likes of Gordon and Johnson, who were the top teams in the stable.
It became clear real early that Martin was at the right place when he climbed into the No. 5.
His win at Phoenix surprised everyone, and the elation on his face showed he was enjoying his new role and his new ride.
Then, he tamed Darlington, saved enough fuel to win Michigan, and dominated Chicago, giving him four wins on the year.
All the while, he had that bright smile and couldn't believe he was doing that well.
He went on to win the opening Chase race at New Hampshire and eventually finished runner-up in the points for a fifth time.
His season was not only enough to bring him back full-time in 2010 but also 2011.
His joy inside the car could be heard every week, saying things like "I just love driving this car."
Martin will be a contender once again next year.
If he gets his championship, you will see everyone in tears, as they all will witness something that was long overdue for a very respected man.
Most Historic: Four-Time Champion Jimmie Johnson
Richard Petty never did it. Dale Earnhardt couldn't do it. Jeff Gordon failed to win it. Cale Yarborough was close, but couldn't accomplish it.
One driver, one team, and one accomplishment that will quite possibly never be equaled was completed in 2009.
Jimmie Johnson has officially put himself on a level in NASCAR that no one is anywhere near.
Talk began at the end of 2008 of whether Johnson could surpass Yarborough and win his fourth-consecutive title.
But, he was not talking about it, nor was his crew chief Chad Knaus or Rick Hendrick.
As the season began, it was seen that Johnson was capable of getting to that point, winning races and running consistently near the front.
But, when the Chase began, the heat was turned up and the No. 48 lit up.
Johnson won at Dover. Then, two weeks later, he went to victory lane at California.
The next week, he reclaimed "his yard" in Charlotte. A setback in Texas put more pressure on the three-time champ, which he took in stride as he dominated the following race at Phoenix.
Then, at Homestead, a solid sixth-place finish gave him something that no other driver has.
Petty, Earnhardt, and Gordon all have four or more championships, but Johnson became the first driver to win his four titles in successive years.
It is an unparalleled feat that will never be equaled.
How long could this go on? Can anyone in the series overtake Johnson as the No. 1 driver?
That is a tall feat for anyone to try and do, but every driver in the garage knows that he is the one to beat for the title every year.
The 2010 season could bring another historic feat for the Lowe's team, but it will take 36 races to determine if he will again be the one hoisting that trophy in Las Vegas.