In a little over a month, the Daytona International Speedway will be filled with over 50 NASCAR Sprint Cup teams ready to start a new season.
The competition will be intense as every driver attempts to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500. More preparation will go into this race than any other during the season. Two weeks of practice, a qualifying session, and two 60-lap qualifying races just to set the field means a lot of action in the garage.
As the season draws near, I thought it would be an appropriate time to begin looking at some of the drivers to watch out for leading into the 2010 campaign. This is not a prediction of who will be making the Chase, or will be winning the championship. Instead, it's looking at some drivers who will greatly improve from the 2009 season.
When I think of a guy to watch out for in 2010, the guy at the very top of my list is Kyle Busch. The 2009 Nationwide Series champion had, by his standards, an off year.
Despite four wins, including a sweep of Bristol, the driver known as "Rowdy" did not put himself in championship contention.
Some questioned whether him running the full Nationwide Series took away from his commitment to the Cup car, but I don't think that was the case. I believe he just proved that he was human, and couldn't win every race he was in.
As he enters 2010, Busch looks to not be racing the entire Nationwide schedule, putting more focus on his Cup effort. But, that championship is going to give him a lot of confidence when the season begins.
I don't expect a repeat of 2009; I expect a season like 2008. Many wins, a Chase berth, and a championship contender. The entire M&M's team will be on top of their game, and the No. 18 Toyota will be out front quite a bit, as would be expected from Rowdy.
Although Busch may be the driver from Joe Gibbs Racing that gets a lot of the attention, teammate Denny Hamlin was very vocal about his expectations in the next few years.
Following his win at Homestead, Hamlin said that in the next couple of years, he and his team would win a championship. That is a very tall order considering he must dethrone a four-time champion.
But, look for this team to be extremely competitive in 2010. The lone representative for Gibbs in the Chase had a lot of misfortune come his way.
This is a team wanting to prove they can win a title, and I believe they can.
The final driver on my watch list has a lot of questions heading into 2009. Questions about success, struggles, and being a contender were answered after 36 races. Now, the question is if can he follow up with another successful year.
That driver is Tony Stewart.
A new two-car team was a major risk for Stewart, but he adapted very quickly to his new responsibility. He and teammate Ryan Newman both made the Chase, with Stewart winning four races as well as the All-Star Race.
If anyone can knock off Jimmie Johnson as the Sprint Cup champion, it is "Smoke." He's got the same equipment as Johnson, but Stewart has been able to show that he can be competitive and consistent the entire season, not just the Chase.
It was Stewart who won the Chase in 2005 before Johnson began his stranglehold on the title. He knows what he needs to do to win it.
As we embark on a new decade of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, I believe these are the ones who are to be watched the most. Each has their own things to prove, but each has the same goal: to become a champion.
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