You can feel the excitement in the air.
We are only a few weeks away from the largest sporting event on the planet. An annual spectacle in the making. Almost a full week of festivities and events leading up to the main event itself.
Super Bowl? No way. The last game of the NFL season is usually known more for its commercials than the game itself.
I'm talking about the Great American Race—the Daytona 500. NASCAR's season-opening celebration. It's been less than three months since the 2009 season wrapped up in Homestead, and yet it seems longer. Perhaps it's the short days and cold nights of winter.
2010 has the looks of a great year. Can Jimmie Johnson continue his historic run?
Will Joey Logano suffer a sophomore slump?
How will Brad Keselowski do in the No. 12 Dodge or Martin Truex, Jr. in his No. 56 Toyota?
Can Roush Fenway Racing regain its dominance in the chase?
I looked over the past 10 seasons of NASCAR, and here's my outlook for 2010. (Hey, it's cold outside, and it beats watching the NBA)
No Need to Pencil 'Em In:
Go ahead, use the ball point. These drivers will be in the Chase.
Jimmie Johnson — Eight years in NASCAR, four championships. No finish lower than fifth in the standings, and that was in his rookie year of 2002.
Jeff Gordon — The past 10 seasons he has averaged fifth. Only once over the past 10 years has he fallen outside the top 12. Over his career his average starting position is 9.8. He also knows how to finish, currently fifth on the all-time wins list with 82.
Mark Martin — Coming off one of his best seasons with five wins, he continues to shine as part of the Hendrick stable. Finishing second in the Championship for the fifth time, he's got to be chomping at the bit to get the 2010 season started.
Tony Stewart — Over the past 10 years, Tony has averaged fifth place in the Championship. He is the only driver to win pre- and post-chase format. He'll want to prove last year as an owner-driver was no anomaly.
Jeff Burton — This one may seem a stretch, but Burton has been a fairly consistent driver over his career. For the past decade, he has an average championship rank of 9.3. His average career finish (16.0) is incredibly almost five spots better than his average start (21.4). He knows how to pick up spots on the track.
Carl Edwards — He's only been around five years, but he's never finished lower than 12th in the standings. Like Burton, his average finish (13.8) is better than his average start (17.6) by almost four positions. An 11th place finish in 2009 was a disappointment after the epic battle with Johnson finishing second in 2008.
Denny Hamlin — Like Johnson and Edwards, Hamlin has never finished outside the top 12 in his four seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. Unlike teammate Kyle Busch, he knows how to points race and usually finishes (13.9) where he starts (14.1).
That fills just over half of the chase positions. Check back in September, and don't forget the bottle of whiteout.
On the Bubble:
For these drivers it could fall either way. One DNF and it could cost them a position in the Chase. There's only room for five.
Greg Biffle: For Biffle, it's been two mediocre years, followed by a great one. 2009 was an exception with a seventh place finish following his third place finish in 2008. Has he broken the pattern, or has it just skipped a year?
Ryan Newman: Eight years behind the wheel, an average rank of 10.3 and a ninth place finish in 2009. Stewart-Haas Racing seems to be on the fast track. Newman has always qualified well with an average starting position of 10.9, but his average finish is only 17.1.
Juan Montoya: Was 2009 a fluke, or has Montoya finally turned the corner with the conversion to NASCAR? His average finish in 2009 (14.2) was almost 10 spots better than 2008 (23.9).
Matt Kenseth: Six of the past 10 years in the top 12. If he can eliminate the finishes in the 30s he's in.
Kevin Harvick: 2009 was Harvick's second worse year of his career. Almost half of his seasons have finished in the top 12.
No Repeat Performance:
The following 2009 Chase drivers will not return in 2010.
Kurt Busch: 2009 was the best average finish for Busch since winning the Championship in 2004. He has not finished consecutive years in the top 12.
Brian Vickers: It was an exciting race last year at Richmond, when Vickers edged out Kyle Busch for the final spot in the Chase. However, he ended the Chase in the same spot. With an average finish over six seasons of 20.6, he has not shown the consistency to expect him back in 2010.
Kasey Kahne : He's only finished in the top 12 twice in his six years racing for the Cup.
Dale Earnhardt Jr: The free agent coup of 2008 fizzled in 2009 with his worst finish of his career. As NASCAR's most popular driver, I like Jr., but he needs to figure out how to work with his crew chief in the Hendrick way.
Kyle Busch: For the younger Busch brother, it's win or wreck trying. If he ever learns patience and sees the big picture in points racing, he stands a chance to win a championship. Until then he will be on the outside looking in.
With that, let the fun begin. With new rules or back to old ones, another modification to the COT and a full 26-points races ahead, does it get any better?