When the 2010 NASCAR season concluded, and Jimmie Johnson was once again crowned the champion, focus immediately shifted to 2011, and the questions of Johnson winning an unprecedented sixth consecutive championship began to swirl.
While Johnson will undoubtedly head in to next season as the odds-on favorite to win the championship, his stranglehold on the top spot is poised to come to an end.
Kevin Harvick has emerged as the new heir to the throne.
The 34-year-old Bakersfield, California native had a career year in 2010. Harvick ended a winless drought that spanned more than three full seasons, and he shattered his previous career high of 20 top-10 finishes when he collected 26 this past season. He was also, by far, the most consistent driver of the year.
His average finish of 8.7 was a full three positions better than any other driver.
Harvick finished the season in third place, losing to Johnson by a mere 41 points. Had the points been contested under traditional rules, and not under the Chase format, Harvick would have been the champion by 285 points over Johnson.
In fact, Harvick would have proven so dominant in 2010 that he would have had the championship clinched after the Phoenix race, making the race at Homestead nothing more than the first leg of his victory tour.
But unfortunately, for Harvick, that was not the case. As it was, he went in to Homestead needing a lot of things to go his way to win the championship, which obviously, they didn't.
Harvick's 2010 campaign was not only impressive, but also improbable. He was coming off one of his worst years in Sprint Cup competition, where he finished an uninspiring nineteenth in the point standings, and scored his lowest number of top-10 finishes since 2002.
Not much was expected out of Harvick in 2010, and he was once again forced to turn the skeptics into believers. Harvick snapped a three-year winless streak at Talladega in the season's ninth race. The following week at Richmond, Harvick claimed the points lead, which he would then hold on to for the remainder of the regular season.
With 2010 now in the rear view mirror, a rejuvenated Harvick can begin his quest for the Sprint Cup in 2011. His confidence, in not only himself, but the whole team is at an all time high, and confidence is an important factor in a team's success.
There were also a lot of questions surrounding Harvick entering the 2010 season that won't be there for the coming season. The biggest issue was his contract situation beyond 2010 and his commitment to Richard Childress Racing.
After signing a new multi-year deal with RCR and picking up Budweiser as the primary sponsor of the No. 29 Chevrolet, Harvick's commitment to the team are no longer an issue or a question and the team is clearly focused on picking up right where they left off in 2010.
Not everyone is sold on the idea of Harvick being the man to take the title form Johnson, though. Many people are once again looking at Denny Hamlin as the most likely successor.
But I think it will be a lot harder for Hamlin than for Harvick.
If you look at recent history, it is clearly not on Hamlin's side. If you look at the previous four seasons in which Johnson won the championship, each year featured a different driver in the runner-up role.
Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin all took turns trying to wrestle the championship away from Johnson. And much like Hamlin this season, they all came up short.
In each of those other four drivers' cases, the season after they challenged Johnson for the title, they suffered a major drop off in production. Kenseth was the only driver that even was able to score a victory in the season following his runner-up performance, and he was the only one to finish in the top five in points the following season, as the other three all finished seventh or worse.
While that may all be a coincidence, and Hamlin may have another great season in 2011, I don't see it happening. Hamlin is a very emotional driver, and after the extremely disappointing way he lost the championship this past year, I think he will carry that burden with him well into next season, causing a drop off in his performance.
So, once again, that only leaves Harvick. After turning his career back around in 2010, Harvick should be more focused than ever.
He now knows the winning formula, and with the vast improvement in Richard Childress Racing as a whole, he has to go in to 2011 as Jimmie Johnson's biggest challenger.
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