Thanks to NASCAR’s no-holds-barred approach to racing and adjustments to the new Sprint Cup car, the 2010 season produced some of the most exciting racing fans have seen in years.
There was plenty of bumping and banging – on and off the track – along with thrilling finishes, controversy, surprising winners and the closest points race in Chase history.
The only thing that didn’t change was the champion.
Here’s a look at the top 10 races of the season:
1. Daytona 500
NASCAR’s biggest race had everything. Thrilling racing, a fantastic finish, controversy, emotion, a surprising winner and even a bit of irony.
Jamie McMurray won a two-lap shootout, beating Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle after a second green-white-checkered restart, and then holding off a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a mad dash to the checkered flag.
The emotional victory came in McMurray’s first race after being released from Roush Fenway Racing and reuniting with team owner Chip Ganassi at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
The ever-emotional McMurray opened the floodgates in victory lane and throughout his postrace celebration.
“Oh, I’m going to cry,” McMurray said as he started to talk in victory lane. “This is unreal. … It’s unbelievable. I can’t really put it into words the way it feels. … It’s like a dream come true.”
The race was one of the most competitive in Daytona 500 history with 52 lead changes and 21 different leaders, but it took more than six hours to complete because of two red flags to fix a mammoth pot hole in Turn 2.
2. AAA 500, Texas Motor Speedway
This was like a wild-west shootout, with two gunslingers fighting it out for the victory and two more just plain fighting.
There were angry outbursts, desperate measures and even some ugly words and an obscene gesture.
Locked in a tight Chase battle with four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin needed to win. And he did, beating Matt Kenseth to the checkered flag in a thrilling three-lap dash to take the points lead with just two races remaining.
But even that was a bit anticlimactic after all the other drama.
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, two of the sport’s most mild-mannered drivers, got into a scuffle in Turn 2 after Burton accidentally wrecked Gordon under caution. A furious Gordon shoved Burton in the chest and took a swing at him before being held back by NASCAR officials.
“He deserved a lot more than that, I can tell you that,” Gordon said. “Sometimes I can’t hold my emotions back and believe it or not I was holding them back right there.”
Kyle Busch couldn’t hold his tongue or his fingers. After being nabbed for speeding on pit road, Busch ripped NASCAR officials over his radio and then gave one of them a double-fisted one-finger salute on pit road, drawing another two-lap penalty.
But wait, there was more.
After two slow pit stops, Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus benched his whole pit crew, replacing it with Gordon’s crew in the middle of the race.
The unusual move sparked a war of words between the Johnson and Hamlin teams, with Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford saying his team made Johnson’s crew “panic.”
“I think our race team is better than their race team,” he declared after the race.
3. Toyota/Save Mart 350, Infineon Raceway
Jimmie Johnson scored the first road-course victory of his career, but he wasn’t the big story.
Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Gordon were.
Ambrose led 35 laps and was in position to win his first Sprint Cup race when he shut off his engine to save fuel under caution and stalled his car, costing him the lead and track position.
The gaffe handed the lead back to Johnson and opened the door for his first road-course win.
“It was definitely a gift kind of handed to us,” Johnson said.
Gordon got no gifts, but made more than a few enemies after wrecking several drivers in the rough-and-tumble race. Among the victims were Martin Truex Jr., Elliott Sadler and Juan Pablo Montoya.
“We got taken out by [Jeff] Gordon,” Sadler said. “He was just kind of knocking everything out of his way.”
“It’s all right. We’ll get him,” Truex vowed.
4.Goody’s 500, Martinsville Speedway
This was what green-white-checkered finishes were made for.
After dominating most of the race, Denny Hamlin gave up the lead when he pitted under caution with just seven laps remaining in regulation.
Restarting seventh, Hamlin was muscling his way through the field when got a big break when a caution flag flew on lap 499, paving the way for him to bump and bang his way to a dramatic victory.
There was plenty of pushing and shoving in the final laps as Matt Kenseth bumped Jeff Gordon out of the lead, and then Gordon retaliated, knocking Kenseth into the wall. Hamlin then moved Ryan Newman out of his way as he took the lead for his third win at Martinsville.
5. Lenox Tools 301, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
This was a classic case of tit for tat, or one good nudge deserves another.
When Kurt Busch bumped Jimmie Johnson out of the way to take the lead with less than 10 laps remaining, Johnson wasted no time getting even, chasing down Busch and returning the favor to win the race.
“I have to say, I was a little shocked,” Johnson said of the bump from Busch.
“I hate that he felt that I wasn’t going to wreck him because that was my goal was to wreck him. I knew what my thought process was, ‘Wreck his ass.’”
Busch chalked it up to just hard racing.
“I thought it was a great short-track battle,” he said.
6. Amp Energy 500, Talladega Superspeedway
This one ended with Clint Bowyer doing celebratory burnout on the frontstretch – before he even knew if he had won the race.
Bowyer won a photo finish over teammate Kevin Harvick in a race that ended with AJ Allmendinger’s car flipping and crashing down the frontstretch.
Harvick nudged just ahead of Bowyer when they took the white flag, but Bowyer had pulled ahead by inches when NASCAR waved the yellow flag for Allmendinger’s crash, ending the race.
The win was a bit of redemption for Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team, which was penalized 150 points for an illegal car after Bowyer won the first Chase race at New Hampshire.
It took NASCAR several minutes to review video and determine the winner. Bowyer, though, wasted no time celebrating his second victory in the Chase, doing burnouts while Harvick sat quietly in his car.
“Hell yeah,” Bowyer said of the celebration afterward. “Claim that baby before somebody else does.”
7. Aaron’s 499, Talladega Superspeedway
This one couldn’t have been any closer, or wilder.
Harvick avenged his loss in the Daytona 500 by inching past McMurray coming to the checkered flag to win by 0.011 of a second.
And it took a few extra laps and some wild racing to get to that point. The race featured 88 lead changes among 29 drivers, both series records.
And it took three green-white-checkered restarts to settle it after three multicar wrecks in the final nine laps. It was the first time NASCAR had used three additional restarts after implementing the rule in February.
8. Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway
The season finale might not have been the most thrilling race of the season, but it had the most drama.
With three drivers within 46 points of the lead going into the final Chase race, it was expected to be a dramatic conclusion to the closest championship race in Chase history.
And when points leader Denny Hamlin wrecked on lap 24, opening the door for Johnson and Harvick, it set up a nail-biting finish.
As Hamlin tried desperately to get back into the race, Johnson and Harvick both charged to the front. They wound up finishing second and third, respectively, with Johnson winning his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship by 39 points over Hamlin and 41 over Harvick.
Oh yeah, Carl Edwards won the race, scoring his second consecutive victory at the end of the season.
9. Subway Fresh Fit 600, Phoenix International Raceway
When Ryan Newman snaps a winless streak, he snaps it in dramatic fashion.
Newman used a gutsy two-tire pit stop to climb into contention and charged past Jeff Gordon, who spun his tires on the green-white-checkered restart, for the win.
It was Newman’s first victory in 78 races, or since winning the 2008 Daytona 500, which snapped another long, winless steak. It was also his first win for Stewart-Haas Racing.
“It was a long time coming for me,” Newman said.
10. Brickyard 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
To some, McMurray’s thrilling upset in the Daytona 500 might have seemed like a fluke. But he validated it in a big way by winning NASCAR’s second-biggest race.
McMurray helped team owner Chip Ganassi make history when he outran Harvick over the final 10 laps to win the Brickyard 400 at Indy.
McMurray became just the third driver to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year, but it was Ganassi who made the biggest mark – he became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 all in the same year.