Unless Jimmie Johnson has decided that five Cup titles is enough and chooses to run for the Nationwide or truck series title in 2011, it’s a given that the 35-year-old will be the favorite to win a sixth straight Sprint Cup championship.
But while Johnson’s success at Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t slowed, the same can’t be said for his three teammates, who went winless in 2010.
Meanwhile, at Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin was piling up checkered flags and contending for the championship last year, Kyle Busch was winning with anything that rolled, and Joey Logano proved that when he’s not in the midst of a post-race confrontation, he can wheel a race car with the best of them.
Johnson may have proven once again that the No. 48 team is the team to beat, but from an organizational standpoint, Gibbs clearly closed the gap. And in 2011, it could very easily move to the top.
The Final Four
1. Joe Gibbs Racing
JGR drivers had more combined Cup wins (11) and nearly as many top-10 finishes (52 to 59) than Hendrick teams last season, despite having one fewer team on the track.
The organization also managed to put the same number of drivers in the Chase. If Hamlin and Busch continue their winning ways, and Logano manages to pick up where he left of at season’s end, JGR could be visiting victory lane quite often in 2011. And sitting at the head table at the end of the year.
“Obviously, you have to look at Hendrick,” JGR President J.D. Gibbs said. “From a championship standpoint, that would be it.
“I think if you go back and look from … the [arrival of the] Car of Tomorrow and look at wins, laps led, we’re right there, if not ahead of anybody. You can’t just look at championships, although that’s your ultimate grading scale. I think you look at [Hendrick], [Richard] Childress [Racing] is probably more like us [in that] it’s a family business. We’re not wealthy individuals. We’ve been fortunate to kind of make that work and build a good program.
“I think that’s the fun thing when watching the sport. Everyone has their lulls and their highs. Even if one team wins the championship and one is struggling, it’s still hard to enjoy it. They’re like your kids; you want them all to do well.”
Since 2008, when the COT was run exclusively, JGR’s three teams have combined to win 30 races. Hendrick’s four teams has won 27, with Johnson accounting for 20 of those.
2. Hendrick Motorsports
Hendrick drivers won six times in 2010. Check that. A Hendrick driver – Johnson – won six times.
Jeff Gordon? Faded badly down the stretch.
Mark Martin? “We had a 15th-place car,” said former crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Hasn’t been competitive in Cup for two years.
While there may not be trouble at Hendrick, it was clear last season that the four-car operation was far from bulletproof.
The result was a complete shake-up among Hendrick’s “other” three teams. Gordon, Martin and Earnhardt Jr. will each have new crew chiefs and crews this season.
“We just didn’t get going good enough as a company last year,” said crew chief Lance McGrew, who will oversee Martin’s efforts this season. “I felt like from the middle of the year on, we were really competitive. If you look back at the points, I think Mark was about fifth in terms of most points accumulated in the last 10 races. There was a lot of momentum from the middle of last season and I feel like as a whole we have worked in the right areas to get better.”
3. Richard Childress Racing
The only top-tier team to put all of its teams in the Chase last year, RCR saw two of its three drivers win, and they combined to score as many top-10s (59) as Hendrick.
Kevin Harvick was a championship contender while Clint Bowyer likely could have been if not for a pesky 150-point penalty.
But the group will need improvement from its third team, with driver Jeff Burton, and a solid showing by a new fourth team featuring driver Paul Menard to have any chance at overtaking Gibbs or Hendrick.
“It’s embarrassing for us to be the only [RCR] team that didn’t win a race last year,” Burton said. “You look at the stats and we were definitely a team capable of winning races but we didn’t get it done. It’s a little embarrassing to be quite honest.”
Will the addition of a fourth team be a boon or, as it was in 2009, a bust?
“We staffed to have four teams [in ’09], but we didn’t staff to make engineering better, to make pit stops better,” Burton said. “We staffed to make them the same. And when you have more of something that’s the same, it’s probably worse.
“You actually have to put more investment into areas and you can’t piggyback everything. I think that’s the big difference. I think we learned a valuable lesson there.”
4. Roush Fenway Racing
Roush drivers came on strong at the end of the year, and wound up with four wins among two of its four teams. Three of the four qualified for the Chase.
But the organization that won back-to-back titles in 2003 and ’04 has won only 18 races since the 2008 season, and only seven the past two years.
Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth are certainly capable, but the past two years haven’t exactly been memorable. David Ragan, the group’s fourth driver, has yet to show that he can contend.
It’s a Numbers Game
For teams such as Stewart-Haas Racing, Penske Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, it’s difficult to measure up solely from a numbers standpoint to organizations that field up to twice as many teams. But that lack of numbers hasn’t stopped them from measuring up on the race track.
5. Stewart-Haas Racing
After a surprising 2009 season in which both Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman qualified for the Chase, the 2010 season was a bit of a letdown. Stewart won twice and Newman once, but only Stewart made the Chase.
The two combined for three wins, and their 31 top-10 finishes were easily tops among two-car teams. That shouldn’t change in 2011, but catching up with the top four will be a difficult task.
6. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
The organization earned four wins and 26 top-10s between Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya last year. But neither driver made the Chase, so clearly there’s still work to be done.
McMurray’s career is back on the upswing after returning to EGR. Montoya had his share of good runs in 2010, but has yet to become a threat on a weekly basis.
7. Penske Racing
Being the only Dodge organization is good in that you get the manufacturer’s undivided attention. It’s bad in that there is much less data from which to draw. The organization also cut back from three to two Cup teams.
Kurt Busch won twice in 2010 and won’t likely fade, while teammate Brad Keselowski should only get better with a year’s experience under his belt.
8. Richard Petty Motorsports
An offseason diet – the group slimmed down from four teams to two – should help this team get back on its feet. How competitive AJ Allmendinger and newcomer Marcos Ambrose can be is anybody’s guess.
As a four-team outfit a year ago, RPM drivers managed 10 top-fives and 25 top-10s, with the now-departed Kasey Kahne responsible for several of those.
9. Michael Waltrip Racing
MWR picked up just its second career win with David Reutimann’s victory at Chicago. But even with a driver change – Martin Truex Jr. stepping in while Waltrip scaled back his race schedule – the top-five and top-10 numbers didn’t improve significantly.
Truex hasn’t won since 2007 and cannot afford another year of disappointing finishes.
10. Red Bull Racing
On paper, Red Bull is the wild card. The organization is basically starting all over for 2011, with Brian Vickers returning from a lengthy layoff for health issues and Kahne moving into a full-time role as the team’s second driver.
Both drivers have won, both have been in the Chase and both likely feel they’ve got much to prove. If the organization is as solid as the drivers, Red Bull could challenge Stewart-Haas for top honors among two-car teams and put both drivers in the Chase.
If it’s not, there will likely be a lot of explaining to do back to the home office in Austria.