With just 12 drivers making the Chase For The Sprint Cup each year, and the number of annual race winners hovering around the same mark, the list of drivers who underachieved in 2010 is a long one.
Four drivers who made the Chase in 2009 missed it last year. Two other former Chase participants – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. – also failed to return to the championship race last year.
Three drivers who made the Chase failed to win a race.
Most of them must hope their career is not on a sudden downswing. Others, though, are simply prime candidates for a bounce-back season.
Here’s a look at the top comeback candidates for 2011:
1. Matt Kenseth
How can a guy who finished fifth in the final points standings be considered a comeback candidate?
Because Kenseth was very unKenseth-like for most of last season.
A year after missing the Chase for the first time in his career, Kenseth nearly missed it again in 2010. He was ninth in points after 25 races and seeded 11th when the Chase began.
He got off to a good start, finishing in the top 10 in the first five races, but then his season took a nosedive. He had just two top-10 finishes over a 15-race stretch and switched crew chiefs twice.
After limping into the Chase, he finished strong with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig, scoring five top-10 finishes – including three straight at the end – to climb to fifth in the final standings.
But with no wins and just six top-five finishes, it was a disappointing season for the 2003 champion.
With Roush Fenway Racing making big strides at the end of last year – teammate Carl Edwards won the last two races – look for Kenseth to bounce back in a big way in 2011.
2. Jeff Gordon
Gordon was having a solid year for a while, running second in points at midseason, but it all flamed out in the end.
Gordon made the Chase, but finished outside the top 10 in six of 10 Chase races to slump to ninth, his worse points finish since he missed the Chase in 2005. He also failed to win a race for the second time in three years.
Pairing Gordon with new crew chief Alan Gustafson should be a huge move for Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports, returning the four-time champ to serious title contention.
3. Mark Martin
The fact that Martin missed the Chase a year after finishing second in points is a testament to how tough the Sprint Cup Series is and evidence to the struggles that Hendrick’s “other” teams faced in 2010.
Martin won five races and challenged teammate Jimmie Johnson for the championship in 2009. Last year he had fallen all the way to 15th in the standings by the time the Chase began.
Losing Gustafson and his crew to Gordon would be a serious blow to most drivers, but Martin is the consummate professional and has proven over the years that he can win and contend with just about any team.
He will be paired with former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Lance McGrew but will get some key engineers he has worked with before. As long as he has Hendrick equipment, Martin should be a serious contender to win and make the Chase.
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya had a breakout campaign in 2009, scoring 18 top-10 finishes and making the Chase for the first time.
But 2010 was a disaster. Few drivers had worse luck than Montoya, who suffered eight DNFs, six due to wrecks. He fell as far as 22nd in points at midseason and never recovered, winding up 17th.
But Montoya ran well. He led 411 laps and was in contention to win several races. He was in command at both New Hampshire and Indy before getting into wrecks. He won at Watkins Glen and ran well enough to win for the first time on a NASCAR oval.
If Montoya can just stay out of trouble in 2011 and find a little luck, he should return to the Chase.
5. Kasey Kahne
Kahne took a big step forward in 2009, winning two races and making the Chase for only the second time in his career.
But 2010 was a totally different story. Kahne and his Richard Petty Motorsports team stumbled early and never recovered. He failed to win a race, missed the Chase and was 21st in points when he left the team with five races left in the season.
The good news for Kahne is that the future looks much brighter. He is signed to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 and will spend 2011 with Red Bull Racing.
Red Bull made the Chase with Brian Vickers in 2009 and showed promise with Kahne in the season finale last season.
With longtime crew chief Kenny Francis joining him at Red Bull, don’t be surprised if Kahne returns to victory lane this year and makes a run at returning to the Chase.
6. Ryan Newman
Newman scored the 14th victory of his career last year – his first with Stewart-Haas Racing – but suffered through some horrible slumps as well.
A terrible start killed his chances of making the Chase and he hit the skids again during four of the final six races.
Newman is always a contender to win, but he’s no guarantee for making the Chase. Though he made it in 2009, he missed it in three straight seasons at Penske Racing. A bounce-back season is certainly possible, but there’s no guarantee with the inconsistent Newman.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No one wants to see Earnhardt Jr. turn things around more than team owner Rick Hendrick and, of course, Earnhardt Jr.
But two years of struggles have been discouraging to the Earnhardt camp and his faithful fans.
Earnhardt Jr. went winless again last year, struggled to a 21st-place finish in the final standings and has gone through two crew chiefs in the past two years.
But there is always hope on the horizon. As long as Earnhardt Jr. is driving for Hendrick, there is always hope and potential. Earnhardt Jr. will be paired this year with crew chief Steve Letarte, who led Gordon to 10 wins and five straight Chase appearances.
If Letarte can take that experience and have a calming influence on Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s biggest star should return to victory lane and possibly the Chase.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Four years ago, Truex was one of the sport’s rising stars. He won his first Cup race in 2007 and made the Chase that season with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
A move to Michael Waltrip Racing last year was supposed to produce the same type of results. Instead, Truex went winless and stumbled to 22nd in points.
A victim of bad luck much of the season, Truex seemed to get it together in the season finale, leading 62 laps. But even that ended up with an 11th-place finish.
Truex could win a race in 2011 – like teammate David Reutimann has done the past two seasons – but his team needs to step up in a big way to make the Chase.