|With good runs during Speedweeks, Kurt Busch might just be ready to get his first restrictor-plate win. (Getty Images)|
Brian De Los Santos: There have been a lot of drivers and teams that have looked strong during Speedweeks. Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick -- just to name a few. It's a chess game and I believe all those drivers will be in the mix in the race to the checkered flag on Sunday. And there are a lot of good reasons to pick any of them for the win. But I'm leaning toward Busch and Kahne. Busch is due to break through with a restrictor-plate win sooner or later and he worked well with Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski during the Duels. Kahne has been overjoyed about the newfound power he has with a Roush-Yates engine under the hood. Flying under the radar has been Jamie McMurray. Some out there may have forgotten that McMurray is now behind the wheel of the No. 1 car for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. He was in the mix for the win in the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel race.
2. Danica Patrick is transitioning to stock cars in the ARCA and Nationwide Series this season. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being so awful she gives up to 10 being she snags a win), how much success do you think she'll enjoy in 2010?
Pete Pistone: I'd put Patrick's success level at about a 5. She's off to a great start with her run in the ARCA season opener. But the learning curve will continue to get steeper as the season continues, particularly when she jumps back and forth between the stock car world and her Indy Racing League schedule. Don't look for anything shocking like a win for Patrick in her NASCAR foray, but I don't expect her to embarrass herself either.
Brian De Los Santos: I think the buzz over her sixth-place finish in her debut ARCA race at Daytona went a bit overboard. After all, she's not a novice in racing. She does bring a decent resume to the table that others in the ARCA Series don't have. It may not be in stock cars, but it's miles ahead of the others she's racing against in that series. The Nationwide Series is a different story. It's filled with stock car veterans. I don't think she'll have quite the same success. I think in her ARCA races she'll be very competitive and I'll give her a 9. In the Nationwide Series, I think it'll be around a 5. It won't be disastrous. Top 20s would be a good start; maybe a couple top 10s. But I don't see any wins or top fives in her immediate Nationwide future.
3. Back to the Cup Series: Which driver is most on the hot seat?
|It will be interesting to see how much Denny Hamlin will be affected by his knee injury during the season. (Getty Images)|
Brian De Los Santos: I'll have to agree with Pete on this one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is definitely feeling the pressure. I know some fans don't think he cares, but they couldn't be more wrong. He wants to win and be successful as much as anyone. Why the move to Hendrick Motorsports hasn't panned out like many thought it would is a great mystery. Another season of trials and tribulations and I could envision even some of his longtime fans turning their backs on him. There are a lot of Earnhardt detractors out there, but, like it or not, the sport is better off if Earnhardt is competitive.
4. Which driver will be the season's biggest disappointment?
Pete Pistone: Martin Truex Jr. made a risky move heading from the up-and-coming Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing stable to Michael Waltrip Racing, which has made strides but still has a ways to go in order to catch up with the sport's elite teams. Truex Jr. will have to avoid a slow start to the year and can't afford to play catch-up in the points standings. I don't see a Chase spot for the No. 56 team in 2010, a year that will be one of transition for Truex Jr. and his new team.
Brian De Los Santos: My radar is usually good when it comes to this question, but this year, nobody pops out at me. I am a bit concerned about Denny Hamlin's knee injury. I tend to believe it will impact his title chances, though I can still see him making the Chase. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is also somewhat of a question mark for me. Though I have him in the top 12 of my preseason power rankings, it wouldn't surprise me if he missed the Chase for the second consecutive season. I'm just not sure how well he's going to work with new crew chief Dave Rogers. I can't say I was impressed by his performance once the switch was made at the end of last season. I think he would have been better off with Greg Zipadelli.
5. Which driver will be the season's breakout star?
|Don't bet against Jimmie Johnson racing hard for a fifth straight championship. (Getty Images)|
Brian De Los Santos: Clint Bowyer. Those who read my Preseason Power Rankings know I'm very high on Bowyer this season. It's not as if he has been a slouch in his short career with top-five finishes in 2007 and '08, but he has just two wins to his name. And drivers who merely run consistently up front don't excite fans like those who run up front, but also win once in a while. I think this is the year that Bowyer starts collecting trophies. The 2009 season was a disappointment for Bowyer, as it was for all of Richard Childress Racing. But RCR expects to rebound in 2010. With Kevin Harvick appearing to have one foot out the door and Jeff Burton, competitive but on the back end of his career, Bowyer is the future of RCR and a little bit more extra attention might be given to the 33 car.
6. Which driver(s) who missed the Chase last year have the best chance to make it this year?
Pete Pistone: Earnhardt Jr.'s resurgence will slide him back into the Chase in 2010. While Junior won't challenge for a championship, simply securing a spot in the playoffs will most likely feel like a triumph for the embattled driver. RCR missed getting any of its drivers into the Chase last season and that will change in 2010. Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick all made great strides in the second half of last season and expect to see at least one from the Richard Childress stable in this year's Chase field.
Brian De Los Santos: Well, Bowyer. And I think his RCR teammate Burton should make it back as well. Harvick? Unless he signs an extension early in the season, once the 29 team hits a road bump, which all teams inevitably do, I think the rumors about him leaving grow louder and the distraction proves too much to overcome.
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7. Which driver(s) who made the Chase last year do you think will struggle?
Pete Pistone: There are still a lot of questions surrounding Richard Petty Motorsports and its switch from Dodge to Ford, so Kasey Kahne will have to work hard to maintain his spot in the Chase. Ditto for Brian Vickers, who grabbed the final Chase position last year, but will be hard-pressed to duplicate the solid effort turned in by the Team Red Bull No. 83 Toyota this season.
Brian De Los Santos: It's hard not to be down about Vickers, whose performance took a major dive once he made the Chase last season. I can see the slump continuing into the 2010 season. I'm also curious about Juan Pablo Montoya. Will the slow and steady approach to make the Chase work again? Can crew chief Brian Pattie keep him focused on the big picture like last season, or will Montoya's hunger just to start winning races take over? It's not so much I think Montoya will struggle, because I believe the team is strong, but he may take a few more chances which prove costly in the long run.
8. Who are your top contenders for the title and who will ultimately win it all?
Pete Pistone: How can you not expect Jimmie Johnson to be in contention for a fifth championship? There's no reason to believe the 48 team won't be every bit as strong as it was a year ago. And even if Johnson doesn't tear his way through the regular season, once the Chase begins in September, I expect the cream to once again rise to the top. The top contender to unseat Johnson will come from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable with Denny Hamlin poised to wrestle the title away. Hamlin called a championship shot at the end of last season with his win at the Homestead finale and it should be fun watching to see if he can back it up behind the wheel.
Brian De Los Santos: After watching Jimmie Johnson tear through the final 10 races, not just the past four championship seasons, but basically every season since the Chase began, it would be nuts to believe he won't at least be a threat for a fifth consecutive title. I figure Jeff Gordon, seeking a fifth title of his own and first since 2001, will be his top challenger. Coming off his best season since taking the championship in 2004, I also believe Kurt Busch could surprise some again. Pat Tryson is gone as crew chief, but now Busch is working with Steve Addington, who helped his younger brother Kyle Busch to 12 wins over the past two seasons. Ultimately though, my pick is Johnson. You'd think his luck has to run out eventually, but you won't find me betting against him until it actually does.