DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - There certainly were some outstanding performances - both from a driving and racing standpoint - that took place during the recently completed 2010 NASCAR Nationwide Series season.
The following is a look back at some of those standout performers and memorable races, as selected from discussions with the national series directors, competition department and NASCAR PR managers:
Kyle Busch - Although he didn't run a full season, Kyle Busch didn't let that deter him from having another record-breaking year. The 2009 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion didn't defend his driver title, but was the main cog in leading Joe Gibbs Racing to its third consecutive owner championship. In the process, Busch finally broke - shattered, actually - the mark he'd been aiming at for two seasons. His 13 wins in 29 races surpassed the previous single-season record of 10 he had shared with Sam Ard. Busch also added to his perfect Driver Rating record, crafting a series-best four 150.0 marks over the course of the year. He has compiled 11 perfect Driver Ratings in 202 career races. He'll enter 2011 five wins shy of tying Mark Martin's all-time series record of 48 victories.
Brad Keselowski - Perhaps it's fitting that Brad Keselowski was chosen by the media to finish second to Carl Edwards in the 2010 driver championship. That chip on his shoulder produced not only a title for Keselowski - and the first NASCAR championship for Roger Penske - but one of the most heated rivalries between competitors in recent memory. His battles with Edwards notwithstanding, Keselowski rang up numbers that, if not for Kyle Busch's phenomenal season, would cry out "dominance." While competing in his first full-time double-duty season, Keselowski set or tied career highs in wins (six), poles (five) - both of which equaled or surpassed his career totals in both categories - top fives (25, a new series record) and top 10s (28). He built on his series record 101 races where he's been running at the finish and also posted the first two perfect 150.0 Driver Ratings of his career. He also was voted by the fans as the series' Most Popular Driver for the third consecutive year.
Joey Logano - Looking at Joey Logano's 2010 statistics, one might think they were a carbon copy of his 2009 numbers. He was one of the series' top drivers last year and his results this season certainly should again give him a spot on that lofty perch. In 24 races, he amassed two wins, a series-leading seven poles, 15 top fives and 23 top 10s. His win total may have been higher had he not competed in all but one of the same events as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who won seven of their head-to-head battles. Logano won one versus Busch and finished second to him twice. He didn't have to worry about Busch at Kentucky Speedway, but it may not have mattered. Logano won for the third consecutive time at Kentucky - all from the pole. Despite missing 11 races, he still finished a career-best seventh in the standings.
Comeback Driver of the Year
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The fifth Raybestos Rookie of the Year recipient for Roush Fenway Racing was probably the least expected. It wasn't that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't have the chops to be recognized as a contender for the award; he was predicted by the media to finish second in to his teammate, Colin Braun. Instead, his early-season struggles nearly took him out of his ride, let alone out of contention for the honor. After five DNFs (did not finish) in the season's first 12 races followed by a DNQ (did not qualify) at Nashville Superspeedway, team owner Jack Roush benched Stenhouse for the subsequent race at Kentucky. He faced his largest deficit in the rookie rankings after his 26th-place finish at Road America, trailing leader Brian Scott by 35 points. But after that race, Stenhouse resurrected his season. His average finish in the last 19 races was 12.4 (he didn't run at Watkins Glen, ceding to Roush Fenway Grand Am driver Billy Johnson). He registered six of his seven top 10s during that span, which included three top-five finishes. Among them: his career-best third at Daytona International Speedway in July. And for emphasis, he sealed the rookie deal with a fourth-place finish at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Top Team Owner of the Year
Joe Gibbs - Thanks to another stellar season by Kyle Busch, the ability of crew chief Jason Ratcliff, and Brad Coleman's steady runs when his opportunities came, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team earned the fourth "split" championship in NASCAR Nationwide Series history. The owner title also is the third consecutive for JGR, tying the mark set by Bill Baumgardner from 1995-97. Busch was the catalyst, however, and won when it counted most for the No. 18 team. Six times during the season, he finished ahead of driver champion Brad Keselowski when the No. 18 team was trailing Roger Penske's No. 22 team in the owner standings. Included in that stat was the final race at Homestead-Miami, where Busch clinched the owner title by winning the race, the second consecutive season he'd won while also clinching a series championship. Last year, he won at Homestead-Miami while officially claiming the driver and owner championships.
Top Breakthrough Performers of the Year (in alphabetical order)
Trevor Bayne - He's on this list for the second consecutive year, but Trevor Bayne's performances simply outshined those of his first season. In 2009, he made his mark in 15 races. Now, at the end of 2010, Bayne is carrying the mantle of "who's next" in the NASCAR Nationwide Series after his first full-time season. Still only 19 (he'll turn 20 on Feb. 19 at Daytona), Bayne showed veteran savvy, especially over the season's second half, collecting eight top 10s in his final 18 races. Half of those were top fives, and three came in succession at Gateway International Raceway, O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis and Iowa Speedway. Bayne also captured the pole in those three races, making him the fifth - and youngest - driver in series history to do so, and the first since Jeff Gordon in 1992. After switching from Diamond-Waltrip Racing to Roush Fenway Racing in September, Bayne made his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut at Texas Motor Speedway. Needing to make the race on time in the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, he qualified 28th and finished 17th.
Danica Patrick - In a different kind of "double duty," Danica Patrick made her NASCAR debut while also competing full time in open-wheel racing. "Danicamania" became a new part of the NASCAR lexicon when the petite but fiery star made 13 starts for JR Motorsports. Patrick's trending was never higher than during the season-opening race at Daytona. She had plenty of rookie moments, but the steady hand of crew chief Tony Eury Jr. finally tempered her expectations. She saved her best for last, in the season finale at Homestead-Miami. She started fifth, finished 19th and on the lead lap for the first time, and also led four laps.
Top Five Races of the Year (in chronological order)
DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway (Feb. 13) - That it was the 2010 season-opener almost was overshadowed by the entry of open-wheel star Danica Patrick, who made her NASCAR national series debut. Driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. - who also was entered - Patrick had to manage stifling media attention in addition to her first stock car event on NASCAR's most hallowed ground. She started 15th, but finished 35th after being caught in a multi-car accident on Lap 68. Dale Jr. didn't fare much better, finishing 29th after an accident on Lap 92. He'd been the leader just laps before that incident. After the race's final restart on Lap 100, Tony Stewart was able to hold off the pack to win this race for the fifth time in six years. His victory also was for the third different owner over the last three seasons (Joe Gibbs in 2008, Rick Hendrick in 2009 and DeLana Harvick in 2010).
Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway (April 24) - On a grueling day for double-duty drivers, the NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series races were run consecutively as severe weather in the Talladega area postponed the NASCAR Nationwide race the day before. This event also was a major factor in Brad Keselowski's march to the NASCAR Nationwide Series driver championship, because it was one that he nearly didn't run. Due to high carbon monoxide levels from an accident in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race, Keselowski wasn't cleared by doctors to compete until just before the start of the NASCAR Nationwide event, literally running down pit road to make it to his car for the command. He took the lead on the final lap, denying Kevin Harvick the chance to become the first driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series race on the same day. After winning the Aaron's 499 earlier in the day, Harvick led a race-high 51 laps and was leading on the final circuit following a green-white-checkered restart until Keselowski caught him in Turn 3. Keselowski overtook Harvick thanks to a big push by Joey Logano, which also helped the drivers avoid a spectacular accident in Turn 4 that collected 10 cars.
Subway Jalepeno 250 powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway (July 2) - A true mix of the old and the new featured the debut of the NASCAR Nationwide Series new car combined with the return of an icon: the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet, driven by an Earnhardt. The new car created its own buzz, especially the two pony car models in the Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang. The standard Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Camry didn't disappoint, carrying sportier looks, too. But it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the blue-and-yellow No. 3 that his father made famous that put an exclamation point on a historic night. Earnhardt took his first lead on Lap 70 after a solid stop by his pit crew. He stayed out on old tires during a caution on Lap 96 and his track-position strategy paid dividends. He held off Joey Logano after the green-white-checkered restart to capture his first NASCAR Nationwide Series win since 2006. After the emotional victory, Earnhardt said the race would be his last in the No. 3 car.
Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250 at Gateway International Raceway (July 17) - The outcome of this race had been over a year in the making. Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards began their rivalry on the NASCAR Sprint Cup side in 2009 at Talladega and it continued at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March. That tempest brewed throughout the summer and came to a head at Gateway in July. In a race where seven series-only regulars finished in the top 10, it was the duel between Keselowski and Edwards that grabbed the headlines. On the final lap, Keselowski bumped into Edwards and took the lead. But Edwards took offense to the move and drifted into Keselowksi coming out of the final turn. That sent Keselowski - and others - crashing along the frontstretch as Edwards unapologetically took the checkered flag. As a result, NASCAR-imposed penalties on the two drivers diminished their on-track incidents to a war of words and subsequently led to clean, hard racing for the rest of the season. But the anticipation each time they raced after that was still palpable.
NAPA Auto Parts 200 presented by Dodge at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (Aug. 29) - In January, Marcos Ambrose said of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, "I'll keep coming back ‘til I win this thing." He'll be back. In the annually unpredictable road-course race in Montreal, Ambrose was a hard-luck finisher for the third straight year. He won the pole and had the strongest car, but a broken suspension halfway through the race ended his chance to win. Carl Edwards looked the part after Ambrose's demise, but a broken track bar with eight laps left doomed Edwards. Instead, it was road-course aces Boris Said and Max Papis racing side-by-side around the final turn and down the frontstretch, with Said - driving for independently-owned RAB Racing - edging Papis in a photo finish for his first NASCAR Nationwide Series win. The .012-second margin of victory was the closest ever on a road course in series competition, the fifth-closest in series history and the closest since 1998 at Homestead-Miami.