I recently saw a column about the biggest disappointments from the past season. Nothing wrong with looking at that, but I thought I'd like to take a positive approach, and look at some of the more pleasant surprises of the 2010 NASCAR season.
1. Regan Smith - Driving for the only team headquarted West of the Mississippi, little was probably expected from Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing. But this team is consistently overperforming expectations. This year, they proved that the loss of Jay Guy to Penske Racing at the end of the 2009 season was not an obstacle to continued progress. The mid-season replacement of Ryan Coniam with former Dale Earnhardt, Jr., crew chief Pete Rondeau is showing positive results.
While other single-car and lower-level teams were fighting for top 35 slots, the 78 team went on a tear in the last part of the season and passed bigger-budget teams like Penske's 77 (Sam Hornish, Jr.) and Red Bull's 82 (Scott Speed), to finish 28th in driver points and 29th in owner points. Look for this team to be a contender to move solidly into the second tier of race teams next year.
2. Aric Almirola - This driver has shown promise for some time, but like his former DEI teammate Regan Smith, didn't really get the support he needed in the 2008 season. He started '09 still with DEI, but sponsorship troubles left him without a ride only a handful of races into the season.
He kept showing up to tracks, looking to find a ride, and eventually landed a truck ride with Billy Ballew Motorsports, where he showed off his skills. This past year, he finished second in the points in the Camping World Truck series and made some impressive runs toward the end of the year in the Richard Petty Motorsports #9, taking over when Kasey Kahne left for Red Bull. He finished in the top five in the last Cup race at Homestead.
Next year will find him in the JR Motorsports 88 car, in which he scored one top 5 and several top 10 finishes running it part time this year.
3. Johanna Long - An 18-year-old short track racer from Florida, Johanna landed a ride in the Billy Ballew Motorsports 15 truck. In her first race, she finished 17th on the lead lap at IRP, getting the attention of many. She ran a couple more races in the 15, but sponsorship troubles led to the shuttering of that team. She was quickly back on track in a family-owned truck, and is still showing strength.
I wouldn't be surprised if she shows up in the Nationwide Series for a race or two next year.
4. Cole Whitt - How can you not like this kid? He shows up in Phoenix for the second-to-the-last race of the Nationwide season, having never driven a Nationwide car, and was fastest in happy hour. Then, he goes on to to a 15th place finish in the main event. He backed that up with a 17-place finish at Homestead the following week.
The 19-year-old from Alpine, California also drives the Red Bull No. 84 Toyota in the K&N Pro Series East.
Race team owners: sign this guy up before your competition does.
5. Elliot Sadler - Elliot has been written off by many as a guy who only has a ride because of his outgoing personality, but he showed flashes of excellence this year, winning a race in the Camping World truck series in KHI's #2 Silverado. He also ran some Nationwide races for JR Motorsports and one for KHI, getting respectable finishes in each car, including a top 3 in the 33 car.
He ran strongly in RPM's #19 cup car at times this year, sitting on the pole at Texas, and finishing in the top 10 at Michigan.
He will return to the #33 KHI Nationwide car next year to run the full season. NASCAR's expected rules for Nationwide points will probably keep him mostly out of Cup next year, but if he does well in the 33, expect to see him back in the top series in 2012.