Top 10 racing stories of 2010
Jimmie Johnson made history in 2010, overtaking Denny Hamlin for the Cup title
NASCAR battled low ratings and sluggish attendance among younger fans this year
Danica Patrick's foray in N'wide attracted attention, despite her performance
1. Jimmie Johnson wins fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. The careers of most of the Sprint Cup drivers younger than 35 will eventually be considered in context of the Jimmie Johnson era. Like baseball's Dead Ball Era, Johnson's dominance will influence the consideration of every achievement within it. And there's no telling when this epic NASCAR epoch will end. Not in 2010. Johnson withstood a challenge from Denny Hamlin, overtaking him for the title in the final race of the season in what might be both Johnson's and crew chief Chad Knaus' most masterful effort.
2. Chip Ganassi wins racing's Triple Crown. Ganassi hoisted the trophy from the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s and the Brickyard 400 in the same year, a first for an owner. Ganassi's multiplatform racing operation was spectacular in the races that mattered most, with Jamie McMurray claiming Daytona and the 400 and Dario Franchitti winning his second Indy 500 en route to a third season title in the last four years. Ganassi's open-wheel team has now won four straight championships.
3. NASCAR battles plummeting ratings, attendance. New Hampshire Motor Speedway president Jerry Gappens says NASCAR has sustained a 67 percent drop in interest from the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic and is "at the tail end of losing a whole generation." Television ratings have cratered, and attendance continued to flag despite a compelling season and the most interesting Chase for the Championship ever. NASCAR's woes involve more than the financial plight of its fans. After years of wild growth, the sport faces great self-evaluation as it attempts to prevent a recession out of the major leagues.
4. Havin' at it. Sprint Cup vice president of competition Robin Pemberton minted the catch phrase of the season during a preseason speech at the Research and Development Center: "Boys, have at it, and have a good time." Drivers were systematically set loose to police their arguments, both petty and prodigious. NASCAR stood to gain by allowing drivers' senses of justice to play out in front of titillated fans, as long as they didn't kill each other. There was some toeing of the line -- see Carl Edwards v. Brad Keselowski -- but NASCAR mostly stuck to its premise. Jeff Gordon even took a swing-like thing at Jeff Burton. Wow.
5. Johnson Force, 61, wins 15th Funny Car NHRA championship. Force overcame a 38-point deficit entering eliminations at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in his record 15th Funny Car NHRA championship. His first title since 2006, following major leg injuries after a crash in Texas in 2007, was emotional for a man accustomed to a high level of success. The charismatic Force just keeps going.
6. Randy Bernard takes over IndyCar. The condescension was palpable. Open-wheel racing is a provincial community and Bernard, former head of the Professional Bull Riders, was an outlander in a cowboy belt buckle when he was hired in February to replace Tony George. Discounted and dismissed from the outset, Bernard has already proved his acumen in overseeing the planned development of a new race car for 2012 and with having Chevrolet and Lotus join the series as competing engine manufacturers the same year. A refreshing everyman face for the sport, Bernard listened to all factions, assessed agendas and dismissed those who didn't advance the sport. He's not to be underestimated as open wheel attempts to recover its once-lofty place in American motorsports culture.
7. Danica tries out NASCAR. Danica Patrick's 13-race Nationwide Series excursion was documented with opinion-page scrutiny and reality-show drama. Crowds swarmed her, especially early in the season at Daytona; other drivers humored her, then stopped abruptly late in the season, leading the 28-year-old IndyCar star to ask if she had a target on her person or race car. Ultimately, the statistical analysis was mundane: an average finish of 28th with three DNFs. Her final race of the season, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, was her best, starting fifth, finishing 19th. She'll do it all again in 2011, and the drama this time around will be the fact that she's racing in a contract year with both her Andretti Autosport IndyCar team and JR Motorsports.
8. Austin Dillon wins Rookie of the Year. Dillon entered his first Trucks series season with the scrutiny not only of racing for his grandfather, Richard Childress, but also competing in a black vehicle adorned with a stylized "3," instantly reminiscent of the one used by late seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. The 20-year-old took the No. 3 back to Victory Lane twice and earned series Rookie of the Year honors in what promises to be a career full of great achievement and escalating pressure.
9. NASCAR's first Hall of Fame induction. NASCAR's official Hall of Fame opened in downtown Charlotte, inducting a first class of Bill France Sr. and his son, Bill Jr., Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson and Richard Petty. That the people's hall had enshrined two members of the ruling France family in the initial class was an immediate source of debate ... and with good reason.
10. The infamous Daytona 500 pothole. About six inches wide and 18 inches long and born of 32-year-old asphalt battered by unusually cold, wet, winter weather, the pothole between Turns One and Two prompted two delays that consumed more than two hours of the Daytona 500. NASCAR's best chance to reach into mainstream America's living room descended into debacle as crews filled the hole with all forms of material, including putty. They might as well have been quickly chewing gum and spitting it in there. International Speedway Corp. paved the track in the summer, creating what should be a blazing surface for the next attempt at a Daytona 500.