Joe Nemechek: 1 win, 6 top-10 finishes in final 10 races.
All Joe Nemechek wanted for Christmas are some more races this year.
While Nextel Cup Series champion Kurt Busch was making plans to travel to a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, Nemechek was sorry to see it all end a month ago at Homestead, Fla. just when his U.S. Army team was getting up to speed.
Nemechek closed the season with a victory and six top-10 finishes in the final 10 races.
The Chase for the Championship not only made Busch into a champion, it helped define the teams that should be strong in the first couple months of the 2005 campaign. And since the television cameras rarely turned away from the Chase, many teams that finished with a flurry went unnoticed.
While Nemechek finished 19th in the final standings, his effort in the stretch drive was worthy of note. So were Jamie McMurray's and Ricky Rudd's.
McMurray had 13 top-10 finishes in the final 16 races and Rudd moved the famed Wood Brothers Racing team closer to the fast lane with nine consecutive top-20 finishes.
The next racing season will open with the usual favorites fighting for one of the 10 spots in the Chase. But don't be surprised if there are some new names in racing's playoffs.
Jamie McMurray: Posted 13 top-10 finishes in final 16 races.
Like Nemechek. Or McMurray. Or even Rudd.
The final 10 races also showed Chase contenders like Jeremy Mayfield and Elliott Sadler may be hard pressed to repeat. Their late-season surges went in the wrong direction.
Here's a quick look at the final standings and what to expect next year.
The Champion: Under the current Chase system, Busch already would have won three of the last four championships. He's learned the secret to being a champion consistency. As the champion, the top spot is his until somebody knocks him off.
The Contenders: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman will all be back in the Chase. They run hard enough to win every week, but that also makes them a little more vulnerable to trouble. Johnson, for example, won four of the last six races, but he couldn't overcome a blown engine and crash that set up the final seven races.
The Chasers: Sadler, Mayfield, Mark Martin, McMurray, Nemechek, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle all are capable to making the cut for next year's Chase. Martin and Biffle could be contender material if they get off to a fast start in 2005. They simply need to be a little more consistent.
It takes four top-10 finishes to erase the damage of failing to finish just one race. (See Johnson above.)
Ricky rudd: Closed season with nine straight top-20 finishes.
The Followers: Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd have the ability to make the Chase, but all of them still lack a major ingredient to move to the next level. For Wallace, Labonte, Harvick and Jarrett, it's the ability to make necessary adjustments during the race. Too often, when they start the race with an ill-handling car, it usually doesn't get any better. For Waltrip and Rudd, it's avoiding everyone else's problems. They get caught up in too many accidents that aren't of their own doing.
The Pretenders: Jeff Burton, Sterling Marlin, Dave Blaney, Casey Mears and Brian Vickers have shown flashes of speed, but none have been able to sustain it. Burton and Blaney have the best chance to break from this group and move into the ranks of a follower since they're going to spend the entire season at Richard Childress Racing.
The Outsiders: Kyle Petty, Scott Riggs, Ken Schrader, John Andretti, Scott Wimmer, Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Jeff Green have a lot of work to do to get up to speed. Petty and Green are starting a season without major changes at Petty Enterprises, so that should create some stability at the start of the season. A top-20 finish in the point standings would be a significant improvement for any of these drivers.
The Newcomers: Kyle Busch and Travis Kvapil will learn quickly the Nextel Cup Series isn't as easy as the Busch and Craftsman Truck series.
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