NASCAR drivers on the hot seat

Every season there are a handful of drivers who enter the new NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign on the hot seat or under intense pressure to perform.

They, more than most drivers, have something to prove, and whether they succeed or not will determine their future.

Either they are coming off a disappointing season and need to bounce back or they have done very little so far and need a breakout season to secure their future in NASCAR’s top series.

Some need to please their sponsors or team owners to hang onto their ride. Others are racing for a new contract or a better opportunity with another team.

Their status and reputations are hanging in the balance. Either they win and become impact drivers in high demand, or they wind up as also-rans, getting sucked into that vicious cycle of trying to hang onto the ride they have or trying to find a new one with a different team each year.

Some will step up and earn some clout while others will flame out.

Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. each landed new rides for this season. Though neither had great seasons last year, each did enough to make other organizations take notice.

Others, such as Reed Sorenson and David Stremme, wound up losing their rides because of poor performance.

Who is on the hot seat heading into 2010?

Here’s a look at seven drivers who need to step up, and two of them will surprise you:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Junior is coming off his most disappointing season on the track, going winless and slumping to 25th in points a year after making the Chase For The Sprint Cup.

What makes Junior look even worse is the fact that his Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished 1-2-3 in points.

Earnhardt Jr. is entering the third year of a five-year contract with Hendrick, and as the sport’s most popular and most marketable driver, and with one of the biggest sponsorship packages, he is not likely to be let go anytime soon by team owner Rick Hendrick. With Junior being Junior, he has a longer leash and a wider margin for error than any driver in the sport.

But at what point does Hendrick’s patience start wearing thin? What happens if Earnhardt Jr. has a third straight disappointing season with the sport’s top organization?

At what point does Hendrick write him off as a failed experiment and move on?

Brian Vickers lasted just three years with Hendrick before he was released, Casey Mears just two. Kyle Busch won races for Hendrick, but was let go because of his attitude and off-the-track issues.

Hendrick hasn’t shown a lot of patience the past few years with unsuccessful and uncooperative drivers. With his track record, he doesn’t have to.

Junior may not be on the hot seat right now, but after last year’s debacle, it is certainly heating up. Time is running out.

Either he bounces back and becomes a factor again, or the seat gets really hot.

Kevin Harvick

Another surprise on this list, Harvick is coming off a winless season and a 19th-place finish in points.

He complained all season about his struggling Richard Childress Racing team and even threatened to leave after the season, even though he has one more year left on his contract. Though he and Childress agreed to stay together for 2010, Harvick made it clear near the end of the season that he may consider his options and move on after this season.

The question is, will there be a better opportunity available for him?

Harvick is an enigma. Is he a true star and a legitimate contender, or is he an underachiever?

He has not won a race in the past two seasons and has just one win in the past three years. He has had one big season, winning five races in 2006. The rest of his Cup career, he has been up and down, finishing outside the top 10 in points four times in his nine seasons.

If he doesn’t bounce back in a big way next season, then where does he stand? What are his options?

Will Childress want him back, or will he go after another free agent? If Harvick chooses to leave, what is his value and demand?

If he’s riding a three-year winless streak, will he command attention from top teams, or will they fear he has become another Earnhardt, Jr.?

Harvick won the Daytona 500 in 2007. That was his last victory. He needs to pick up the pace quickly to secure his Cup future.

David Ragan

A year ago, Ragan was one of the top young drivers in the sport. After finishing 13th in points in 2008, barely missing the Chase, he was poised for a breakout season last year at Roush Fenway Racing.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, Ragan was one of the most disappointing drivers of the season. Backed by a big, new sponsorship package from UPS, Ragan was a flop, scoring just two top-10 finishes and falling to 27th in points.

With Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, all legitimate stars and championship contenders at Roush, Ragan is bringing up the rear.

If he doesn’t bounce back and show some serious potential in 2010, he could wind up like McMurray — looking for a new ride.

Sam Hornish Jr.

Time is running out for the three-time Indy Racing League champion.

Or time is running out for Penske Racing to figure out what Hornish needs to succeed.

Hornish has run two full seasons in Sprint Cup, and the results have not been pretty.

He struggled to a 35th-place finish in points as a rookie in 2008. Last year, he showed flashes of potential, scoring two top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

Still, he led just three laps and wrecked more often than he ran up front. One week, he looked as if he had figured it out; the next he was in the wall again. The result was a dismal 28th-place finish in points.

The former open-wheel superstar is hard to figure out. Is he struggling to adjust to stock cars? Or is the Penske organization struggling to give him fast cars and the right personnel?

Year Three of the experiment is probably crucial for both sides. Either Hornish figures it out and has some success, or he may look for another team or head back to the IRL.

Or, either Hornish figures it out or Penske chalks it up as a failed experiment and looks for another driver.

Elliott Sadler

No one is sitting on a hotter seat than Sadler, who is coming off his fourth straight mediocre season and his third straight at the team now known as Richard Petty Motorsports.

Sadler hasn’t won since 2004 and hasn’t finished higher than 22nd in points the past four years. His 26th-place finish last season was his worst yet at the George Gillett-Ray Evernham-owned team.

Sadler was nearly released prior to last season, but he went to court to prevent the team from replacing him with AJ Allmendinger.

Now, the team has announced plans to merge with Yates Racing, and Sadler is paired with Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard.

This is perhaps the most crucial year of Sadler’s career. Either he breaks out of his slump and earns another contract or a ride with another team, or he could be facing the end of the road.