- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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They had at it from start to finish.
NASCAR let the drivers go for it on and off the track with the "have at it, boys" philosophy in 2010.
For the most part, it worked as intended, making the on-track product more exciting, less predictable and much wilder.
A few times, the free-for-all went over the line, changing have-at-it to try-to-survive-it. But NASCAR accepted the bad with the good and allowed the drama to unfold.
It concluded with the best Chase battle in years. NASCAR in 2010 was a show worth watching until the end.
Jimmie Johnson did something he had never done in accomplishing something he has done a lot. Johnson came from behind in the final race to win a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup crown.
So, it's time to look back at the highlights in my annual list of the moments that stood out:
Best achievement: Johnson, of course. OK, I'll say it. He's the best there ever was. You might not realize it yet, but you will before he's done.
Best season for a non-Chaser: Jamie McMurray. He won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Charlotte Chase race, revitalizing his career after not knowing whether he still had a career one year ago.
Best team turnaround: Richard Childress Racing. After failing to place a driver in the 2009 Chase, RCR went 3-for-3 in 2010 and had a championship contender to the end in Kevin Harvick.
Best call to start engines: Gil Martin, Harvick's Sprint Cup crew chief, in the Nationwide Series race two weeks ago at Phoenix: "Ladies, gentlemen and Harvick, start your engines."
Most disappointing season: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Another miserable year, his second consecutive season without a Cup victory, leaving doubts about whether he ever can be a serious contender again.
Wildest race: Monkeys, fights, crew swaps and one-finger salutes, the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway had it all three weeks ago. The circus was in town.
Monkeys sold programs; Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton got gorilla on the track; Chad Knaus threw a monkey wrench into things with a midrace crew swap; and Kyle Busch had his usual monkey business by flipping off an official.
Worst debut season: Danica Patrick. She was out of her element, and it showed. Patrick's best finish was 19th at Homestead, the only time she finished on the lead lap. Granted, it's a whole new world for her and she's working hard, but she has to get better than this.
Best survivor: Jack Roush, who now has experienced two plane crashes and lived to talk about it.
Worst trend: A full-time Cup driver winning the Nationwide Series title for the fifth consecutive year, with Keselowski earning the trophy. Cup drivers won 33 of 35 Nationwide events in 2010. That's not a series; it's a warm-up event for Sunday.
Best new trend: Carl Edwards going into the stands to celebrate with fans after a victory.
Best idea: Not allowing Cup drivers to compete for the title in the Nationwide Series, which probably will be announced in January.
True Nationwide champ: Justin Allgaier, the highest finishing Nationwide-only driver in the season standings, placing behind three Cup regulars.
Best sophomore season: Joey Logano. Something has clicked in young Joey. Everyone knew he had the talent, but now he has learned how to run up front at the end of races.
He finished in the top 10 in six of the 10 Chase races. He also showed toughness and stood up for himself, as we saw with his confrontation with Harvick. Logano will be a Chase contender next year at the age 21.
Most unnecessarily dangerous moment No. 1: Edwards with 190 mph worth of rage deliberately wrecking Keselowski at Atlanta, causing a terrifying crash. Luckily, Keselowski was not hurt. It was have-at-it gone mad.
Most meaningless reprimand: Edwards receiving a three-race probation for the Atlanta incident.
Most unnecessarily dangerous moment No. 2: Edwards again deliberately wrecking Brad K, this time on the last lap of a Nationwide race at Gateway, causing another horrible crash that could have resulted in injury.
Edwards was fined $25,000 and docked 60 points for the Gateway incident, but the second overly aggressive have-at-it moment might have been avoided had NASCAR taken a tougher stance on the first incident.
Worst health scare: Brian Vickers, whose season came to an end in May when doctors discovered he had blood clots in his lungs and left leg. He later underwent surgery to repair a hole in his heart. But Vickers has recovered and plans to return in 2011.
Best health decision: Denny Hamlin elected to have reconstructive knee surgery during the season. It looked like a risk when Hamlin decided to get his ACL repaired in March, but it was the right thing to do.
Most gutsy performance: Hamlin at Phoenix in April. Fresh off that reconstructive knee surgery, barely able to walk and obviously in pain, Hamlin toughs it out and goes the distance.
No 30th-place finish ever meant more. Hamlin could have gotten out of the car for a replacement driver midway through the race when it was obvious a good finish wasn't happening, but he earned the respect of his team by racing until the end.
One week later, he won at Texas, a huge momentum swing for the No. 11 Toyota team that led to three more victories in the next seven races.
Worst racers: The start-and-parkers, who aren't really racers. Run a few laps, go to the garage and take home a nice fat check. In April, TMS president Eddie Gossage said the S&P drivers were "stealing money." He was right.
It's like a football team playing the first five minutes of the opening quarter before leaving the stadium, but still wanting a percentage of the gate receipts.
Most gutsy decision: Knaus. Johnson's crew chief benched his entire crew for Jeff Gordon's crew in the middle of the Texas race three weeks ago. He elected to keep Gordon's crew, and that crew helped Johnson win the title.
It ended up that Rick Hendrick had no place for Kahne next season, but Mark Martin had to constantly fight off rumors that Kahne would replace him. Kahne will drive one season for Red Bull before moving to Hendrick in 2012.
Most embarrassing start to the season: The pothole debacle in the Daytona 500, delaying NASCAR's premier event by 2½ hours. It ruined a spectacular race with a record 21 different leaders and a double-overtime finish with the Cinderella winner in McMurray.
Best season for a team owner: Chip Ganassi. He won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 with McMurray; the Indy 500 and IndyCar title with Dario Franchitti; and the Grand-Am title with Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas.
Best rising star in the Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon. The grandson of Richard Childress won two races and had 16 top-10s in his rookie season at age 20.
Biggest loss: The passing of Jim Hunter, the beloved NASCAR executive who devoted his life to promoting the sport.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
From Jimmie Johnson's fifth title to Brian Vickers' health scare, it was a memorable 2010, and Terry Blount is ready to hand out his annual best and worst awards.