After their worst season as an organization in quite some time, it would be easy at first glance to write off Richard Childress Racing when it comes to predictions for 2010 success.
However, a late-season surge by each of the Childress team's cars - the #29 of Kevin Harvick, the #31 of Jeff Burton, the #33 of Clint Bowyer, and the since-shuttered #07 of Casey Mears - makes skipping over one of NASCAR's most storied organizations difficult.
At the head of the returning trio is Burton. The veteran driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet closed out the year with back-to-back second place finishes and, after pairing with crew chief Todd Berrier at Talladega, finished no worse than ninth in the final four races of the season.
While the same contract talk that loomed around the team's flagship #29 machine and driver Kevin Harvick will no doubt be even more intense this season with Harvick seemingly all but guaranteed to exit the ride at the end of this season, the #31 team has stability amongst sponsor, driver, and crew chief.
It is that stability and the blossoming chemistry between Burton and the soft-spoken Berrier that make the #31 team a strong, if unheralded, contender entering the season, should they be able to build on their strong finish to the 2009 campaign.
Entering his 17th season of full-time Sprint Cup competition, Burton has proven to be a capable wheelman on nearly any track. Berrier, meanwhile, partnered with Harvick to win the sport's two most prestigous races, the Daytona 500 in 2007 and the Brickyard 400 in 2003. Paired together, the veteran duo is one of NASCAR's most potent driver-crew chief combinations.
Whether or not Burton and Berrier's partnership carries through to the Sprint Cup title will hinge on how well the team sustains its performance throughout the season.
When the #31 outfit is at its best, its ability to mix outright speed with unwavering consistency is almost second-to-none. Sustaining that one-two punch throughout the ten-race Chase for the Championship has proven difficult, however. Should the team finally manage to maintain its tradiitional clockwork-like performance over those final ten races, it could be rewarded with the Childress team's seventh Sprint Cup championship and the first each for Burton and Berrier.