1. Jimmie Johnson - The five-time Sprint Cup champion made history yet again in 2010 with his fifth consecutive title. Johnson is beginning to draw praise that describes him as the greatest driver in NASCAR history. Considering all that he's accomplished in the last half-decade, who are we to argue? Five championships, 35 victories, 17 pole positions and a staggering 117 Top-10 finishes during his five-year reign as champion. The Hendrick Motorsports star is fast approaching $100 million in career earnings and that puts him in some very select company in the world of motor sports.
2. Denny Hamlin - Last season ended on a sour note for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Hamlin stumbled at both Phoenix and Homestead and saw the 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship slip through his fingers. If he can overcome the mental baggage that comes with losing to Johnson, Hamlin should be able to mount another run at the championship in 2011. His eight victories last season led the Sprint Cup Series, and now that he's posted two consecutive seasons with Top-5 finishes in the championship standings he can only be seen as a big threat to Johnson's current dominance.
3. Jeff Gordon - Somehow the No. 24 team managed to lead over 900 laps last season yet still come away with a goose egg in the win department. It's just the third time in Gordon's 18-year career that he's been held out of the win column for an entire season. The last time that it happened was 2008 and Gordon returned the next year to win one race and finish third in the final standings. The pairing with new crew chief Alan Gustafson is likely to make this a repeat scenario. We expect about 25 Top 10's for Gordon in 2011 and another run at the title considering that his time is starting to run out.
4. Carl Edwards - Edwards started to catch fire at the end of 2010. The star of the Roush Fenway Racing camp finally shook off a 70-race winless streak and put together a two-race win streak with victories at both Phoenix and Homestead. We haven't seen the No. 99 team perform this well since 2008, so pay close attention in your fantasy drafts. His value could be way down in both auction leagues and draft leagues. Edwards' nine wins and 27 Top 10's in 2008 had him within shooting range of the championship and we wouldn't rule out that kind of dominance for the upcoming season.
5. Kevin Harvick - After three victories and 26 Top-10 finishes last season, we expect a bit of a downturn for Harvick this season, but not much. The veteran driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet raced at about his peak performance to finish third in the final series standings of 2010, so we find it hard to believe he can better that performance. Harvick was outstanding during the Chase's final 10 races of last season with nine Top-10 finishes. He should easily ride the momentum of that consistency into a good start in 2011.
6. Kyle Busch - The predictable annual meltdown in the Chase for the Cup is all that's keeping this talented driver for competing for championships. When Busch gets the final 10 races of the season figured out, he's going to become an elite driver. That's right, he's not there quite yet. In the meantime, he'll showcase his fantasy racing value with three to four wins per season and many Top 10's leading up to NASCAR's postseason format. If Busch could develop any kind of consistency for an entire season, he would have his name mentioned in the same breath with Jimmie Johnson.
7. Mark Martin - Martin will be a leading candidate for comeback driver of the year in 2011. After missing the Chase this past season and posting an anemic 11 Top-10 finishes, expectations for a rebound will be high in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports camp. Remember, this is the same driver and team to post five wins and finish second in the championship standings. Martin will have to develop a quick rapport with new crew chief Lance McGrew but that shouldn't take too long. While we don't expect Martin to be a prime contender for the championship in 2011, he should easily win a race or two and make it back into the Chase.
8. Joey Logano - Probably the most talented driver yet to make his mark in NASCAR has to be Logano. He built on a good rookie year with a sophomore season that saw the No. 20 team earn 16 Top-10 finishes and be one of the more consistent teams in the last quarter of the 2010 season. We expect Logano to parlay that late-season consistency into some 2011 momentum. That could mean a win or two for the young driver in the upcoming season and a possible Chase berth for the first time in his NASCAR career. Logano is one of the stars of the future of this sport, and this will be a stepping stone season in his development.
9. Tony Stewart - The two-time Sprint Cup Series champion fell short of expectations in 2010 and he really didn't show the signs down the stretch that would indicate the upcoming season will be any better. However, you can't sell Stewart's talent short. Despite finishing outside the Top 5 in the final standings each of the last five seasons, the owner/driver has collected 15 victories during this span. That averages out to an impressive 3 wins per season. In fantasy racing terms, that's money on the table. While we don't see Smoke as a serious championship contender, you can almost guarantee he'll steal a couple victories and post 17-22 Top 10's in the upcoming season.
10. Greg Biffle - We expect all the Roush Fenway Racing teams to be improved in 2011, so this ranking could be a bit low for Biffle and the No. 16 team. The veteran driver has what it takes to win races and push the 20 Top-10 finish plateau. Consistency has always been the shortcoming of Biffle and the prime reason why he has not won a Sprint Cup Series championship to this point in his racing career. Still, Biffle has elite driver ability and should be evaluated as such when drafting your fantasy racing teams for the new season. If the veteran driver improves enough to win one more race and collect a couple more Top 10's than he did last year, it will approach career-best numbers for him.
11. Kurt Busch - We admire the driving ability of Busch and the clear talents of his crew chief Steve Addington. The 2010 season left us feeling a good bit empty on this driver and team. What looked like a championship run fizzled in the Chase as Busch plummeted through the standings on the back of his two Top 10's in the final 10 races of the season. The anticipation of a rebound is tempting but when examining his recent numbers you realize that Busch has only topped the 20 Top 10 mark once in the last six years. Despite the clear evidence of excellence on paper, we have to be a bit reserved in our expectations for this Penske Racing team.
12. Clint Bowyer - One of the toughest drivers to prognosticate each season is Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing team. However, this past season we saw some indicators during the Chase that showed that Bowyer may be ready to take the next steps in his racing development and NASCAR career. With wins at both Loudon and Talladega in the last 10 races and a career-best 18 Top-10 finishes, we saw what the Richard Childress Racing driver is capable of doing with the right equipment. Bowyer is pegged for stardom, and this could be the season where he explodes into elite driver status.
13. Matt Kenseth - To say that Kenseth hasn't been quite the same since Robby Reiser retired from his crew chief position from the No. 17 team would be a major understatement. The duo had been driver/crew chief for almost all of Kenseth's stock car racing career. While together in the Sprint Cup Series alone they collected 16 victories and one championship. Kenseth has struggled to match that success the last couple seasons. However, there were some signs of a turnaround in late 2010. The veteran driver collected five Top 10's during the Chase and finished fifth in the final driver standings. Kenseth will be consistent again in the new season, but will lack the ability to win races on a regular basis.
14. Jamie McMurray - McMurray's return to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing last season was a huge success. After wins in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Bank of America 500 (Charlotte) he and the No. 1 Chevrolet team served notice that they will challenge to be a Chase participant in the coming years. McMurray's 14th-place finish in the driver standings was his best season since he last raced for car owner Chip Ganassi in 2005. We expect a couple more victories in 2011, especially at the larger ovals, and the possibility of a first time entrance in the Chase for the Cup.
15. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Probably the most-watched driver of the coming season will be Earnhardt. After owner Rick Hendrick shook up the crew chief/driver combinations in three of his four teams last December, a move that pointed directly at boosting Earnhardt's performance, all eyes are now on the No. 88 team. With 108 starts under his belt in NASCAR's super-stable, the iconic driver has only one victory to show for and only one disappointing Chase appearance. Lance McGrew is out and Steve Letarte is in as Earnhardt's crew chief for the 2011 season. While we expect some mild improvement in the team this season, don't get your hopes too high Earnhardt fans.
16. Jeff Burton - Among the upper tier drivers that we expect to take a downturn this season is Burton. The Richard Childress Racing veteran put together a great half-season in 2010. The second half, including the Chase for the Cup was a bumpy ride for the No. 31 team. Burton's collapse in the Chase led to an on-track shoving match between himself and Jeff Gordon in what was a clearly frustrating crash at Texas Motor Speedway in November. After finishes of 17th- and 12th- in the driver standings the last two years, we may have finally begun to see the decline of the 43-year-old Burton's driving abilities.
17. Ryan Newman - In a lot of ways Newman outperformed his boss Tony Stewart in 2010. The U. S. Army driver piloted his Chevrolet to one win, one pole and 14 Top-10 finishes. Newman's three or four “mini-slumps” during the season are all that kept him from participating in the Chase last season. If he can overcome those brief skids in 2011, then he can get back into Chase contention. At the very least Rocket Man will post about 14-16 Top 10's and finish in the middle teens of the driver standings.
18. Martin Truex Jr. - While last season was for the most part a disappointment for the Michael Waltrip Racing newcomer, it did have some bright spots along the way. Truex's pairing with elite crew chief Pat Tryson didn't pay immediate dividends, but they did manage to forge seven Top 10's. We have to remember that this was the duo's first campaign together. The chemistry built in 2010 showed in the season finale at Homestead. Truex led a season-best 62 laps and finished a respectable 11th in the Ford 400. He will ride the momentum of that effort into the upcoming season. Optimism as well as morale should be very high, and don't be surprised if Truex pushes for a Chase berth by the time Richmond rolls around.
19. Juan Pablo Montoya - A downturn in 2010 came as no surprise for the No. 42 team. Montoya was coming off a 2009 campaign that saw him collect 18 Top 10's and finish a career-best eighth in the driver standings. A slump was to be expected, and that's exactly what happened last season. Aside from Montoya's one win and 14 Top 10's, he failed to make the Chase and struggled with consistency at times. What's most troubling for this Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star is that he showed no signs of improvement during the final third of last season. Montoya limped to the finish line last season with only one Top 10 during the Chase. That would indicate a potential slow start to the 2011 campaign.
20. David Reutimann - We could be selling Reutimann short with this ranking, but until he and the No. 00 Toyota team can find some semblance of consistency he will remain a lower tier “B” type driver. The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran managed to win a race for the second consecutive season after his brilliant duel with Jeff Gordon at Chicago. However, his paltry nine Top-10 finishes relegated him to sideline status when the Chase rolled around. The perplexing inconsistency of this driver and team will continue in 2011. Sure, Reutimann will turn in some great runs, but they will be intermingled with a lot of mediocrity as well.
21. Kasey Kahne - Kahne's move to Red Bull Racing for just the 2011 season will be a curious experiment. The No. 4 Toyota will just be a seat-warmer for the star driver until he can take over the Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012. Kahne's ability is undeniable. His 11 career victories and 87 Top-10 finishes didn't happen by accident. Even his substandard performance last season yielded four poles and 10 Top-10 finishes. The instability continues for the upcoming season, as another form of transition will take place in his NASCAR racing career. Kahne will accomplish big things once he gets in a Hendrick Chevy, but 2011 will be another season of unrealized potential due to the team situation.
22. Brad Keselowski - There's little doubt that Keselowski is pegged for NASCAR stardom, it's just a matter of timing. We don't feel that he'll take too many significant steps in 2011. Despite the move to the historic No. 2 Dodge and big time corporate sponsorship, we'll still see struggles in this young driver and team. Keselowski only managed a meager two Top 10's and 25th-place finish in the driver standings after his first full season of Sprint Cup Series racing. We expect improvement this season, but measured in inches, not feet. Keselowski will likely post about eight or nine Top-10 finishes and several mini-slumps along the way.
23. A. J. Allmendinger - This spot in the rankings is by no means a reflection of Allmendinger's driving talent. In fact if the talented youngster were driving for one of the super stables like Gibbs, Hendrick or Roush he'd likely be a Top 10 driver. The limitations of racing for a team that pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy in 2010 in Richard Petty Motorsports is the real limiting factor here. The news that RPM is scaling down to just two teams in the upcoming season is welcome news for Allmendinger, but at the same time it's difficult to see him putting up much better numbers than he did last season. Still, three of his eight Top 10's came during the Chase so that's a very encouraging sign heading into the new season.
24. Brian Vickers - The long awaited return of Red Bull Racing's star is at hand. Vickers sat on the sidelines for 25 races last year with blood clot problems. Before his medical condition, he struggled through the first 11 races with only three Top 10's. Vickers has to be chomping at the bit to get back behind the wheel. He could easily return to the form of 2009 that saw him collect six poles, one victory and 13 Top-10 finishes. While those expectations could be a bit much, don't be surprised if the No. 83 Toyota team climbs these rankings a few spots by November 2011.
25. David Ragan - Everyone has been waiting for Ragan to return to 2008 form when he posted 14 Top 10's and finished a respectable 13th in the point standings. Two seasons have now passed with that potential unrealized and scrutiny growing on the No. 6 Ford team. Ragan will get at least one more crack to prove himself in 2011. The approach on this Roush Fenway Racing driver should be cautiously optimistic. All the Roush team's ended 2010 on a positive note, including Ragan. His two Top-10 finishes during the Chase for the Cup are reason enough to raise expectations. There is some fantasy racing upside here, but with an equal amount of risk.
26. Marcos Ambrose - The move to Richard Petty Motorsports is a bit of a move up for third-year driver Ambrose. To this point in his Sprint Cup Series career he's raced for JTG/Daugherty Racing and posted 13 Top 10's in 83 starts. Ambrose should be able to move back up the standings with this race team. The No. 9 Ford team collected 11 victories and 87 Top 10's under Kasey Kahne's seven seasons of guidance. So there's reason to be very optimistic about Ambrose's future in NASCAR's top division.
27. Paul Menard - After a career-best six Top-10 finishes and 23rd-place finish in the final driver standings last season, Menard moves on to his new gig at Richard Childress Racing. He'll be paired with familiar crew chief Slugger Labbe in his new No. 27 Chevrolet team. This will be an experiment of sorts. The last time RCR expanded to four teams things didn't go so smoothly. Coming off a good season, expectations are high at this highly respected Chevy camp. Menard will try to build on the momentum of last season, but things could get bumpy quick if the transition takes any time. The good news is that Menard will be racing in his best team situation since joining the Sprint Cup ranks.
28. Regan Smith - Smith will return for another season of racing with Furniture Row Racing. The No. 78 team had a very solid campaign in 2010. Smith forged 12 Top-20 finishes last season and finished a respectable 28th in the point standings. With only four DNF's all season long, he proved his worth in deeper fantasy racing leagues and weekly lineup leagues. Smith should serve that purpose again in 2011. The team will continue to use Richard Childress Racing chassis and switch over to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing engines, so the equipment should be on par with many of the larger teams.
29. Bobby Labonte - The veteran driver and former Sprint Cup Series champion spent much of last season bouncing from one small team to another in a very unsettled racing situation. That will improve in the upcoming season. Labonte will take over the No. 47 Toyota of JTG/Daugherty Racing. This team has funding and the crucial points to assure some limited success for him this season. Labonte may be 46-years old and past his racing prime, but he will be capable of much more in this team than he's accomplished the last couple seasons. Labonte could crack the Top 25 in the standings with this respectable, small race team.
30. Bill Elliott - The Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 team could return from part-time to full-time racing in 2011. If sponsorship can be obtained, the team will have the points and Elliott is willing to run the full schedule. This team has been very steady on the numerous intermediate ovals and larger tracks during their part-time stint, so there is some fantasy racing value here albeit limited. Elliott's 15th-place finish in the season finale at Homestead is illustrative of what this team is capable of on most NASCAR weekends.
31. David Gilliland - He spent much of last season floating between the No. 37 and No. 38 teams of Front Row Motorsports. Despite the unsettled nature of this multi-car team, Gilliland was able to accomplish a modicum of success. He qualified for 32 events in 33 attempts with this team. During that time he amassed seven Top-25 finishes compared to just two DNF's. At the time of this writing Gilliland appears pegged to run the full schedule in what should be the No. 38 Ford with Taco Bell primary sponsorship. We expect him to raise the performance bar a notch or two in 2011.
32. Travis Kvapil - Kvapil spent a vast majority of 2010 in the No. 34 Ford of Front Row Motorsports, but he also had some starts in the team's No. 37 and No. 38. He qualified for 34 of the 36 races and managed to keep the team in the very crucial Top 35 in owner points. Kvapil struggled at times last season and had a difficult time cracking the Top 30 most weekends, but he did manage to make most of the races. His five DNF's are a bit disconcerting, but Kvapil should improve with a thinning part-time field of drivers slated for the 2011 season.
33. Sam Hornish Jr. - At the time of this writing Hornish is without a ride in the Sprint Cup Series. Still, his talent bears watching close. If the Penske Racing driver can land elsewhere in Sprint Cup Series or if Penske can find funding for the No. 77 Dodge, he would make a fantasy-worthy driver. Hornish finished 28th- and 29th-place in the driver standings each of the last two seasons and collected eight Top 10's during that span. At just 31-years-old there's a lot of racing left in Hornish, and hopefully it will be in NASCAR.
34. Casey Mears - Mears took most of last season to locate a full-time ride, but he did accomplish the feat before season's end. He made 12 of 13 events attempted with the one-car team of Germain Racing. While the team was not a start-and-park, they did have their struggles. However, Mears' 273 races of Sprint Cup Series experience paid dividends for this team with a handful of Top-25 finishes down the stretch run of 2010. The No. 13 team has half-season sponsorship from GEICO in 2011, but if Mears starts the season well additional sponsors could be found.
35. Trevor Bayne - His potential Sprint Cup Series plans for 2011 are uncertain at the time of this writing, but his talent and potential are unquestionable. Bayne made his Sprint Cup Series debut for Wood Brothers Racing last season and it was a tremendous success. He finished 17th in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in the fall. That performance alone should be good enough to get Bayne a handful of starts somewhere this season. The kid has the goods, so he's worth a look in weekly lineup leagues when he's racing.
36. Scott Riggs - The No. 90 team of Keyed Up Motorsports has signed Riggs to drive the team's Chevrolet in 2011. He's been paired with respected veteran crew chief Doug Richert at this small race team. An all-out effort is going to be made at the beginning of the season to become established in the Top 35 of the owner points, and then race the full season from there. Riggs made only two Sprint Cup Series starts in 2010, but one of them was a respectable 28th-place finish for this team at Phoenix in the spring.
37. Robby Gordon - The veteran owner/driver is likely going to run just a part-time schedule in 2011, so that severely limits his fantasy racing worth. Gordon made 27 starts with this team last season and stepped out of the ride for a handful of different drivers when sponsorship became a major problem. The highlight of 2010 for Gordon was his brilliant runner-up finish at the road course in Sonoma during the summer. It was his only Top 10 of the season and a reminder of Gordon's expertise on the winding road circuits.
38. Scott Speed - After two full seasons of racing for Red Bull Racing, Speed was released at the end of 2010. This came as a result of the signing of Kasey Kahne to drive for the team in the upcoming season. While Speed will likely sit out the season due to his late release from the team, he could still land with someone if something develops. His two Top-10 finishes last season underscored a campaign of ups-and-downs last year. Speed is a driver capable of cracking the Top 25 of the driver standings if given good equipment and the right opportunity.
39. Joe Nemechek - The owner/driver of the No. 87 car had lots of struggles in 2010. Lack of sponsorship funding made Nemechek a start-and-park team last season, but he still managed to make 31 of the 36 events. He only managed to finish one of those 31 races with a 27th-place effort at Talladega in the fall. This team's lack of funding and lack of performance make them a shaky fantasy racing play considering this situation is not likely to improve in the coming year.
40. Dave Blaney - Blaney made 29 starts last season for a handful of different owners. However, most of his success came with Front Row Motorsports between the No. 37 and No. 38 teams. Blaney's plans are uncertain at this point, but it appears that he could be racing for this same multi-car team that he ended last season with. With only four Top-30 finishes to his credit in 2010, Blaney is clearly not reliable enough to pin your fantasy racing hopes on.
41. Tony Raines - Front Row Motorsports put Raines in a car for eight of his nine starts last season. While it's unclear at this point where Raines will be racing in 2011, it wouldn't come as a surprise to see him a part of the FRM driver lineup. Raines has a surprising 150-start Sprint Cup Series resume, so he's no rookie. However, with only one Top-30 finish vs. three DNF's last season his fantasy racing value is highly questionable no matter where he races in the upcoming season.
42. J. J. Yeley - It appears that Yeley is pegged to run the full season for Whitney Motorsports in 2011. This small race team made 22 events last season among a handful of drivers. Unfortunately this team could only manage an average finish of 37. 0 among their multi-driver lineup. Yeley has his work cut out for him in the upcoming season. If this small race team's sponsorship and funding situation doesn't improve, Yeley could be relegated to start-and-park status for the season.
43. Terry Labonte - The veteran driver came out of retirement at the end of last year to run a couple races for some small race teams. The newly-formed Stavola-Labonte race team made a couple events last season and they intend to race the full schedule in 2011 if funding can be found. Labonte would be pegged to start most of the events for this team if things pan out. The 53-year-old Labonte is several years removed from his 1996 Sprint Cup Series championship, so his potential is questionable at best.
44. Michael Waltrip - Waltrip will only race a very limited part-time schedule in 2011 as he is more of an owner now than a driver. It would seem that he'll take on a similar schedule to the four starts that he made last season. The highlight of his 2010 campaign as a respectable 18th-place finish in the Daytona 500. As always, Waltrip is worth a long look on the super speedways.
45. Boris Said - The road racing veteran's 2011 plans have not been announced, but it would seem that Said is poised for another year of part-time racing in the Sprint Cup Series. He should come close to equaling the six starts that he made in 2010. Said's eighth-place finish at Sonoma during the summer reminded everyone just how dangerous he can be on the road circuits. Seven of his eight career Top 10's in the Sprint Cup Series have come at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen.