A new season is upon us, winter moved quickly and engines are already screaming at Daytona international Speedway. Last season witnessed another master class by Jimmie Johnson, but Denny Hamlin also came close, as did Kevin Harvick. While those three might already hold the title of favorites for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup, the field promises to get even more competitive, and the changes NASCAR made to points should also raise the excitement level a few notches.
Gone in 2011 is the often confusing, traditional NASCAR point system. It has been replaced by a simple structure of one point per finishing position, 43 points for a win, one point for a 43rd-place result. There will still be bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps, but those have been reduced to one point each versus the five points awarded in previous seasons.
Additional rule changes tweaked race and Chase qualification. Qualifying order now will be determined by practice speeds, with the fastest practice time going out to qualify last. That change should introduce some great drama on qualifying days. Finally, the Chase will now consist of the top-10 drivers ranked in points, plus two other drivers who will qualify based on wins.
What will all this mean to the 2011 show? It could be pessimistic, but it seems like a slightly more clear-cut manner in which to figure out that Jimmie Johnson will be champion. The optimist will say that the field will be more competitive in points, a bad day may hurt more and the Chase will be even more nail-biting with two winning drivers thrown into the mix.
Let’s now look at the 2011 Daytona field.
Jimmie Johnson – Johnson proved again in 2011 that he is one of the best drivers in the world. He has the best equipment under him with Hendrick motorsports and one of the sport’s best managers and strategists on the box (Chad Knaus). Johnson won six races in 2010, with six pole positions, 17 top-fives and 23 top-10s. Those statistics earned him his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup. There simply has not been a better driver in NASCAR than Johnson the last five years. He has endured some challenges from competitors, but none have matched the No. 48’s consistency, ability to adapt and drive for perfection. Johnson is the easy favorite for the upcoming season, as well as the Daytona 500.
Denny Hamlin – The one driver to truly cause Johnson to sweat in 2010 was Hamlin. He racked up eight wins (two more than Johnson) 14 top-fives and 18 top-10s en route to his career best second-place finish in the Chase. Hamlin demonstrated that the path to the Cup in 2010 would have to go through his garage. Hamlin started 2010 with knee ligament damage that forced him to crutches when not in the car. He won with the injury, then immediately took advantage of a quick break to surgically repair the knee. Not only did the surgery not impair him, but he actually picked up his performances, winning two races within five weeks of the procedure. One wonders what Hamlin will do with more Chase experience and a healthy body.
Kevin Harvick – “Happy Harvick” was one of three drivers in the running for the Cup in the season’s final race. He had some ground to cover for things to go his way, but he never gave up. His consistency in 2010 was remarkable. He seemed to always lurk near the front as the laps of nearly every race wound down. He won three times in 2010, picked up 16 top-fives and 26 top-10s for his best-ever points finish of third. Harvick’s consistency may be more of a worry for Hendrick Motorsports than Hamlin’s speed. Just a little step forward in speed could spell trouble for Johnson as Harvick has loads of experience and knows what it takes to win races, finish strongly and capture championships.
Kyle Busch – We thought we saw a mature Busch in 2010. That was until he began seeing red and returned to his old habit of attacking officials with gestures and comments, while also overdriving the car to compensate. Busch might be the most naturally talented driver in the field, but until he can fully control his emotions, he will struggle to achieve greatness. Tony Stewart leaned that lesson and Busch is on the verge of cracking the code. He is destined to win races - many - and more than a few in 2011 most likely. Will he control his frustrations in enough to climb to the top of the ladder? Busch is an obvious fantasy favorite for nearly any race in any season and certainly this season at Daytona.
Kasey Kahne – Among the fastest cars in preseason Daytona testing, the Toyota cars were constant. Kahne was one of the Toyota drivers in the top 10 in multiple sessions. Last year, he became acquainted with his new team when Richard Petty Motorsports released him late in the season. Kahne might be a lame duck at Red Bull Motorsports, but he is part of the recruiting team that will find his replacement before heading off to race full-time with Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. While Kahne has undeniable talent, he hasn’t risen to those expectations yet in his career. Many believe that with Hendrick, he can. He’ll have to endure 2011 with Red Bull, but it will be his responsibility to demonstrate that Red Bull is a prime seat.
Carl Edwards – Edwards entered the offseason on the high of winning the final two races of 2010. Edwards had a disappointing start to 2010, but picked up his pace as the year progressed. He ended the campaign with two wins, nine top-fives and 19 top-10s. His finishing position in the Chase was fourth. Edwards came on strong at season's end, but it wasn’t enough to mount a serious charge for the title. Just a handful of years ago many pictured Edwards as a certain future champion. Nearing the start of 2011, with Johnson dominating, Edwards still has a shot, but the certainty of it might be fading. Edwards’ Daytona record is an average finish of 17.7 in 12 career starts.
Kurt Busch – Busch said that being the only Dodge team in the series was not a hindrance; in fact, he has made that statement multiple times since Penske Championship Racing became the lone Dodge team. The prior season proved that the lone-wolf campaign was not keeping Busch out of victory lane or the Chase, but the extra push the team might need to be serious contenders might still be missing. Eleventh position in the Chase is not what Busch or Penske are aiming for, and they may struggle to do better this season, but Busch and Penske, with a devoted focus from Dodge, could pull a few surprises. While Busch may not be a likely championship winner in 2011, he should be able to snag a few victories, including a Daytona challenge.
A.J. Allmendinger – Despite winning a pole position and bagging two top-fives and eight top-10s in 2010, Allmendinger faces a stiff uphill climb to improve in 2011. Richard Petty Motorsports ran aground in 2010 with finances a huge stumbling block to lasting through the season. Investors stepped in and secured the future of the team and put Richard Petty back into the daily mix of leading the team. While the new investors are headed in the right direction by restoring Petty as a leader, the damage done to the team the last few seasons of poor ownership are very serious. There is plenty of ground for the crew to cover, and while Allmendinger is a great talent, the machinery and equipment, not to mention personnel, will suffer with the starvation of past years.
Jeff Gordon – Gordon hasn’t found the path to victory lane since April 2009. He had a fantastic season in 2010, but failed to win and only finished ninth of 12 in the Chase. Gordon was once expected to eclipse the late Dale Earnhardt in championships, but has fallen off the radar recently. Tensions flared last year between mentor and mentee as Gordon and Johnson butted heads more often than once. Cracks have started showing in Gordon’s veneer and the addition of a child and a stable family life may be weighing a bit more on Gordon’s exploits than he cares to admit. Gordon might see 2011 as a make-or-break year, and more likely than not, he might find himself searching for a graceful exit afterward. Don't bet on him at Daytona.
Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya, the NASCAR driver, has been defined by the fact that he has not won on an oval. Two wins in the series are what the former Formula 1 driver has to his credit, but both were earned on the two road courses on the calendar. While Montoya has shown sheer speed on ovals, and is even a former Indianapolis 500 champion, his oval pedigree has not translated to heavy and boxy stock cars. Until the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar features a majority of races on road courses, Montoya might be out of luck. While he is likely to eventually find Victory Lane on an oval, his ability to regularly make the Chase and be a contender might take even more time to develop. And last we checked, Daytona is not a road course.
Mark Martin – Martin is entering 2011 as his final season in the Sprint Cup. The phrase was repeated before, but after tasting some success after semi-retirement, Martin decided to take another go at the Cup. His first full season back in the cockpit had him as a bridesmaid to Johnson’s fourth Cup, with five wins, 14 top-fives and 21 top-10s. It was a career-best season for Martin, but what quickly followed in 2010 was perhaps a signal that his time has passed. Martin was shut out of victory lane in 2010, scoring only seven top-fives and just 11 top-10s in the 36-race season. Never write Martin off, and he will be as motivated as ever before he calls it a day, but chances for a sentimental upset are likely small – in the Chase or at Daytona.
David Ragan – After displaying promise in his rookie season of 2007, Ragan has failed to live up to expectations. His last two seasons in the seat at Roush Fenway Racing have shown him to be the slowest and most inconsistent of the team. He failed to score a single top-five finish in 2010, making it two years in a row without breaking into top-five territory. Ragan might be on the tightrope of employment should he also fail to perform in 2011. While he might show flashes of brilliances here or there, Ragan has consistently failed to turn those showings into results, and it is only a matter of time that a results-oriented owner like Jack Roush cuts the chord and sends Ragan packing.
Ryan Newman – Newman found victory lane again in 2010 in the Subway Fresh Fit 600, his first victory since the 2008 Daytona 500. Newman hasn’t finished better than 34th in the Daytona 500 since his victory and has trailed off since joining Stewart-HAAS Racing. While Stewart made the Chase in 2010, Newman missed out and finished the year in 15th position. There is no doubt that Newman knows how to close the deal and has the talent to do so, but his performances since joining Stewart-HAAS have seemed to be more focused on chassis development. That work could pay dividends in 2011, but one wonders if the last two seasons of disappointing results have blunted Newman’s effectiveness. Perhaps he could surprise at Daytona, but that's not enough to bank on.