It's time for my 2011 NASCAR season preview.
1. Can anybody knock off Jimmie Johnson?
Last year, fans hoped that it would be the year that Johnson would be dethroned as Sprint Cup Champion. And Denny Hamlin got so close to completing the feat but fell just short due to a poor finish at Phoenix and crashing early in the finale at Homestead. Johnson continues to be able to avoid mistakes and watch his competition fall by the wayside as Hamlin did last season. Every year, Carl Edwards is supposed to be on the verge of winning it all but has failed to do so. Kyle Busch lacks the consistency and the level headiness. Jeff Gordon can't seem to win a race. Now Johnson is not invincible but there has yet to be somebody that can pull it off.
2. How will the proposed new points system change things?
Now SI.com's Tom Bowles calculated last year's Chase with the proposed new points system and came up with the same result, Jimmie Johnson winning. But only by a single point. Now you might think that is great and all but from deep analysis, with first place getting 43 times as much points as last, that leaves even less room for error for drivers. In fact, it will probably lead to the dreaded "points racing" that haunted the Chase before bonus points were awarded at the start of the Chase for drivers for the most wins, in which Chase drivers proceeded to go all out for wins. But NASCAR Chairman Brian France is so determined to have one of those Game 7 moments in which everything is neck and neck at Homestead. It's an intriguing idea to bunch up the points field some more, but if "points racing" comes back possibly even more changes could be in order next season.
3. Can Denny Hamlin come back from a disheartening near-win last season?
The Chase last season took a lot out of Hamlin as he gave it his all to knock off Johnson. And that might leave him looking at a disappointing season in 2011. But it could also give him the drive to seal the deal this time around. The beginning of the season should have a clear answer to this question.
4. Will Kyle Busch ever be able to find the consistency to be the win the Chase?
I do not believe that there is a more talented driver in the Cup garage than Rowdy Busch. But it seems that for every race he dominates and crushes the field, there are a few races where he crashes early or suffers a mechanical problem. With a full season with crew chief Dave Rogers he might be able to do but he just drives so damn hard you wonder if he can ever be able to put it all together.
5. What in the world is wrong with Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
The last two seasons for NASCAR's most popular driver have been pretty awful. It is so confusing why he has struggled so much over the last two seasons with such great equipment. And you can't even call him a Steven Wallace because Junior was competing for titles early in his career at DEI. Now I think he'll have a bounce back year with the very good Steve Letarte working as his crew chief, but I feel like I have been down this road before.
My Final Standings Predictions
1. Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
I just can't see anybody knocking him off. It's the easy pick but who can beat him?
2. Clint Bowyer, #33 Cheerios' Chevy, Richard Childress Racing
Bowyer had a really strong season last year before getting screwed by a B.S. call after winning at Loudon and I think he'll come close but not close enough to knock off the champ.
3. Jeff Gordon, #24 AARP Drive To End Hunger Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon will win again and has shown the consistency to hang with his teammate Johnson and he'll be there in title contention in the finale. But the Drive for Five will not end in 2011.
4. Carl Edwards, #99 Aflac Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing
Every year Carl is the guy everyone thinks will knock off Jimmie but I think he'll fall short again but his great success at the intermediates will keep him in the hunt late in the Chase.
5. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Busch will win a lot of races again but his lack of consistency will bite him, again.
6. Greg Biffle, #16 3M Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing
He's another strong finisher at the intermediate that dominate the Chase but he just can't seem to break through and he is getting older.
7. Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
I really see Hamlin having a slightly off year after that tough loss in the 2010 Chase.
8. Tony Stewart, #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevy, Stewart-Haas Racing
I really think Smoke is starting to slip as he enters another season as an owner-driver. He'll nodoubt be competitive but I don't see his organization at a Championship caliber yet.
9. Matt Kenseth, #17 Crown Royal Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing
His great consistency is nice, but his lack of multiple victories hurts him during the Chase.
10. Kevin Harvick, #29 Budweiser Chevy, Richard Childress Racing
The fact that he might be short on sponsorship this season will derail Happy Harvick ever so slightly.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr., #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports
I see a comeback season for Junior and I think he'll win some races as well. But I don't see him going deep in the Chase yet.
12. Kurt Busch, #29 Pennzoil Dodge, Penske Racing
Busch's team looked like title contenders early in 2010 and even though they made the Chase, they struggled to do much damage once there. I foresee a similar season in 2011.
1. How will NASCAR's decision to allow drivers to accumulate points in one series affect the Nationwide Series?
Clearly this rule was made in mind for the Nationwide Series, where Cup regulars have dominated the series over the last several years. This rule change has some positives and some negatives. For the first time since Martin Truex Jr. won his second Busch Series title in a row in 2005. This allows some of the young guns of the series to flaunt their stuff as well as give some of the cagey veterans of the series a share of the spotlight as well. Plus since Cup drivers can still compete in the series, speedways and still promote the stars of the sport at a cheaper price than a Cup race as can ESPN2. The problem is that since there is no limit on Cup drivers competing, you will still have the websites and television partners showing the standings if the Cup guys werre still allowed to score points. The system is that Cup drivers can't pick up points but the Nationwide regulars only score points for their position (for example Justin Allgaier would score fourth place points if he finished in fourth behind three Cup drivers). So there isn't a perfect model but it is a step in the right direction.
2. How successful can the new policy be?
While as I said the model is not perfect, it has had some success stories already. For example, Roush Fenway Racing is fielding full-time entries for young guns Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. while Joe Gibbs Racing is fielding an entry for Brian Scott. The fact that these guys are getting full time rides means the series could be headed in a brand new direction.
3. How much of a difference can the Nationwide COT make?
Have you seen the Nationwide COT? They look great. They tried to make them look like the old fashioned pony cars and actually have difference in them between each make, unlike the Cup COT. I don't know how much interest they can drum up in the series but they look really cool so I think they're a great addition, even at the cost.
My Final Points Standing Predictions
1. Elliott Sadler, #2 CitiFinancial Chevy, Kevin Harvick Racing
Sadler has been a middle of the pack guy at best in the Cup Series over the last few years but his great experience is a huge factor on why I think he'll be the Nationwide champion. Plus he's driving for one of the top Nationwide organtions in Kevin Harvick Racing, which has always fielded fast equipment. Sadler will be a force this season and in fact don't be surprised to watch him win the season opener at Daytona, as he has always been a great plate racer.
2. Aric Almirola, #88 Tax Slayer/Unilever Chevy, JR Motorsports
Almirola has always been considered a rising star in NASCAR but simply has not gotten the opportunity to shine. He was terrific last season in the truck series and now he steps up to bigger things as he's driving on of the better rides in the series, the #88 for Dale Jr. That Hendrick power also is a great thing to have.
3. Brian Scott, #11 TBA Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
Over the last couple of seasons JGR has dominated the Nationwide series with some of the fastest cars on the track. Add Scott to that equation after a promising rookie season that was split between Bruan Racing as well as RAB Racing and he should be a title contender.
4. Justin Allgaier, #31 Brandt Chevy, Turner Motorsports
If Allgaier was still with Penske Racing I would be picking him as a title contender but unfortunately he was forced out due to sponsorship issues as is now at Turner. Turner bought out Bruan Racing so there should be some good equipment but they are still an unknown.
5. Trevor Bayne, #16 TBA Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing
Bayne had a really strong season last year with Diamond-Waltrip racing and then Rough, but the sponsorship struggles worry me just a bit where I can't put him much higher.
6. Jason Leffler, #38 Great Clips/#30 TBA Chevy, Turner Motorsports
We don't know the whole extent of Leffler's season but we do know that he will be splitting the #38 with Kasey Kahne. If he was in the #38 full tim he would be higher in these rankings.
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., #6 TBA Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing
Stenhouse showed a lot of improvement and promise over the second half of the season last year but the sponsorship woes could pose a problem.
8. Steve Wallace, #66 Five Hour Energy Toyota, Rusty Wallace Inc.
Wallace has shown some talent but he has been way too inconsistent throughout his career. I don't see him improving much from last season but that does not matter in this season without the Cup regulars.
9. Michael Annett, #62 Pilot Travel Centers Toyota, Rusty Wallace Inc.
Annett has shown some promise the past couple of seasons with Germain Racing but now he has a chance to shine in better equipment. While I don't know if he can win races, he'll be competitive.
10. Reed Sorenson, #32 Dollar General Chevy, Turner Motorsports
Sorenson showed the talent that we all knew he had when he jumped into the Cup Series too early last season and had a lot of success. He won't be running the full season as Mark Martin will run a few races but he'll do well enough to finish in the top ten.
1. Can Ron Hornaday Jr. and Mike Skinner bounce back from disappointing seasons?
Both longtime truck mainstays were not at the top of their game in 2010. After being released from his contract at Randy Moss Motorsports, Skinner is currently looking for a ride. Hornaday should be back on top this season but with Todd Bodine coming off a dominating season and with other drivers ready for championship contention, it won't be easy.
2. How good is Austin Dillom?
Dillon is the real deal. After starting off slow in 2010, Dillon got hot as he won seven poles and two races at Iowa and Las Vegas and he finished fifth in the final point standings. Rocking the number 3 and with a strong sponsor on his truck in Bass Pro Shops, a great team in RCR as well as a new teammate, don't be surprised if he wins the title in his second full season.
My Final Points Standing Predictions
1. Austin Dillon, #3 Bass Pro Shops Chevy, Richard Childress Racing
Speaking of the devil, I think he will surprise and win the title. With the talent he showed late in the season and the great equipment he has, I think he can work wonders.
2. Ron Hornaday Jr., #33 TBA Chevy, Kevin Harvick Inc.
Hornaday will rebound and will be in the title discussion again this season right down to the wire. He is too good in the trucks and his equipment is too good for him to stay down too long.
3. Todd Bodine, #30 Germain.com Toyota, Germain Racing
I don't think he'll repeat but he is still an elite truck driver and with another top teammate in the newly acquired Brendan Gaughan, he'll still be in the hunt no doubt.
4. Travis Kvapil, #5 International Trucks/Engines Toyota, Randy Moss Motorsports
Moss' interest has been questioned but his team still fields strong equipment and Kvapil is still one of the elite truck drivers.
5. Johnny Sauter, #13 Curb Records Chevy, ThorSport Racing
Sauter has always had a lot of talent and proved it in his first season of regular truck action last season. He'll win a bunch of races and has passed Matt Crafton in the ThorSport stable.
6. Matt Crafton, #88 Menards Chevy, ThorSport Racing
We keep on waiting for Crafton to break through and win a title but he has yet to do it. He'll be strong again but I just think he got passed by Sauter among his own team.
7. Brendan Gaughan, #62 South Point Toyota, Germain Racing
Gaughan is back in truck, where he has found the most success during his racing career. And racing for an elite team like the Germains only makes it better.
8. Timothy Peters, #17 TBA Toyota, Red Horse Racing
Peters had a solid season at Red Horse and I think he'll follow it up with another sound season and maybe bag a couple of wins.
9. David Starr, #81 Zachry Toyota, Steve Urvan
Starr is another one of the solid and consistent mainstays of the truck series. He won't make a whole lot of noise during the season but he'll be a contender more often than not.
10. Ricky Carmichael, #4 Monster Energy Chevy, Turner Motorsports
Carmichael showed a lot of talent driving for Harvick last year and while he won't be in the same equipment, expect him to perform well as he continues on to building his NASCAR career.