30. 38-David Gilliland, Taco Bell Ford, Front Row Motorsports
2010 prediction- 35th; 2010 result- 32nd
Front Row Motorsports will cut back to two full-time teams in 2011, with Gilliland returning to drive the No. 38 Ford. This team will field Ford Fusions for the second consecutive season. Gilliland is talented enough to keep this team in the top 35 in points.
29. 78-Regan Smith, Furniture Row Chevrolet, Furniture Row Racing
2010 prediction- 33rd; 2010 result- 28th
Smith returns to Furniture Row Racing for a third season after winning the 2008 rookie of the year award. Smith and this team enjoyed some decent performances throughout the season, and seemed to show more speed as the season progressed. They finished in the top twelve twice, barely missing the top ten. In 2011, this team will not only use Richard Childress Racing chassis, but they will transition from Hendrick Motorsports engines to Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines. This team may score a top ten or two, but they are far from a Chase contending team at the moment.
28. 47-Bobby Labonte, Little Debbie/Clorox Toyota, JTG Daugherty Racing
2010 prediction- 31st; 2010 result- 31st
In my opinion, one of the worst moments of 2010 was when the 2000 champion Bobby Labonte was reduced to starting and parking for TRG Motorsports last summer. Thankfully, when Marcos Ambrose opted to depart the JTG Daugherty Toyota, it opened the door for Labonte to finally return to a somewhat competitive and fully funded ride. JTG Daugherty Racing has no sponsorship issues, and they are closely aligned with Michael Waltrip Racing, and MWR has two wins in the last two years, thanks to David Reutimann. Labonte will have some competitive outings, but do not expect a repeat of his glory days at Joe Gibbs Racing.
27. 9-Marcos Ambrose, Stanley Tools Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
2010 prediction- 21st; 2010 result- 26th
You have to admire Ambrose. On two occasions in 2010, he could have lost his cool. At Sonoma, while leading with just a handful of laps remaining, Ambrose cut his car off hoping to save fuel. Unfortunately, he could not get his car refired and several cars bypassed him. Under caution, a sure victory disappeared. Just weeks after signing a deal to replace Kasey Kahne at RPM in the No. 9 Ford, the team became bogged down with financial woes, even threatening to shut down. Ambrose never uttered any negativity throughout the trying season. Now, he will compete as planned in the No. 9 Stanley/DeWalt Ford. Expect a solid yet inconsistent season, as he still does not seem to have mastered car control on the ovals. Ambrose will likely win one of the road course events if not both. If he wins both road course races and stays within the top 20, he could make a surprising appearance in the Chase.
26. 83-Brian Vickers, Red Bull Toyota, Red Bull Racing
2010 prediction- 20th; 2010 result- 40th
Vickers only completed eleven races before he was suddenly sidelined due to blood clots. Vickers spent the remainder of the season watching someone else pilot the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota. This distressing illness surfaced just one season after he qualified for the Chase for the Championship, and his career appearing to be in an upswing. Following medical clearance, Vickers will return to his ride in 2011. Plenty has changed in the ten months he’s been outside of the cockpit, so it would be surprising if he immediately began the 2011 season in 2009 form. It will likely take some time for Vickers to shake off the rust.
25. 27-Paul Menard, Menard’s Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
2010 prediction- 30th; 2010 result- 23rd
Menard is coming off his best statistical season in Sprint Cup competition, as he scored six top ten finishes. His advancement at the Cup level was manifest, as six-time championship owner Richard Childress took notice. He added Menard, and his family sponsorship, to his stable of cars, allowing the organization four full-time teams for the first time since 2009. Menard has a profusion nonbelievers, as they claim he is in NASCAR only because of his father’s wallet. Therefore, he would love nothing more than to prove that he is more than a sponsorship prerequisite. Menard may show some improvement over last season, but do not expect him to compete at the level of this three teammates just yet. Crew chief Slugger Labbe joins him at RCR.
24. 6-David Ragan, UPS Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
2010 prediction- 26th; 2010 result- 24th
The 2010 season did nothing to bolster Ragan as he enters a contract season, not only with Roush Fenway Racing, but also with sponsor UPS. Ragan has been unimpressive throughout his Sprint Cup career with one of the sport’s most respected organizations. Roush has displayed a lot of forbearance with his young driver, but there comes a time when it is apparent that a change is in order. For Ragan, he is not only expected to improve on last year’s results, but as he heads into his fifth season with Roush, he is expected to win races, just like his teammates. I just do not see that happening. Look for a change in the No. 6 in 2012. For the record, I really hope the fellow Georgia Boy pulls off a spectacular season.
23. 4-Kasey Kahne, Red Bull Toyota, Red Bull Racing
2010 prediction- 19th; 2010 result 20th
Kahne enters a one-year deal with Red Bull Racing before he transitions into the Hendrick lifestyle. Kahne signed a peculiar deal with Hendrick Motorsports for 2012 and beyond... in 2010. After months of ambiguity concerning 2011, a deal was worked out with Red Bull, as Kahne replaces Scott Speed, whose parting was not so cordial. Kahne’s one year ride with team Red Bull is bizarre, and as much as both parties say that things will be fine and dandy, lameduck situations rarely produce fruit. I believe it will be another frustrating season for Kahne. I believe he will only thrive when he is in a dependable situation, like in 2012 with Hendrick Motorsports. He will have crew chief Kenny Francis with him, which could ease some of the looming struggles.
22. 43-A.J. Allmendinger, Best Buy Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports
2010 prediction- 25th; 2010 result- 19th
Allmendinger arguably leads all winless competitors as the driver most likely to win his first race in 2011. He exhibited flashes of speed throughout the season, such as at Dover, when he led 143 laps en route to a 10th place finish. Allmendinger also ended the season with a stout fifth place showing at Homestead. With RPM intact, as well as the sponsorship on the legendary No. 43, Allmendinger could finally break through with his first win of his Cup career. The Chase is rather unlikely considering that the field now consists of the top 10 plus the two drivers with the most wins from 11th through 20th. Nonetheless, he could emerge as a solid sleeper.
21. 56-Martin Truex Jr, NAPA Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing
2010 prediction- 24th; 2010 result- 22nd
Truex Jr’s first season with Michael Waltrip Racing did not pan out exactly the way he had hoped, as he struggled with inconsistencies throughout the season. He was never able to compete at the same level as his team David Reutimann. After scoring only a single top five finish, and seven top 10 finishes, Truex and company must display dramatic progress if they have any plans of competing for a spot in the Chase for the Championship next fall. Truex may fall short this year, but I believe this team will be several steps ahead of where in their introductory season of 2010.