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NASCAR 2011 Top 40 Countdown, part III

Junior hopes to celebrate several wins in 2011
Junior hopes to celebrate several wins in 2011
Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR

20. 2-Brad Keselowski, Miller Lite Dodge, Penske Racing

2010 prediction- 22nd; 2010 result- 25th

Following a disappointing Sprint Cup campaign, Keselowski is out to prove that he is more than just an elite Nationwide Series driver. He is not eligible for the Nationwide title in 2011, so additional focus will be on his Sprint Cup program. He takes over the wheel of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, a.k.a ‘the Blue Deuce’, so he has some big shoes to fill. Expect his statistics to radically improve in 2011, as he will score more top five and top 10 finishes. However, I do not believe he will have the consistency to race his way into the top 10 in the standings by Richmond in September. If he qualifies for the Chase, it will be due to the Wild Card.

19. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr, Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

2010 prediction- 16th; 2010 result- 21st

Say what you want about Earnhardt Jr, but he is still NASCAR’s most beloved driver. His on-track tribulations have been well-documented, as many wonder when or if he will contend for wins on a consistent basis. Rick Hendrick shook up his organization with a trio of crew chief changes, including assigning former Jeff Gordon pit boss Steve Letarte with Earnhardt Jr. Letarte led Gordon to the Chase in every season after 2005, and they won several races together, but they never produced a championship. Conventional wisdom has the No. 88 team improving under the guidance of Letarte. I believe that he will produce better results, but I do not think he is ready to compete for a spot in the Chase, unless he sweeps the first three restrictor plate races.

18. 00-David Reutimann, Aaron’s Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing

2010 prediction- 17th; 2010 result- 18th

Reutimann has proven he can compete for wins on a regular basis. He was fast on several occasions in 2009 and 2010. Nevertheless, this team is as inconsistent as they come. Reutimann had three mechanical failures in a span of five races last spring, which put the No. 00 in a near bottomless hole in the race for the Chase. After two seasons of missing out on the championship chase, this is the season in which Reutimann must prove that he can take that next step in his career. With most of his team still intact, Reutimann’s performance should be similar to the preceding two years. The only thing that will thwart this team is costly mechanical problems and unnecessary on-track tussles. Reutimann is a sleeper to qualify for the Chase for the Championship, but it could happen.

17. 42-Juan Montoya, Target Chevrolet, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

2010 prediction- 14th; 2010 result- 17th

Montoya was unable to duplicate his 2009 season of consistency, as he failed to qualify for the Chase in for the Championship. Despite the rollercoaster season, he recorded his first win since his rookie season of 2007 when he outpaced Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen. While Montoya has shown a lot of speed over the past two years, he cannot seem to close the deal on the oval tracks, most notably Indianapolis. His car is never at its best in the closing laps. Until this group figures how to make the car better throughout the race, he is going to struggle to win races. I believe that he will finally breakthrough on an oval track in 2011, but I am not convinced that he can race his way into the Chase.

16. 31-Jeff Burton, Caterpillar Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing

2010 prediction- 11th; 2010 result- 12th

Burton encountered his second consecutive winless season in 2010. Despite the goose egg in the win column, the performances for all RCR teams were light years ahead of the previous season. Burton had a car capable of winning several races, both Martinsville races come to mind, but it never came to fruition. He had eased into the Chase, but once the 10-race show commenced, Burton dropped like a rock. Other than Martinsville, his most noteworthy achievement in the Chase was angering four-time champion Jeff Gordon. Burton should be solid again in 2011, and will look to break his winless skid. He will once again contend for a spot in the Chase, but there are several drivers lurking that could keep him out of the hunt.

15. 1-Jamie McMurray, Bass Pro Shops/McDonald’s Chevrolet, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

2010 prediction- 23rd; 2010 result- 14th

The 2010 was certainly a career year for McMurray. His trio of wins were on NASCAR’s biggest stages; Daytona, Indianapolis, and Charlotte. After he was written off by many critics in 2009, McMurray demonstrated that he rightfully belongs in NASCAR’s upper echelon of competition. Not only was McMurray rejuvenated, but also the entire Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing organization enjoyed a fruitful campaign. It is difficult to imagine McMurray replicating last year’s success, but there is no reason to believe that if he cannot curtail some of the inconsistencies that plagued the No 1. team, he can contend for a spot in the Chase for the Championship.

14. 5-Mark Martin, GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

2010 prediction- 1st; 2010 result- 13th

At 52 years of age, Martin enters his final season of contractual obligations with Hendrick Motorsports. Despite his contract situation and age, he firmly asserts that he will compete in 2012, perhaps longer. Martin is in phenomenal shape, and can still physically compete with drivers two decades younger than him, and that is what he intends to accomplish going foroward. Martin was Jimmie Johnson’s chief threat in 2009, but he stumbled through a disappointing season in 2010. Martin will be paired with former Earnhardt Jr crew chief Lance McGrew, following wholesale changes at HMS. I expect Martin to have a similar season as 2010. He will be competitive, and contend for a few wins, but I do not believe he will be a threat to win the title.

13. 20-Joey Logano, Home Depot Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing

2010 prediction 15th; 2010 result- 16th

Following a late-season surge in performance and results, Logano is a trendy pick to qualify for the Chase in 2011. Logano continues to develop and improve as a driver. He has made significant strides since his rollercoaster rookie and sophomore years. With that said, I believe he is still a year away from racing into the Chase by a virtue of finishing in the top 10 in the standings after 26 races. His best bet will be a Wild Card berth, as he could become a multiple race winner in 2011. A potential encumbrance for Logano could be the fact that he does not seem to be earning the respect of his veteran peers, despite standing up for himself. Logano needs to continue to stand up for himself, but also be willing to admit when he is the driver that errs. That will be the key in earning respect.

12. 39-Ryan Newman, U.S. Army/Tornados/Haas Automation Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing

2010 prediction- 12th; 2010 result- 15th

Newman enters his third season with Stewart-Haas Racing. He qualified for the Chase in 2009, and won a race in 2010, so the potential exists. Nevertheless, Newman has yet to materialize as a weekly contender since joining Tony Stewart at SHR. Newman enjoyed solid ending to the 2010 season, and if not for an early-season plunge filled with tough racing luck, he may have made some noise in the title fight. He finished in the top 10 in six of the final 10 races, giving us good reason to believe he could resurface as a Chase contender. Expect Newman to be a serious contender for a spot in the Chase. He just needs to run near the front more often, and lead more laps.

11. 22-Kurt Busch, Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Penske Racing

2010 prediction 9th; 2010 result- 11th

Busch had a disappointing end to the 2010 season after showing considerable strength in the season’s early months. He only scored a meager two top 10 finishes in the final 10 races. Busch enters 2011 with a entirely fresh look. No longer will he pilot the famed Blue Deuce, as he will steer the No. 22 yellow and red Shell and Pennzoil Dodge. While Busch was flattered by the lucrative sponsorship deal, he admits that he will miss being Miller Lite’s spokesperson. Expect Busch to start the season off a little slow, as the team mends the issues that may have triggered the late-season flop in 2010. However, he should stay within the reach of the Chase berth.

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