10. 17-Matt Kenseth, Crown Royal Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
2010 prediction- 10th; 2010 result- 5th
The 2003 champion inaudibly had a solid season in 2010, but he will likely state otherwise considering the fact that he did not win a single race for only the second time since 2001. Kenseth spent the majority of the season near the bottom half of the top 10 in the standings, but soared to the fifth position after ending the season with three consecutive top 10 finishes. While Kenseth’s results improved with the strengthening of Roush’s simulation program, he did not catch on as quickly as Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Still, Kenseth is one of the most talented and clever drivers on the circuit, so now that Roush appears to be back among the elite, do not expect a second successive winless season for driver of the No. 17. He should qualify for the Chase with little trouble.
9. 33-Clint Bowyer, Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
2010 prediction- 13th; 2010 result- 10th
The 2010 Sprint Cup campaign was filled with highs and lows for RCR driver Bowyer. He won a career-high two races, and qualified for the Chase for the third time in four seasons. However, a devastating 150-point penalty after his win at New Hampshire last September put a huge damper on the team, as Bowyer lost his crew chief Shane Wilson for a month. The team struggled immediately following the controversial ruling by NASCAR, but returned to victory lane at Talladega six weeks later. Bowyer enjoyed his best season from a performance standpoint, and is a trendy pick to emerge as the 2011 version of Denny Hamlin. I believe Bowyer can win two or three races, and cruise into the Chase. I still believe, though, that he is not a legit contender to dethrone Johnson just yet.
8. 14-Tony Stewart, Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing
2010 prediction- 4th; 2010 result- 7th
Stewart has earned six wins (seven if you count 2009 All-Star) since taking over co-ownership of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, which is extremely impressive. With that said, this team has yet to show that they are in the same league as Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. We all felt that Stewart could be a winning driver while co-owning a team, but many of us questioned if he could win a championship under these circumstances. I believe this team is missing something, and I cannot seem to put my finger on it. Stewart will win two or three races, and should easily qualify for the 12-man shootout, but I just do not think that is ‘the team’ that will dethrone Johnson. Nevertheless, Stewart is arguably one of the most talented drivers (most talented in my humble opinion), so it would not be surprising if he proves me inaccurate in my preseason assessment.
7. 24-Jeff Gordon, AARP Drive to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
2010 prediction- 5th; 2010 result- 9th
Many Gordon fans are energized about his new position in the 24/5 HMS shop, as he is paired with Alan Gustafson. Gustafson is considered one of the most gifted young crew chiefs in NASCAR, and draws some comparisons to Mr. Knaus. Gordon is a four-time champion who was in a stale situation with Steve Letarte and needed a change. In a highly publicized reorganization, many feel Rick Hendrick gave the No. 24 team the exact tools necessary to compete with their No. 48 teammates. Gordon was what Jimmie Johnson is…meaning, he used to close the deal, win races he should win, and then steal races he should not win. Gordon has not been at that level since 2007. I believe Gordon can win two or three races in 2011, easily qualify for the Chase, and if he strikes hot at the right time, he may give Johnson and company a run for their money.
6. 16-Greg Biffle, 3M Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
2010 prediction- 8th; 2010 result-6th
While Carl Edwards is the fashionable pick from the Roush Fenway stables to dethrone Johnson, Biffle maybe the logical pick. It was Biffle, not Edwards, who put Roush back on the map in 2010 when he won at Pocono, just days after Jack Roush’s scary plane crash. It was Biffle who backed up the victory with a dominating performance at Kansas two months later. In fact, Biffle was on his way to a third victory at Texas before a transmission malfunction decelerated his restarts. This team is going to be fast this season, I have a feeling, but I still question the short track program, primarily Richmond and Martinsville. The No. 16 team has never performed well at Martinsville, and often appears lost at Richmond. They must cure the short track ailments before they can be considered legitimate title contenders. Expect two or three wins from Biffle, and another Chase appearance.
5. 11-Denny Hamlin, FedEx Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
2010 prediction- 3rd; 2010 result- 2nd
Quite frankly, Hamlin peaked in 2010. I believe that in order to win the championship in 2011, he is going to have to repeat last year’s achievements, or even improve upon them. Hamlin still has the ability to win several races, and should be a lock to qualify for the Chase. However, I think Hamlin, who was the Carl Edwards of 2008, will become the Carl Edwards of 2009. Most of us were high on Edwards after the 2008 season, but he faded the following season. Hamlin and his team hope to avoid that scenario, and prove that 2010 was not as good as it gets for team No. 11. This team has the confidence and swagger, and they talk a big game. I call them the New York Jets of NASCAR. But when it came time to walk the walk, they tripped up. Look for Hamlin to be fast and confident in 2011, but fail to repeat the 2010 results.
4. 18-Kyle Busch, M&M’s Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
2010 prediction- 7th; 2010 result- 8th
We all keep waiting for Kyle Busch to transform into a kinder and gentler being. It is not going to happen, guys and gals. He is who he is, and we do not want it any other way. He is going to smile and say the right things when he winning, and utterly fall apart when things do not go his way. He is going to be included in multiple rivalries and run-ins. He is also going to win his share of races. Busch dominates the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series when he competes, but he is not the big man on campus in the Cup series. For the last four years, many have projected that he is the driver next in line to dominate the Cup series, but that has yet to materialize. The potential is there, as Busch has the skills, and he is a part of a powerful team. Busch has to alter his persona just enough not to make new enemies in the Chase. A run-in with David Reutimann proved costly last season. Expect Busch to win three or four races, make the Chase, and possibly emerge as a championship contender.
3. 99-Carl Edwards, Aflac Ford, Roush Fenway Racing
2010 prediction- 6th; 2010 result- 4th
Edwards finished the 2010 by winning the final two races. It was a much-needed boost for the No. 99 team, who had not won since Homestead in 2008. The prolonged and agonizing winless skid for Edwards was no doubt surprising, but it coincided with blemishes within the organization. Edwards and the Roush group appear to be close to where they were in 2005, 2006, and 2008 when they were championship threats, so expect Edwards to win multiple races and cruise to a spot in the Chase for the Championship. The only issue that could potentially impede Edwards’ championship bid is silly season rumors. Many expect Edwards and teammate Biffle to stay with Roush long term, but do not be surprised if a few teams make a play for the star drivers, especially Edwards. If Edwards and Roush sign a deal rather early, he should be a legitimate title contender.
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson, Lowe’s Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
2010 prediction- 2nd; 2010 result- 1st
I have refrained from selecting Johnson as my title winner based to my belief in the law of averages. I did not believe that a driver could win three titles in a row in today’s NASCAR. I sure as heck thought that four consecutive a long-shot, and that a five-peat was entirely unattainable. Johnson crushed the law of averages in each of those seasons. But six successive championships is so difficult to envision, I am going to pass on Johnson again. If he wins it again this year, I will pick Johnson in every season pushing forward until he retires. This team is close to flawless. They are fast, consistent, and full of poise. They are at their best at the perfect time of the season. In 2010, they displayed vulnerability that we have not seen in recent years, but they overcame it. There is no indication that they will stumble in 2011. They will win five or six races, and come Homestead, they will be one of the drivers vying for the title.
1. 29-Kevin Harvick, Budweiser Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
2010 prediction- 18th; 2010 result- 3rd
Unlike Denny Hamlin, Harvick did not peak in 2010. It was a career year for Harvick, but I distinguished areas in which he and this team can improve. If they slightly improve upon last year, they can beat Johnson and the No. 48. Harvick was exceptionally consistent throughout 2010, and will likely enjoy comparable results in 2011. However, his consistency was not the only facet that impressed me. In years past, this team has shown consistency, but failed to show the necessary speed on the intermediate tracks. In 2010, Harvick was one of the top drivers on the 1.5-mile and 2-mile venues. RCR will continue to ride the wave of momentum they collected in 2010. Harvick has all the skills and resources it takes to be a champion in NASCAR Sprint Cup, just like Johnson. There is one thing, however, that Harvick possesses that Johnson does not; spirited aggressiveness. Harvick is not afraid to wreck you for the championship, he said so himself. I believe he would have spun Johnson last year if the opportunity presented itself. This is Harvick’s year, folks.