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NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Contenders For 2011

Hank EptonCorrespondent INovember 22, 2010

NASCAR Power Rankings: Top 20 Sprint Cup Contenders For 2011

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    As the curtain draws on the 2010 season and an unprecedented fifth straight Sprint Cup title for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team, teams are already looking ahead to 2011.

    With the Daytona 500 less than 90 days away, it's never too early to start looking at who will be the front runners for the 2011 championship.

    One year from now after Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead, here's a look at who we may see in the top 20 in Sprint Cup points.

20. Kasey Kahne

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    Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Kasey Kahne had a tumultuous 2010.

    It began with his announcement that he would head to Hendrick for 2012, continued with his refusal to return to the car at Charlotte for RPM, his movement to Red Bull Racing to close out 2010 as a replacement for Brian Vickers, and now, off season double knee surgery.

    2011 will bring more turmoil for Kahne, as he works through a lame duck season as a teammate to Brian Vickers before heading to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

    Red Bull Racing has shown signs of life, but also wild inconsistency. The question that may float around that team next year is how hard should we work for a guy who is not committed to us?

    He'll make an appearance in the Top 20, but not by much.

19. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Questions surround the 88 team headed into the off season.

    Is Lance McGrew out? Can Ray Evernham be lured into the challenge of resurrecting the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

    This team hasn't shown it's improving dramatically enough in its current form to move forward much in the points.

    Dale Jr. may get himself back to victory lane next year, but NASCAR's most popular driver has a mountain to climb before he can compete toe-to-toe with the sport's elite.

18. David Reutimann

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    David Reutimann will run his fourth full season in the Sprint Cup Series in 2011. The 2010 campaign brought one win and six top fives and 25 lead lap finishes.

    At times, the No. 00 has shown the speed, but they still lack the consistent performance needed to be a week to week threat in the series.

17. Ryan Newman

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    Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Ryan Newman found his way to victory lane in 2010, but for some reason, this team seems to be another that can't string together the big finishes required to really make a run in the points chase.

    This season, Newman only led 63 laps all year, and not leading really hurts when you can't get the bonus points or win races when you're not up front.

    Look for this team to be hot and cold in 2011.

16. Mark Martin

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    The darling of the 2009 Sprint Cup season found 2010 a little more troubling than their championship contending run a year ago.

    2011 will be a year where Martin will be pondering his future, as Kasey Kahne gets ready to move over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

    Martin could quickly find himself looking for a new ride as the season gets underway or pondering his re-retirement.

15. Jeff Burton

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    Richard Childress Racing returns to a four car stable for 2011, and Burton may be the driver that suffers.

    Paul Menard comes over to RCR for next season and brings the sponsorship of his father's company to the table to secure funding.

    Approaching his mid-forties, Burton may not have many quality seasons left, and it's often been rumored he may try his hand in Virginia politics.

    He may begin considering giving up being the mayor of the garage area for a different sort of office in public life.

14. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch wasn't a factor in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, and he may find himself becoming less of a factor next year if the chase field doesn't expand.

    The final races of the season brought inconsistency for Busch after looking dominant at times in the early season.

    11 times this year he failed to finish on the lead lap, and for some reason, wrecked equipment seems to be tormenting the Miller (soon to be Shell) Dodge.

    Kurt Busch could be poised for a down year by his standards in 2011.

13. Joey Logano

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Joey Logano was shut out of victory lane in 2010 but became one of the hottest drivers in the series down the stretch.

    After two full seasons under his belt, three may be the charm for the driver of the Home Depot Toyota.

    He'll manage to jump a couple of spots from his 16th place points finish in 2010, but he's still a year or so away from being able to string together a season good enough to make the Chase.

12. Matt Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth will make the Chase in 2011. Quietly.

    He hasn't won since 2009, and he just doesn't win enough races to really make a move in the points. Consistency used to rule in the Sprint Cup Series, but as demonstrated by Kevin Harvick in 2010, wins during the regular season put you in position to contend for the title.

    He's the first of the Roush drivers to appear in the rankings, and the FR9 engine package will prove to be a formidable force in 2011, just as it did in the second half of 2010.

11. Juan Montoya

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    Juan Pablo Montoya suffered a setback in 2010 compared to his 2009 campaign when he made the Chase.

    2011 should give him the opportunity to bounce back.

    ECR engines have proven to be a powerful advantage for his own teammate Jamie McMurray and for the three RCR cars that made the 2010 Chase.

    Next year, Montoya may find a way to finally contend week to week on the ovals.

10. Jamie McMurray

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    Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Jaime McMurray had a dream season in 2010. He won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and then won a home game at Charlotte in the fall.

    Unfortunately, those marquee races don't pay any more points than Martinsville.

    His career could turn to gold next year, or he may be another Sterling Marlin, only able to excell in the big money races.

    The power of the ECR engines will be back in 2011, and he'll benefit more from having the horsepower. One more year in the Ganassi equipment will also give him a chance to gain enough points to make the Chase.

9. Clint Bowyer

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    Bowyer's penalty after the New Hampshire race proved costly. Without it, Bowyer would have posted his first top 5 points finish since 2005.

    Next year should see Bowyer find his way to victory lane again, and with more frequency allowing him to secure the bonus points necessary to be a contender in the Chase.

    Hie strength on the short tracks could make him a sleeper pick to contend for the title in 2011.

8. Tony Stewart

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    Two wins, two poles and nine top finishes marked Smoke's 2010 campaign, and he'll do more of the same next year.

    Tony Stewart is another driver who can put together the good season, but for whatever reason seems to struggle with the Chase.

    Next year both he and his teammate and employee Ryan Newman will both see enough of a dropoff in performance to impact their positions in the finishing order when Homestead rolls around.

7. Kyle Busch

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Kyle Busch might be the most talented driver in the garage area.

    In the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, he's been spectacular.

    It hasn't quite carried over yet.

    It may have something to do with the equitable equipment his competition has in the Cup series.

    That's not to say his dominance in other series is based on equipment, it's just that with competitors having the ability to hang with him there's more of a chance of conflict, which hasn't been Rowdy's strongest point.

    He's always one spin or bump away from coming unglued, and until he can collect himself after those incidents, he'll suffer in the chase where there's less time to recover from a bad finish.

6. Denny Hamlin

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Denny Hamlin's 2010 season was his best to date. His eight wins overall and two in the Chase nearly propelled him to his first Sprint Cup title.

    This comes after a 2009 season where he declared himself ready to win it all.

    Hamlin had an incredible run in the spring, and that may be difficult to duplicate in 2011.

    The lack of that run will put him at a disadvantage in points if the Chase keeps its current format.

    Regardless, Hamlin will still have the opportunity to compete for another Sprint Cup title in '11.

5. Greg Biffle

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    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Roush Racing may be this season's Richard Childress Racing.

    After struggling through the first part of the year, the organization found its way again in the summer, and Greg Biffle was the first Roush driver to victory lane in August at Pocono.

    He backed it up with another win at Kansas later on.

    Roush will be a force at the top of the points standings, and Biffle is superb on the tracks that feature prominently in the Chase.

4. Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick had a banner year in 2010.

    He was the prime beneficiary of a resurgent RCR and rode that momentum to a third place points finish.

    He notched three wins and 16 top five finishes in 2010, and there's no reason to think he won't be just as good next year.

    His biggest strength in 2010 was dodging accidents. He finished on the lead lap a remarkable 32 times.

    That requires a tremendous amount of talent and anticipation, but also takes some luck.

    Harvick's luck is bound to run out at some point, and it could come in 2011.

3. Jeff Gordon

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    It just feels like Jeff Gordon isn't finished yet.

    He's had trouble with the Chase format, and has been shut out of victory lane since 2009.

    Gordon now has a grand motivating factor.

    The driver he helped mentor through the Sprint Cup Series has surpassed him for total titles.

    Gordon needs to re-secure his place in history by dethroning Jimmie Johnson, and time is not on his side as he fast approached his 20th season in 2012.

    2011 might be the year Gordon rediscovers the magic, and becomes the beloved figure he hasn't been his entire career as he chases down the juggernaut.

2. Carl Edwards

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    After a long dry spell, Carl Edwards made a statement over the last eight days of the 2010 Sprint Cup season.

    He's ready to go after his first championship.

    He took the victory home at Phoenix, and backed it up with a dominating performance at Homestead.

    Roush cars across the board have encouraging signs for 2011, and none have more excitement to build on than 'Cuz.

    Edwards could post enough wins during the regular season to mount a serious assault on Jimmie Johnson's attempt at six straight titles.

    Despite his best efforts, it won't be enough.

1. Sprint Cup Champion: Jimmie Johnson

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    He'll never win six in a row right?

    People said that last year when he won his fourth talking about a fifth, and the season before that when he won his third talking about his fourth.

    The 48 team and Jimmie Johnson are peerless right now in the Sprint Cup Series. They have won titles in every way imaginable, and given another year like the last five there's no reason he won't win again.

    They simply do it better than everyone else, and when you find a way to top them, they just effortlessly improve.

    Until someone proves they can go nose to nose with Superman, he's going to walk out of Homestead with another title in 2011.

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