These next ten drivers are drivers who have had either unexpectedly poor years, getting a good ride for the first time in a while, and drivers who have just been shear disappointments in 2010. These drivers are ones that need to prove they belong where they are in 2011, and prove that 2010, or their previous situation is or was a fluke.
Kasey Kahne was a bit of a disappointment in 2010. Not his on-track results, but with the way he handled everything that went down at Richard Petty Motorsports. First Kahne "got sick" inside the racecar at Charlotte in his final race there. Kahne supposedly wasn't able to finish the race, but ran a 5-k run the next morning. Interesting.
Kahne's on-track performance has him without a win for the first time since a dismal 2007. I can't blame him for leaving RPM, I think anyone in his shoes would have done it, but he called them out on air, and played some mind games. With anyone else it may have not gotten noticed, but you drive for the King, have some respect.
Kahne needs to shut me, and the other disgruntled fans up. He needs to go out and run well like he did at Homestead. Can Kahne do it? Absolutely, but if things don't go his way early on, he may play the same games and be winless in 2011 as well.
The "Blue Duece," that Brad will be driving in 2011.
Brad Keselowski had a very disappointing season in 2010.
He came in with high hopes, taking over the #12 Penske Dodge that David Stremme and him split for a 30th place points finish in 2009. Brad was hoping to improve on that significantly in 2011, his first full season in Sprint Cup.
Brad did move up five spots to 25th. But with only two top ten finishes and no top-5's in 2010, I'm sure fans were expecting more.
However, he did have some good runs. I think we all remember his flip in Atlanta when he was running sixth. Brad also had a few races where pit strategy and late race cautions bit him in the rear end.
But 2011 needs to be far better. Brad is taking the helm of the infamous #2 Miller Lite Dodge, driven previously by teammate and Champion, Kurt Busch, and prior to that '89 champ Rusty Wallace. Brad needs to take that #2 team to victory lane next year, it's a must, and if he doesn't his leash driving that car may be a short one, and look for another "Blue Deuce" driver change in 2012.
Juan Pablo Montoya
To call Juan Pablo Montoya's 2010 season a bad one would totally off. He had a very good season, but he did miss the chase.
There is also one glaring statistic that needs to be taken care of. He DNF'd eight times in 2010. Six of those he crashed out of, including the season finally at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, which Joey Logano spun him under caution and was parked, but also Juan could have been more patient.
Which leads me to my next point. Juan officially has made it. The transition from Indy/F1 cars to Stock Cars can be a tough one, and Montoya has proven he is here to stay. But like Brad Keselowski, Montoya needs to be a bit more patient, and cool headed.
He spun and wrecked Regan Smith in the NASCAR Sprint All Star open, and then crashed again driving irractically in the Coca-Cola 600. At Louden, New Hampshire in the spring, Juan sat on the pole, and then got into a tiff with fellow driver, Reed Sorenson, resulting in Sorenson putting Juan in the wall on lap 283, ending Juan's day for good.
Then he got involved in the "big one" at Daytona. Happens to the best of them.
And in Indianapolis, he had a car to beat, before being caught in the back late in the race, bouncing off the outside wall, and then wrecking Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the process and ruining both of their days.
And then he won at Watkin's Glen, and had a very impressive stretch of five top-10 finishes in a row, and finished out the season with two very poor qualifying efforts.
What Juan needs to prove is a two of three things. He needs more consistancy. He's good. He knows it, and so does everyone else. Just calm down and show it. Keep your head cool Juan. He also needs to win on an oval. He came so close so many times, but he needs to prove to us, and to himself that he can in fact do it. And Juan also needs to make the chase by keeping the car off the wall.
If he can do two of those things, Juan will have enough confidence to be a chase contender in 2011.
Kurt Busch. 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion.
Kurt Busch is on this list, and pretty high too. It may be shocking to some, but a guy with this high of expectations, Kurt deserves to be here.
Kurt's 2010 was a lot like his 2009 with two wins, and one being at Atlanta, the other at Texas in '09 and in 2010 Atlanta and Charlotte's Coke 600.
But after a 4th place points finish, and ending 2009 on a high note, he was expected to do more in 2010. Kurt didn't. He ended up finishing 11th in the final standings and only having two top-10 finishes in the final 10 races as opposed to 7 in 2009, including one win, it feels like that whole team took two steps back this year.
Kurt needs to prove in 2011 that Penske Racing can be a powerhouse in Sprint Cup. Rusty Wallace drove there from 1991-2005 and didn't win Roger Penske a championship, and since then, Kurt Busch hasn't either. A new sponsor and car number may improve Kurt chance's as well as a second year with crew chief Steve Addington. He also needs to prove that Penske can win at other tracks besides the triplet tracks of Atlanta, Texas, and Charlotte. If Kurt can get a few more wins, then 2011 will be a success.
But I feel that this team needs a new crew chief. His brother Kyle really struggled in the chase with Steve Addington, and now Kurt is too. I've made my feelings about Addington known, and when this team doesn't improve in 2011, Addington will be out of a job once again.
Kyle Busch (nice hair)
Kyle Busch comes in at number six, only because he's sort of a mix of the two previous drivers, his brother Kurt, and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Kyle is great. We all know this. No matter your feelings about him, there's no denying his is up there with being the best driver in the sport talent wise.
This team needs more consistency though. This is where he's like Juan. He either sets the world on fire, or is not a factor at all. Kyle needs to improve more on making his bad days, mediocre.
And like his brother, his 2010 chase was disappointing. Only four top-10 finishes mixed in with three others of 30th or worse, is not going to win you a championship. Kyle needs to cool his head a bit, listen to his crew chief, 'cause he's finally got a good one, and just drive the racecar to the front which he does better than anyone.
Kyle needs to prove that he is mature enough to win a championship. No flip off a NASCAR official when he blatantly speeds on pit road, and keep his head cool. But performance wise, his finishing order looks like a farris wheel, he needs to get those finishes that are 20th and on back, to top-15's and Kyle will be set to go for a championship, only time will tell when that's going to happen though.
Mark Martin comes in in fifth on this list.
His 2010 season was, well for lack of a better term, just AWFUL.
After finishing second in the points, and winning 5 races in 2009, Mark failed to visit victory lane in 2010, and only had 7 top-five finishes, which is half of his 14 in 2009.
However, Mark ended on a high note. After hitting rock bottom, and having a string of six finishes, no higher than 19th, Mark came into Dover. He put his GoDaddy.com Chevy on the front row, before being sent to the back for an illegal part. Mark still drove through the field and finished 12th. I remember thinking that that could be a sign of good things to come, and it was.
He entered the chase 19th in driver's points, and ended up 13th. He really turned it around in the final nine races. He didn't have a finish lower than 16th in the final nine, and finished second at Martinsville, and third at Texas.
Mark Martin needs to prove in 2011 that age has not caught up with the 51 year old driver, turning 52 in January, also making his 800th career start at Martinsville in the spring. Mark needs to show that the engineering change was the problem at the 5 shop, and that he can still do it.
With a finish like that, I'm confident Mark Martin will show us he can, and end his Hendrick Motorsports tenure with a big bang, and perhaps even his first ever series championship... who do you think my pick is?
Bobby Labonte. 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion.
As a Bobby Labonte fan, it's tough for me to put him on this list, but in reality, he belongs here.
Bobby hasn't had a top-5 finish since his miracle run at Las Vegas in 2009 with the 96 team. He hasn't had a year with multiple top-5 finishes since 2006, and has been winless since 2003.
Bobby is entering a new era in his career. After really struggling the last two seasons with sub-par teams, he takes the helm of a fully funded, established, well running race team, with an association with Michael Waltrip Racing.
I think it's pretty obvious. Bobby needs to prove he can do this still. He'll be turning 47 in May, same as his new car number, and with his championship year a decade old now, Bobby needs to prove to these fans, and to Bobby Labonte, that he can still do this thing.
JTG/Daugherty Racing parted ways with former driver, Marcos Ambrose, because they feel that they can compete for a chase. They hired Bobby Labonte to get them there. Now it's up to him.
Ambrose had a horrible 2010, I mean lets face it. He finished 18th in points in 2009, which is respectable, but 26th in 2010. He had a tough string including three races with three DNF's because of wrecks, right in a row. After the announcement that he would not be back, and shutting the car off at Sonoma, Ambrose seemed to give up the rest of the year, only recording one top-5 finish the rest of the way, a 5th at Richmond.
Now, I know I've admitted I'm a Bobby Labonte fan, but I think it's safe to say that Bobby Labonte is a whole heck of a lot better of a driver than Marcos Ambrose.
But this new car has thrown Bobby sort of a curveball. He needs to show everyone that he can run up front again, and I think anything less than a 15th place points finish will be a disappointment in 2011, and I honestly think he can still do it, but I'm also hoping at the same time.
Joey Logano is third on this list mainly because he didn't improve much in 2010. Logano's 2009, rookie of the year campaign, was a good one, where he locked up a win, 3 top-5's and seven top-10's. Joey's 2010, was a little better, but not until really late in the season when the 20-year old rising star got really hot.
Logano finished the season 16th in points, after finishing 20th in points the year before. He had one ten race stretch this year without a single-digit finish, not very impressive for a guy whose teammates are at the top of their game.
Logano, however, finished out 2010 strong. He had seven straight top-10 finishes before being wrecked out in the middle of Sunday's race at Homestead. After being wrecked out, he went back out on the track and crashed Juan Pablo Montoya to show Juan that he was not happy with the way Juan had raced him on the track.
If Logano is going to succeed in this sport, he's going to have to show the veteran drivers who have pushed him around that he's not going to go for that. He started to show it Sunday, however, if he does it too much, it may have the opposite effect.
He needs to prove that he can run with the big boys. A kid nicknamed "Sliced Bread" by his piers for supposedly being the greatest thing since sliced bread, had a really quiet 2010. He's going to need to go to victory lane and compete for the chase in 2011 for people to start to really start tasting the bread.
David Ragan is a very close second on this list. After coming on strong in 2008 after a bad rookie season in 2007, Ragan has had two very bad seasons.
Last year was the most disappointing season any driver could have. Ragan finished 13th in the final point standings in 2008, and was expected to contend for the chase and maybe even visit victory lane in 2009.
He hasn't even come close the last two years. Multiple crew chief changes, from Jimmy Fennig, to Donnie Wingo, to now Drew Blickensderfer haven't shown much difference in the 23 year old driver's performance.
It's heart wrenching too. I mean he's such a nice kid, and when UPS came along everyone thought they had struck gold.
He's only had 5 top-10's COMBINED the last two seasons with 0 top-5 finishes. He's shown he can get the job done on a superspeedway, but that's about it. Everywhere else Ragan is not even a threat.
David Ragan needs to prove that he belongs in this ride. After car owner, Jack Roush, signed hot shot young driver, Trevor Bayne to a new deal, and Ragan's contract being up after 2011, this is David's last shot. If he doesn't go to victory lane and get a chase visit, he's out. Simple as that, and Trevor Bayne is the new driver of the 6 in 2012.
Roush Fenway Racing turned a corner at the end of 2010, and with 2 of Ragan's 3 top-10 finishes coming with Blickensderfer as crew chief, maybe David can finally turn it around.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
The number one on this list for the third straight year is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Junior started out 2010 on fire at Daytona with a runner-up finish to winner Jamie McMurray. After that it was more of the same for NASCAR's most popular driver. A 32nd place finish at California, which was not his fault. But then Dale had seemed to hit stride. From Las Vegas to Talladega, a stretch that spans over seven races, Jr, hadn't finished below 16th, with that streak being ended by a 32nd place finish at Richmond.
Including Richmond, the next four races, Dale didn't finish higher than 18th.
But then he seemed to get back on track once again. 7th, 11th, and 8th were his next three finishes. I remember leaving Loudon, New Hampshire and saying to myself that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was one of the hottest drivers, and actually predicted he would make the chase, only being three points behind a struggling Carl Edwards.
At Daytona Dale finished 4th. A great run that had him sitting in 11th place, 46 points to the good in the chase. All Dale had to do was keep it going, and he was in.
Then boom. The second half happened. He had recorded 6 top-10 finishes in the first 18 races.
The next 18, only two. He went from Chicagoland to Richmond with only two top-20 finishes in those eight races, including a 34th place finish at the regular season finally at Richmond. Needless to say, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jr. Nation, were chaseless once again.
Another good run at the second Loudon race resulted in a 4th place finish. But that was short-lived. 23rd, 22nd, 16th, and 29th were his next four finishes, before a 7th place finish at Martinsville.
Then Dale tried to drive through Jeff Burton at Talladega and crashed finishing 39th. He finished out the year with a 25th, 14th, and 27th at Homestead. In the final 18 races Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell from 11th to 21st in the points.
Dale Jr. needs to prove to everyone that he belongs at Hendrick Motorsports. Teammate Mark Martin had a tough year and still finished 13th in the final standings. This just can't continue to happen year after year. Another crew chief change seems imminent at the 88 bunch, and weren't we just here a year and a half ago?
Things just need to get better. Compete for the chase, focus and how about doing some testing Dale, I mean it's not like your team doesn't have the dollars with your $60 million sponsorship. One more year like this, and it's going to be interesting to see how many takers there are, for a 38 year old Dale Jr. in 2012.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. obviously has the most to prove because he's the biggest name, with the biggest sponsorship, and the biggest team, but so far, he's been the biggest flop.