NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Drivers On the Way Up in 2011

Hank EptonCorrespondent INovember 29, 2010

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Drivers On the Way Up in 2011

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already gotten big news that could change his fortunes in for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

    He's among a group of drivers for whom 2011 will bring hopes that 2010 will look like a nightmare and not a fond memory.

    Realignments, new teams, contraction by some organizations and expansion by others could make 2011 a breakout year for several drivers.

    Others will be driven by anxiety over losing their rides, and others still might be padding their credentials for moves they know are coming for 2012.

    Here's a look at 10 drivers who might surprise us with their improvement in 2011.

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Did you hear? There's been a shake-up at Hendrick Motorsports!

    The car will look the same, and it'll be the same name over the door, but past that, everything is new for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2011.

    In a major shuffle at HMS, Dale Earnhardt Jr. moves over to the team formerly fronted by Jeff Gordon.

    The cars, the team and Steve Letarte all come in support of Earnhardt Jr.'s efforts to recapture the magic of a few years ago.

    The over the wall guys are a little more traveled, and they're actually Jimmie Johnson's over the wall bunch arriving via the crew swap with Jeff Gordon during the 2010 fall race at Texas Motor Speedway.

    The No. 88 car will now be housed alongside the five-time championship No. 48 team.

    2010 was a forgettable year for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the 'Nation, but the grass could be greener in 2011.

    It has to be.

    Hendrick Motorsports is running out of solutions for Driver 88.

2. Martin Truex Jr.

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    The other alum from the organization formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Inc. that could see things look up in 2011 is Martin Truex Jr.

    Michael Waltrip Racing could be poised to turn the corner and start contending week to week.

    Truex was running at the end of all but three races in 2010, and that's a start.

    Now he has to take that start and translate it into finishes.

    His average finish of 18.8 won't win championships, and it sure didn't do anything for his points position.

    He finished 22nd in the final standings, which translated to his second worst year since coming full time to the Sprint Cup Series in 2006 as a teammate to Dale Earnhardt Jr.at DEI.

    2011 should show improvement as he goes into his second year at MWR.

3. David Reutimann

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    Truex Jr.'s stablemate David Reutimann is another driver who seems to be coming around.

    One win, six top fives and nine top tens highlighted Reutimann's year, and it translated to an 18th place finish in the final standings.

    The cars provided by Michael Waltrip Racing are showing more and more speed as Reutimann posted his best average start of his career, but he just couldn't hang on to those positions.

    When you start with an average of 15.6 and finish on average of 18.1, you're going backwards.

    He finished on the lead lap 25 times, so just a few more passes here and there would have put his season in a different light.

    The double zero won't be a zero in 2011.

4. Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano was a victim of the sophomore slump.

    That is, he didn't get to victory lane.

    On the other hand, 2010 proved that Logano may be very close to living up to his nickname, Sliced Bread.

    He moved to 16th in points as the season closed out, and finished the 2010 campaign as one of the hottest drivers in the Series.

    In the last six races of the year, Logano only placed outside the top 10 once, at the season finale at Homestead.

    He finished the year with seven top fives and 16 top tens.

    Just a tweak here and there and Joey Logano could make it a full house for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Chase.

5. Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski is a driver who may benefit from his world getting a little smaller for 2011.

    As it looks now, Penske Racing could be going to two teams if sponsorship can't be secured for 2010 teammate Sam Hornish Jr.

    In any event, Keselowski sports a new look for 2011, moving from the No.22 Dodge to the famed Miller Lite car most recently piloted by Kurt Busch.

    Busch moves over to drive for his new sponsor, Shell Pennzoil.

    Keselowski struggled at times during his rookie campaign, with no top-fives and one top-10 to hang on the mantle this off season.

    However, next year he won't be saddled with the pressure of running for the Nationwide title, which should help his progression.

    Keselowski finished 25th on points in 2010, and next year should be much better.

6. A.J. Allmendinger

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    A.J. Allmendinger was one of the pleasant surprises of 2010.

    A pole, two top fives and eight top tens marked his year at Richard Petty Motorsports.

    His spot is secure with the team, even though the last month of the season left the team's future in doubt.

    He was the only RPM driver of the four 2010 classmates to finish inside the top 20 in points. With this team whittling down to two cars, he should benefit.

    Allmendinger could possibly notch a popular win for The King in 2011.

7. David Ragan

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    On its face, David Ragan's 2010 season doesn't look that stellar.

    He didn't finish in the top five at all, and posted just three top ten finishes all year.

    He finished 24th in points.

    2011 is a contract year for the driver of the UPS Ford, and he has to make something happen.

    He spent the year running impressively one week and fading at the finish to being in left field the following race.

    Consistency will be the key here.

    If he can manage to be steady from one week to the next, the finishes will start to take care of themselves.

8. Paul Menard

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    Paul Menard and crew chief Slugger Labbe move over to Richard Childress Racing for 2011.

    He brings one top five and six top tens from 2010 and the sponsorship of his father's company to the table, making this a turn key operation for RCR.

    Menard has at times shown promise, and his running the full Nationwide schedule in 2010 will help with getting him some added seat time.

    RCR tried four teams before and it didn't work out, so this could be an interesting pairing.

    The test will be how far RCR has come in terms of its ability to support a fourth car.

9. Clint Bowyer

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    Clint Bowyer could have finished fifth in the Sprint Cup standings.

    Upon further review, he finished tenth.

    The post-New Hampshire race penalty put the No. 33 team behind the eight ball, and they struggled forward to get back to tenth.

    Bowyer posted two wins, seven top-fives and 18 top-10 finishes, and he may be a year away from being a serious threat.

    His short track prowess will give him a leg up in those races, and ECR engines will be a silver bullet everywhere.

    If he could ever get over the hump to championship form, his affability could make him a breakout star.

    Bowyer could be a driver on the brink.

10. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    Juan Montoya made the Chase in 2009, and inexplicably faded badly to 17th in points in 2010.

    He posted one win, six top-fives and 14 top-10s, but failed to finsh eight of the races which proved devastating.

    Montoya enjoys some of the best engines in the industry right now, and he seems to still be searching for his way on some of the ovals.

    Look for Montoya to be back in the Chase field in 2011, especially if the rumors of an expanded Chase field prove to be true.