With every new NASCAR season, it is inevitable that some drivers will exceed expectations while others will completely fall flat. Taking a look back at 2010, Jamie McMurray may have been the best example of a driver who over achieved, while drivers like Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin failed to live up to preseason expectations.
After reviewing the numbers and final standings from 2010, there were seven drivers who jumped off the page, and seemingly screamed out, "2011 will easily be better than 2010."
Let's take a look at the drivers who I think will see there stocks rise significantly in the coming NASCAR season.
Jeff Gordon - For an average driver, the numbers that Jeff Gordon put up in 2010 would be a solid season. But Jeff Gordon is not the average driver. Gordon, by his standards, actually had a sub-par season in 2010.
For the second time in three years, Gordon failed to find victory lane, though he was knocking on the door numerous times, especially early in the season. Late in the year, whether due to on track incidents, or just poor handling cars, his finishes really started to fall off. He only recorded a single top 10 in the final six events of the year.
In total, Gordon tallied 17 top-10 finishes, his lowest total since 2005, and 11 top five finishes, which was also his lowest since 2005. For the second consecutive year, Gordon only scored one pole position, and his ninth place finish in the points was also his lowest standing in five years.
In 2011, look for Gordon to rebound significantly. I think the crew chief swap within Hendrick Motorsports will benefit Gordon. Alan Gustafson is a very capable crew chief, and I think he can have the same success with Gordon that he had with Kyle Busch, and Mark Martin in 2009.
I also think the fact that Gordon now shares a garage with Mark Martin, instead of Jimmie Johnson will help him. It gives him a chance to get out of Johnson's shadow, and instead focus more on what he and his team need to do to go out and win his fifth championship.
Carl Edwards - If there was one driver who didn't want to see 2010 come to an end, it was Carl Edwards. While Edwards was able to come away with a fourth place standing in the year end points, it took him until the 35th race of the season to finally get back to victory lane.
After winning his first race in nearly two full years at Phoenix, Edwards backed it up the following week at Homestead by winning, in dominating fashion, for the second consecutive week.
While 19 top 10's and nine top fives is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, I think Edwards will improve on all of those numbers. I fully expect Edwards to make multiple trips to victory lane in 2011, and should certainly be in championship contention all the way through the season finale.
Matt Kenseth - For Matt Kenseth, 2010 was easily one of the worst statistical years of his career. For the second time in three seasons, Kenseth failed to score a win. His 15 top 10 finishes were tied with Jeff Burton for least among all chase contenders, and the six top fives that he recorded were the least for him since 2001.
And yet, through it all, Kenseth still found a way to finish fifth in the final point standings.
With the struggles that Roush Racing as a whole had all throughout 2009, and well into 2010, the fact that Kenseth went winless was not a huge surprise. But, as 2010 was coming to a close, the entire organization showed drastic improvement.
It would be absolutely shocking if Kenseth did not find victory lane at least one time in 2011. I think that multiple wins should be expected out the No. 17 this season, and with the consistency that Kenseth has shown throughout his career, don't be surprised if he, like teammate Edwards, is in the championship hunt all the way until the end.
Mark Martin - After a dream season in 2009, 2010 was more like a nightmare for Mark Martin. He saw his win total drop from five to zero. While his top five and top 10 totals were each cut in half from the previous season.
After finishing runner up for the Sprint Cup Championship in 2009, Martin could only salvage a disappointing 13th place finish in the 2010 standings. On top of all of the in race struggles, Martin's qualifying efforts suffered as well. He went from capturing the pole seven times in 2009 to just one in 2010.
It will take Martin and new crew chief, Lance McGrew, a little time to get on the same page, but once they do, I think they will work just fine together. I also like the fact Martin will now be working out of the same garage as Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team. I think that those two will each see improvements by working out of the same shop.
While it may be hard for the near 52-year-old Martin to have the same successes that he had two seasons ago, this coming season will undoubtedly be better than last year. The effort and commitment that Martin put into his training, as well his heart, and drive to succeed are matched by no one. Don't be surprised to see Martin make a couple of visits to victory lane in 2011.
Martin Truex Jr. - In his first season driving the Napa Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, Martin Truex found more disappointments than successes. For the third consecutive season, Truex failed to win a race, and for the second straight season, Truex was only able to score a single top five finish.
Now, with a season under his belt within his new organization, and with the backing of one of the sports more famous sponsors, the pressure is on Truex to put it all together and put forth a solid season.
In five full time seasons, the two worst season ending finishes of Truex's career have come in each of the last two years. His 23rd and 22nd place finishes, respectively, are far below the capabilities of Truex, as shown by his Chase berth in 2007.
While Truex has not shown that he is ready to get back into the Chase just yet, 2011 has to see Truex take a step up to the next level. If he can avoid some of the bad luck that plagued him a season ago, Truex can easily finish around 15th in the point standings.
Paul Menard - While the career numbers for Paul Menard certainly won't jump off the page at anyone, 2010 was certainly the best year of his career, and provide a nice building block for the coming season.
Menard posted new personal bests in numerous categories last season. He earned his second career top five finish, and posted six finishes inside the top 10. This marked the first time that Menard scored multiple top 10's in a season. He also ended the year in 23rd place in the point standings, which was also a new personal best.
The most impressive thing about the season for Menard, was that he did with all of the uncertainty surrounding Richard Petty Motorsports, and at the end of the year, not knowing if they were even going to be racing or not.
This season finds a lot more stability for Menard. He moves over to drive a Chevy for Richard Childress, and become the fourth member of a team that a season ago, put all three of their cars into the Chase for the championship. All signs seem to point to a season that sees Menard once again set a whole bunch of new personal bests.
Bobby Labonte - Bobby Labonte is the 2000 Sprint Cup (Winston Cup, if you want to get technical) champion, but has had a real tough go of things over the last four years. He has bounced around from team to team, and been relegated to driving some equipment that is below the level of quality he grew accustomed to having while in his championship winning days.
Last season, Labonte competed in all 36 events, and for the first time in his career, he failed to record a top 10 finish. He also had career worsts (not counting 1991, when he ran in two events) for average starting position, and average finish. Both of those were outside the top 30.
This season, Labonte has signed on to drive the No. 47 car, which has shown some signs of being competitive while Marcos Ambrose was behind the wheel. Having a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing, this team has put itself in contention for wins each of the last couple of seasons.
While it would be a far cry to expect Labonte to qualify for the Chase in 2011, he should have no problem improving on his last few seasons. His last two finishes in the point standings have been 30th and 31st, respectively. Expect him to improve on that by at least six positions, and don't be at all surprised if Labonte is able to crack the top 20 in points by the time the season concludes.
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