NASCAR 2011: Predicting the Final Points Standings for the 2011 Season

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJanuary 4, 2011

NASCAR 2011: Predicting the Final Points Standings for the 2011 Season

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    We are still seven weeks away from the start of the 2011 NASCAR season, but that doesn't mean we can't fast-forward time a little bit and get our first look at the season-ending point standings.

    When going over my predictions, keep a couple of things in mind. First, this is purely my opinion on what I think is going to happen in the coming season. Secondly, my opinion will probably change as Daytona draws near.

    As it stands right now, there are still a few rides undetermined for 2011, and with all of the shuffling of drivers that we see, mainly between the lower tier and underfunded teams, it is hard to predict how many races some of these drivers will even have the opportunity to run.

    So for the sake of my 39 driver rankings, unless otherwise noted, I will assume that the driver is going to at least be attempting all 36 races in 2011.

    With that, I give you my first annual preseason driver standings projections.

39. Robby Gordon

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    In all likelihood, Robby Gordon will not be running a full season in 2011. He has said that he intends to run the first five races of the season and then pick and choose the other races that he runs. Whether or not his car will be entered with a different driver for the remainder of the races remains to be seen.

    After some success in the early part of the 2000s, Gordon has had a rough go of things as one of the few owner/drivers remaining in the series. He is still always one of the odds-on favorites when the series goes to the two road courses, but outside of that, not much is usually expected out of driver No. 7.

    No matter how many races he runs in 2011, don't expect a lot from Gordon. Sponsorship has been a big issue for him over the recent years, and this season looks to be another rough season in terms of sponsors. He could contend for the win at the road races, but those will be the only bright spots for Gordon.

38. Bill Elliott

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    The last time Bill Elliott ran a full schedule was in 2003. He has been running partial schedules every year since, and this year looks like more of the same. There was talk that Elliott might run a full season for the Wood Brothers if full-time sponsorship became available.

    As of this writing, it is assumed that Elliott will continue running just selected races. Elliott has been very serviceable in his limited races, as he very rarely is forced to rely on his championship provisional, and then proceeds to run the whole race, usually bringing the car home in one piece.

    If it comes to light that Elliott were to run the full slate, I would move him up the list, as he is still a talented driver, and although they are a single car operation, the No. 21 team does fairly well for what they are.

37. J.J. Yeley

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    J.J. Yeley will be running a full schedule driving for Dusty Whitney and the No. 46 team. Last season, Yeley spent some time driving for both Whitney and Tommy Baldwin, as well as one race for Bill Jenkins in the No. 26 car.

    Yeley was predominantly asked to start and park when he qualified for the race. In 17 starts, Yeley parked it in 13 events. In the other four, his best finish was a 19th place effort.

    It is unknown what the plans for the No. 46 team are this year. They may have to resort to more start and park races, but if given the opportunity to compete for an entire race, Yeley showed that he is capable of putting together some respectable runs in underfunded equipment.

36. Joe Nemechek

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    It was another tough season for Joe Nemechek. For the second straight season, the owner/driver of the No. 87 Toyota was forced to be a start and park driver due to lack of proper funding. As of now, it is assumed that Nemechek will be forced to do more of the same in 2011.

    In the 31 races that Nemechek qualified for, only one time was he running at the finish. That came at Talladega late in the season. In that event, Nemechek qualified in the fourth position and was able to take the lead on lap one. He finished the day in 27th, which was his best of the season.

    It would be great to see Nemechek get some sort of sponsorship and be able to run at least a few races, but unless that happens, it will be another season much like the last two for Front Row Joe.

35. Travis Kvapil

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    Travis Kvapil spent 2010 driving for Front Row Motorsports. During the course of the season he took a turn behind the wheel of all three of the team's cars. The team was able to keep two of the three cars inside the top 35 in owner's points, and it is assumed that Kvapil will be driving one of those two cars when the season gets under way.

    In 34 starts, Kvapil failed to record a top 10 finish and was only able to score a single finish inside the top 20. I don't expect 2011 to provide a whole lot more for Kvapil. While Front Row Motorsports shows up to race week in and week out, as a team, they just aren't on the same level as the rest of the big teams, and until they develop a little further, mediocrity is probably the best they can do.

    All of this is, of course, dependent on what Kvapil runs this season, as he has been rumored to be heading back to the truck series on a full-time basis.

34. David Gilliland

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    The story of 2010, for David Gilliland, was much the same as his teammate Travis Kvapil. He was another driver in the Front Row Motorsports stable that was only able to manage mediocre results.

    In 32 starts, Gilliland also failed to score a top 10 finish, but he was able to triple the top 20 productivity of Kvapil, as he scored three of them. Much the same as Kvapil, don't expect a whole lot to change for Gilliland going forward

33. Dave Blaney

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    Dave Blaney spent the first half of 2010 in a start and park role for Prism Motorsports. The second half of the year saw Blaney alternate his time between rides for Tommy Baldwin and Bill Jenkins' Front Row Motorsports.

    When given the opportunity to run entire races, Blaney had finishes very similar to Kvapil and Gilliland. The results, in subpar equipment, were mediocre at best.

    While Blaney has nothing set in stone, it is unlikely that he won't find work. Whether it be for Tommy Baldwin or Bill Jenkins, Blaney is sure to see plenty of action in 2011, but unfortunately the results probably won't be much better than 2010.

32. Sam Hornish

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    Sam Hornish was one of the most disappointing drivers of 2010. In his third full-time season of Sprint Cup competition, everyone expected that it would be the season in which he showed vast improvement. But that never happened.

    Hornish only earned one top 10 finish in 2010 and was just completely plagued by inconsistency. It seemed that any time Hornish put his car toward the front of the field in qualifying, it was wiped away as soon as the green flag dropped, as he would fall back in the pack.

    As it stands right now, there is no full-time sponsorship for Hornish, but he has said that he wants to stay in Sprint Cup competition. The improvements just haven't been there for Hornish, so regardless of sponsorship or not, it will be another long year for the former open wheel star.

31. Casey Mears

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    Casey Mears was another driver that bounced around quite a bit in 2010. He drove for four different teams throughout the season but ended the year with the team he will be running full-time for in 2011.

    Mears spent the final 12 weeks driving the No. 13 Geico Toyota for Germain Racing. Over that stretch, he put together some very respectable qualifying efforts and some equally impressive finishes for the single car operation.

    The challenge facing Mears is the fact that his team currently sits outside the top 35 in owners points as we head into Daytona. That puts a lot of pressure on this team to hit their stride early and qualify for the first five races.

    I think if this team can make the races, they can easily have a very solid season and should have no trouble staying inside the top 35, but that is all dependent on the first five weeks of the year.

30. Scott Riggs

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    Scott Riggs is a driver who is in the same boat as Casey Mears. He is driving for a single car operation that is not inside the top 35 in owners points. Riggs will be driving the No. 90 Keyed Up Motorsports entry for the first five races of 2011, and if things start out well, he could run the full season.

    Riggs showed a lot of promise with this team in his one start for them a season ago. He qualified for the race at Phoenix in his only attempt in the No. 90. He finished that day in 28th place, one lap down, but had managed to stay on the lead lap inside the top 25 all race long until a cut front tire inside the final 10 laps relegated him to a lap down finish.

    I think, that much like Mears, if Riggs and this team can qualify for the first five races, they definitely have the potential to be one of the feel-good stories of the year. I can see this team being similar to the No. 78 team: a one-car team that makes the most out of the limited resources it has.

29. Regan Smith

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    Speaking of the No. 78 team. Regan Smith is a driver that is continuing to improve and while driving for a single car operation is certainly making the most out of his opportunity.

    While Smith failed to record a top 10 on the year, he still had plenty of solid runs. Twelve times he finished inside the top 20, which for a small team like the one he is on is a very impressive accomplishment. Smith also was able to get better as the season progressed, which is a good omen for the coming year.

    In each of the final three events, Smith qualified his Furniture Row Chevrolet inside the top 10 and was able to complete all but one lap over that stretch.

    While it is still unrealistic to expect Smith or this team to compete for many wins, don't be surprised to see them break through and rattle off a couple of top 10 finishes en route to another solid season for a small team.

28. David Ragan

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    The last two seasons have been beyond disappointing for David Ragan. After a breakout season in 2008 that saw Ragan score six top five finishes and 14 top 10s, he has combined for just five top 10s and zero finishes in the top five since then.

    He had a career best finish of 13th in the point standings in 2008 but since has only been able to finish 27th and 24th respectively.

    As nice as it would be to see him revert to his 2008 form, I just don't see it happening. He has become way too inconsistent to think we can see anything similar to that again. He has shown that he is a very solid restrictor plate driver, but outside of Daytona and Talladega there really hasn't been much to hang your hat on with David Ragan.

27. Marcos Ambrose

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    In his first full-time season at the Sprint Cup level in 2009, Marcos Ambrose really turned some heads. In 2010, however, he saw his productivity drop. He had two fewer top 10s in 2010 than 2009 and finished just 26th in the points compared to 18th in his first year.

    This season, Ambrose has left JTG Daugherty Racing to go drive the No. 9 car for Richard Petty Motorsports. Two years ago, I would have said this was a great move on his part and was going to do wonders for his career. Now, I am not so sure.

    There has been so much uncertainty around RPM that from day to day it seems as if no one is sure what to expect. While reports are out that things should be in place for the two-car operation of Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger to go off without a hitch, I still think there are too many lingering financial issues for either of these teams to make a whole lot of noise.

    If nothing else, at least Ambrose is one of the more personable and likable guys in the garage.

26. A.J. Allmendinger

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    A.J. Allmendinger has shown significant improvements in each of his first four years at NASCAR's top level. Unfortunately, I think this year will be a letdown for Allmendinger—not due to his talent level, but more for the same reason I worry about Ambrose's season.

    Allmendinger set new personal bests all across the board in 2010. He scored eight top 10 finishes, recorded his first pole and finished 19th in the points. After leading a total of 10 laps in his first three seasons combined, Allmendinger was able to pace the field for 181 laps this past year.

    I just think that there is way too much uncertainty surrounding RPM as a group. I have no doubt that Allmendinger will find a way to muster up a few top 10 finishes this year, but don't look for a repeat of the success that he found a season ago.

25. Brad Keselowski

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    While Brad Keselowski spent 2010 dominating his way to a Nationwide Series championship, his Sprint Cup career got off to a little bit slower start than might have been expected.

    In his first full season in the series, Keselowski only managed to score two top 10 finishes, and both of those came in the final five races of the year. But he was able to score top 20 finishes in 18 out of 36 races, so while the results may not have been as great as some would have thought, on the whole they weren't really that bad either.

    In 2011, Keselowski will switch over to the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, and with it will be his Nationwide Series crew chief Paul Wolfe. Obviously these two have good chemistry, so expectations are high for Keselowski, and while I think it is still too early to expect him to contend for a Chase spot, I think he is poised to have a very solid season that includes multiple top five finishes.

24. Bobby Labonte

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    Last season, Bobby 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.

23. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    With the disappointing finishes that the last two seasons have provided for Dale Earnhardt Jr., it is really getting harder and harder to expect anything other than mediocrity out of him. While Junior Nation, doesn't like hearing it, the fact of the matter is Earnhardt has completely failed to live up to expectations.

    In three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has just one victory and only 29 top 10 finishes in 108 starts. After finishing 12th in the points in his first season with the team, he has failed to crack the top 20 in either of the last two seasons.

    Once again, Earnhardt will have a new crew chief. This time he will be paired up with Steve Letarte. Sometimes, when listening to Junior speak, it really sounds like his heart isn't in it. Maybe that is a product of all of the struggles, but until he proves that he wants to be competitive and then starts to show it on the track, it is hard to imagine anything more than what the last couple of years have been.

22. Brian Vickers

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    Brian Vickers spent the better part of 2010 recovering from blood clots that nearly derailed his career. Luckily, Vickers has been cleared to return to racing, and for that we are all thankful.

    The big question surrounding Vickers will be, "How did the time off affect him?" I think it will take Vickers a little while to readjust to racing. I think to begin with there will be nerves surrounding him, and understandably so.

    In 2009, Vickers had a career year, qualifying for the Chase and nabbing a career-best 13 top 10 finishes. It will be a stretch for him to attain those kind of numbers this season after nearly a year away from racing, but after he gets back into the flow of things, I think he will be just fine.

21. Paul Menard

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    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 provides 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 10s 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 it 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 its 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.

20. David Reutimann

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    For the last two seasons, David Reutimann has had nearly identical seasons. He has scored a victory in each year, led nearly the same number of laps and had nearly identical numbers of top five and top 10 finishes.

    He has posted final point standings finishes of 16th and 18th. The biggest problem facing Reutimann is inconsistency. Very rarely is he able to follow up a top 10 finish with another strong run. He seems to constantly be on a roller coaster. One week he is experiencing the highs of the sport, while the next week he toils near the bottom of the finishing order.

    While Reutimann has improved dramatically from his first couple of seasons in the Sprint Cup, he has sort of leveled off as of late. I don't see that changing much in 2011. Reutimann is definitely capable of making a run at a Chase spot, but until he maintains some consistency, I don't see it happening.

19. Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne was another driver whose 2010 was both up and down, as well as disappointing. He had a few strong runs, but he also had his fair share of abysmal performances. His 20th place finish in the points was his lowest since 2005, and for the first time in three seasons, Kahne failed to score a victory.

    Early in the season, it was announced that Kahne had signed a contract with Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 5 car for Mark Martin in 2012. That instantly led to the question of where he would go in 2011.

    After a fallout with Richard Petty Motorsports, where Kahne refused to get back into a damaged race car, he wound up driving for Red Bull Racing, the team he has signed on to drive for in 2011. In five starts with his new team, he managed to capture one pole but only had a single top 10 finish.

    I think that Kahne is just going to be going through the motions this year, just waiting for 2012 to roll around when he is set to go over to Hendrick. That's not to say that Kahne will give no effort; I just don't foresee him ever being a serious threat to get into the Chase.

18. Ryan Newman

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    Ryan Newman was able to score one win in 2010, albeit it came on late race pit strategy in Phoenix, but for the fourth time in five seasons, Newman failed to qualify for the Chase.

    Quietly, Newman was able to finish off the season strong. In the final 13 races of the year, Newman scored eight top 10 finishes, and over the course of the last 10 races, Newman scored the 10th most points in the series.

    Much like Reutimann, Newman has been very inconsistent recently. On occasion, he looks really strong and puts himself in contention for some wins, but then other weeks, they completely miss the setup, and Newman and the No. 39 team spend the entire race playing catch-up.

    I don't expect those problems to go away any time soon, and in fact, I have a feeling that Newman may encounter a few more struggles this season than in recent years.

17. Martin Truex

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    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, he 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 sport's 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.

16. Joey Logano

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    In his second full-time season at NASCAR's highest level, Joey Logano showed significant improvements, especially towards the end of the season. Although he failed to earn his second career victory, he more than doubled his number of top five and top 10 finishes from his rookie season. He also captured his first career pole.

    Logano scored seven top 10 finishes in the season's final 11 races, including five inside the top five. There is no doubt that Logano is a driver on the rise, but what does that mean for the immediate future?

    I think that Logano will again show some improvement this coming season, but I don't think it will be as drastic as what we saw this year. Logano should definitely be able to contend for a win or two this year, but I still feel like he is a year away from being a Chase contender.

    Look for 2012 to be Logano's real breakout season, but 2011 should still prove to be a success.

15. Jeff Burton

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    After a dismal 2007, Jeff Burton rebounded nicely with a berth in the Chase in 2010. Burton's luck ran out though once the Chase got under way, as he was only relegated to a 12th place finish in the standings.

    There were numerous times in the 2010 season where Burton was the car to beat late in races, but for one reason or another, he was never able to capitalize and score that elusive victory. Furthermore, for as good of a season as Burton was having, his 2010 will most likely be most remembered for his on-track altercation with Jeff Gordon in Texas.

    As nice as it would be to see Burton back in victory lane, and back in the Chase, I think 2011 will be a struggle for him. He only managed to score one top 10 over the course of the final 15 races, and I think that that will carry over into the new season. Sometimes, if you get off to a rough start, it can be very hard to overcome.

14. Clint Bowyer

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    For the first time in his career, in 2010, Bowyer recorded a multiple-win season. He also set a new personal best with 18 top 10 finishes, tied a career high with seven top fives and led more laps than he had in any other season.

    I don't think he will repeat those successes in 2011. I have no doubt that Bowyer will find victory lane again in 2011, but I think on the whole, this season will only turn out average for the Emporia, Kansas native.

    This is more a gut feeling than anything. There is no statistical evidence to back up the fact that Bowyer will only be mediocre in the new season, but I just think that last year will be too hard to match.

13. Juan Montoya

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    On one hand, I think that 2011 will be a big year for Juan Montoya. On the other hand, I think he will just miss the Chase for the Championship.

    For the second consecutive year, Montoya was the dominant car at the Brickyard; only a late race caution that altered pit strategy cost him his shot at victory. All was not lost on the season, however. Montoya scored his second career victory, both of which have come on road courses.

    I think that 2011 will see Montoya score multiple victories for the first time in his career, including a win on an oval track. The problem for Montoya will be the bad finishes. Of course there will be some bad days with poor results, but Montoya just has too many of them.

    In 2010, he had 13 finishes outside the top 25, and those poor performances unfortunately will offset the wins for Montoya and ultimately keep him out of the Chase.

12. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch will make the Chase in 2011, but just barely. I can see Busch having a season similar to the season that Jeff Burton had in 2010. He will contend for some wins but will fail to find victory lane, and then sneak into the Chase as one of the lower seeds and be a non-factor throughout.

    Busch had a great start to the 2010 season. He won in Atlanta and then swept the weekend at Charlotte, with wins in the All-Star race and in the Coca-Cola 600. But once the Chase rolled around, Busch really struggled.

    Busch scored just two top 10s in the season's final 10 races, and while everyone is hyping his new sponsorship alliance with Shell/Pennzoil, I don't think that will matter one bit. It won't matter who is on the hood of Busch's car; he is going to have some struggles.

11. Jamie McMurray

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    It is going to be hard for Jamie McMurray to top what he did in 2010. McMurray seemingly came out of nowhere to win the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and then topped it all off by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the home track for NASCAR.

    The only thing that was missing from McMurray's résumé a season ago was a berth in the Chase. McMurray finished the year 14th in the point standings, but had it not been for seven finishes of 30th or worse, he could have easily found his way into the Chase and been a contender for the title.

    This season will be different. While I don't think McMurray will match his win total from a year ago, I think that overall he will have a little more consistency, which will make the difference for him to finally be among the Chase contenders.

    Give McMurray one win in 2011, but more importantly, he will have an opportunity to race for the title.

10. Tony Stewart

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    By his usual standards, 2010 was just an average season for Tony Stewart. He managed to win twice but had just 17 top 10s, which is the second lowest single-season total of his career, and he only had nine top five finishes, which is the fewest he has had in any season.

    Since winning the Sprint Cup in 2005, Stewart has failed to finish higher than sixth in the points in any season. Last year was no exception, as he could only manage a seventh place points finish. Things could have been different had the opening Chase race at Loudon been one lap shorter.

    While leading, Stewart ran out of gas coming to the white flag, and with that, his championship hopes had all but been washed away. He did manage a win in the Chase, but outside of that, there wasn't really a lot to hang his hat on.

    I think this year will be just another average year for Smoke. You can always count on Stewart for at least one win, and this year will be no exception, but outside of a win or two, it will be a fairly quiet 2011 campaign.

9. Greg Biffle

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    Inexplicably, Greg Biffle continues to be one of the most under the radar drivers on the NASCAR circuit. For the past three seasons, all this guy has done is constantly put up solid numbers, lead a lot of laps, win a few races, make the Chase and then finish well in the standings. Yet he doesn't get a lot of credit for what he does.

    Last season, Biffle scored two wins, including a win that broke a year-and-a-half winless drought for Roush Racing. He also recorded 19 top 10s, which was the second most of his career.

    I think 2011 will be more of the same for Biffle. I expect him to win a couple of races and string together a top 10 total in the upper teens. He should have no problem making the Chase, and while I only project him to finish ninth, don't be surprised if, once again, he exceeds expectations and finishes much higher.

8. Mark Martin

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    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.

    I fully expect Martin to get into the Chase, where once again he will be the sentimental favorite.

7. Kevin Harvick

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    No one could have predicted the season that Kevin Harvick had in 2010. He ended a winless streak that had reached three full seasons and then went on to win two more times on top of that.

    He led the point standings for the majority of the regular season and ended up finishing a career-best third in the point standings. Had the points been awarded under the traditional format, however, Harvick would have been the runaway point champion.

    Harvick set all sorts of new personal bests last season. He set a new high with 16 top fives. He shattered his previous career best with 26 top 10 finishes, and his 8.7 average finish was not only by far a new career best, but was also the best in the series by over three full positions.

    Harvick will be sporting the colors of Budweiser this coming year, and I think it will be extremely difficult for him to repeat the type of season he had a year ago. I fully expect him to win at least once and have no problem making the Chase, but putting up those kinds of numbers again is just too much to ask.

6. Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin is coming off his most successful but most disheartening season yet. Hamlin led the series with eight victories in 2010 but saw his dreams of winning a championship get taken away in the final two races of the season.

    History says not to expect much out of Hamlin this year. Each of the previous four seasons has seen a different driver finish runner-up in the standing to Jimmie Johnson. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin have each had the honor, and the year after losing the title to the No. 48 team, each of them saw his numbers decline drastically the following season.

    While that doesn't guarantee a struggle for Hamlin, I still expect it. I think the way that he lost the title will sit with him for a long time, and ultimately, I think it will affect his performance in 2011.

    While I don't think Hamlin will go winless this year, I also don't think he will even reach half of his win total from a season ago. Expect two or three wins out of Hamlin and no better than a midpack finish in the Chase.

5. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch may be the most talented driver in the NASCAR garage, yet for some reason his best points finish is only fifth place. Busch had another stellar season, but once again the Chase proved to be his arch nemesis.

    Busch finished the season with three wins, including a three-series sweep at Bristol. He also scored 18 top 10s and 10 top fives en route to his eighth place points finish. Busch stumbled down the stretch as he failed to earn a top five in the Chase and had four finishes outside the top 25.

    This year, Busch will gain a slight measure of retribution. I think Busch will make numerous trips to victory lane, most likely right around five. I can also easily see him beating his personal best of 21 top 10s in a season. In the end, though, he will not be able to exorcise all of his Chase demons and will only manage to escape with a fifth place finish.

4. Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson's championship run can't go on forever. At least I don't think it can. It is certainly safe to say that the No. 48 has become a dynasty in NASCAR, but I think after five seasons, Johnson's reign at the top will come to an end.

    It is hard to point to anything as a legitimate reason for not picking Johnson to win, other than a gut feeling. Or sheer logic. Logic would indicate that it is virtually impossible to win six titles in a row. Yet logic probably said the same thing about winning five in a row, or even four for that matter.

    While I don't think Johnson will win the championship in 2011, I feel pretty confident that it will still be a very successful year for him. Over his five years of domination, Johnson has averaged seven wins, 16 top fives and 23 top 10 finishes per season.

    I think he will be pretty close to hitting on those numbers this year. I will go with six wins, 13 top fives and 22 top 10s. Not a bad season for anyone, but if it doesn't result in another championship, don't expect Johnson to be too overly thrilled with it.

3. Carl Edwards

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    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 10s and nine top fives are 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 he should certainly be in championship contention all the way through the season finale.

2. Jeff Gordon

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    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 subpar 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.

    I fully expect Gordon to record 20 top 10 finishes at the very least. I will also say that he wins four races in 2011, including the season-opening Daytona 500.

1. Matt Kenseth

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    The 2011 Sprint Cup Champion will be Matt Kenseth. But of course, if you had read any of my other recent works, you already knew this bold prediction.

    A year after finishing fifth in the standings, Kenseth is poised to make a run at his second career championship. He ended 2010 with no wins and just 15 top 10 finishes, but after a very rocky middle portion of the season, Kenseth really came on strong at the end of the year, when it matters the most.

    As a whole, Roush Racing really ended the season strong, and as a result, I don't think it will take very long for Kenseth to find victory lane again.

    When Kenseth won the championship in 2003, it was all due to him running consistently in the top 10. I expect to see a lot of that this year. Working with crew chief Jimmy Fennig and the resurgence as a team at Roush Racing, I expect Kenseth to score right around 25 top 10 finishes, and I can easily see him winning at least three races.

    Maybe it's a bold prediction, and probably a long shot, but no one expected him to win it in 2003, yet he managed to get it done. I see no reason why he can't do it again in 2011.