Brad Keselowski shocked the NASCAR world at Talladega in 2009 when he scored his first career Sprint Cup victory with a part-time, underfunded Phoenix Racing team. He managed to parlay that victory into a ride with Penske Racing for 2010 and beyond.
No driver won his first career race last year, but with a series of team changes and an ever-shifting landscape, some drivers are hoping to do so this year. Some should, with the caliber of equipment that will be under them; some had better if they want to keep their jobs.
Without further ado, the top 10 drivers most likely to win their first Sprint Cup events in 2011:
Menard brings one of the heftiest sponsor contracts in all of racing, that of his family-owned hardware store Menards, to whatever team is willing to employ him. It used to be primarily based on those sponsorship dollars, but Menard has quietly become a respectable stock-car driver, spending the early part of last season in the top 10 in points before Richard Petty Motorsports disintegrated.
Now he'll be with Richard Childress Racing, which put all three of its cars in the Chase last year. True, RCR has struggled with four cars in the past (just ask Casey Mears), but the team that fielded the old-system points champion last year should be able to figure it out, and Menard could surprise.
Ragan almost has no choice but to take a victory this year. His Roush Fenway Racing teammates finished 4-5-6 in points after coming on strong late in the year, with Carl Edwards scoring the final two victories of the year.
Ragan nearly made the Chase in 2008, but has finished 27th and 24th the past two seasons. Primary sponsor UPS can't be pleased with that performance. If Trevor Bayne comes on strong with the Wood Brothers and in Roush's Nationwide cars, Ragan may need wins to keep his job.
The 'Dinger has gone from a transitioning open-wheeler and stock-car failure to a more than respectable driver over the past two years with Richard Petty Motorsports, and may be one of the best drivers to campaign the No. 43 car since the team's namesake retired in 1992.
Qualifying for only 16 races in his rookie year, 2007, he hasn't DNQ'd for a race since Las Vegas in 2008, and scored his first pole at Phoenix last year. With a smaller RPM operation and better personnel focused on his car, this may be the year that the 2006 Champ Car title contender breaks through in NASCAR.
Ambrose is only on this list because of his "oops" at Sonoma last year, when he shut the car off to conserve fuel while rolling uphill.
While you ponder the absurdity of that statement, recall that Ambrose has won the past three Zippo 200s at The Glen in Nationwide, and is slowly improving on the ovals that dominate the series as well. His best best for that breakthrough victory remains on a road course, but stranger things have happened.
As far as I'm concerned, Regan Smith should not be on this list, but someone at NASCAR disagreed with me on that fateful October day in 2008. (I still maintain he got forced below the yellow line, and for not sending Tony Stewart into the catchfence a la Brad Keselowski with Carl Edwards, should have at LEAST gotten to keep his second-place finish. Oh well.)
But karma pays back, and in 2011 Smith's Furniture Row team will have a pit crew trained by...Stewart-Haas Racing. Add that to the RCR engines they're already getting, and Furniture Row is slowly working their way up the NASCAR ranks, as the old start-up teams used to do. They're a throwback, plain and simple; maybe they'll sneak in a win for the old school?
Revenge is a dish best served cold. Scott Speed has plenty of motivation, after being unceremoniously dumped by Team Red Bull for 2011 despite supposedly having a contract to drive alongside Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne.
While the legal proceedings may hurt him, and the fact that he's never needed an agent (the energy drink company always took care of finding rides for him) could be even worse, Speed will be incredibly motivated in 2011 if he can land a ride. After all, who doesn't want to prove their doubters wrong?
Said-heads rejoiced when their driver, a longtime sports car and Trans-Am driver who has been trying to break into NASCAR full time for the better part of the last decade, finally scored a Nationwide win at Montreal last year. Chances are that will at least buy him rides in every road course race for this season, as teams on the edge of the top 35 in owners' points look to solidify their positions and maybe even steal a win.
Strong showings in Camping World Trucks and Nationwide events gave Almirola a five-race tryout in Richard Petty Motorsports' flagship No. 9 car last year after Kasey Kahne left the team early. Almirola will primarily race in Nationwide for JR Motorsports this year, but will almost surely be called upon for spot duty at some point when some driver gets fired or hurt. If the car is strong enough, you simply never know what Almirola could do—remember Jamie McMurray's surprise win in 2002 while subbing for Sterling Marlin.
Bayne switched to Roush Fenway Racing when Michael Waltrip Racing couldn't guarantee him a Nationwide ride or better for 2011. He'll stay in that series for this season, but also run up to 17 events for the Wood Brothers. And while Bill Elliott has been great for that team, perhaps no driver affords them a better chance at their first victory since 2001 than Bayne.
2010 was a long year for Conway, who fell on some hard times despite winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award. After leaving Front Row Motorsports, Conway kept up his campaign with Robby Gordon Motorsports. He hopes to extend his career in Sprint Cup this year, though a contract has not yet been signed. (If you don't get the joke here, I don't know what to tell you.)
That's all for this week's slideshow—hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to leave comments below.