2011 NASCAR Chase: Seven Drivers That Will Break Through In 2011

Todd JacobsCorrespondent IJanuary 14, 2011

2011 NASCAR Chase: Seven Drivers That Will Break Through In 2011

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr is in a critical crossroads of his career.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Every season begins with 20-30 NASCAR Sprint Cup teams optimistic as they look ahead to the upcoming season.  Realistically only 10-12 drivers have any chance to hold the NASCAR Sprint Cup hardware over their head.  Now with the invention of the NASCAR Chase there is another opportunity for NASCAR teams to impress their sponsors and keep them happy by making their way in the top 12 and becoming a NASCAR Chase participant.

No. 7. AJ Allmendinger: Richard Petty Motorsports

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    Aj Almendinger and Richard Petty have had their differences.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    AJ Allmendinger had a tumultuous NASCAR season in 2010 but he overcame his issues on and off the track to finish strong.  Allmendinger has shown an improvement on the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega and has also made strides on the intermediate tracks.

    Allmendinger will be racing with a clear mind in 2011 with the Richard Petty Motorsports financial situation behind them.  Allmendinger races well on the first three tracks of the season: Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas.  His results may not reflect how well Allmendinger has done on these three tracks but he has made his way to the front of all three. If Allmendinger can finish well in the first four races including Bristol he has an excellent chance to break into the top 12 for the NASCAR Chase.

No.6. Marcos Ambrose: Richard Petty Motorsports

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    Marcos Ambrose struggled on some intemediate tracks but he dominated road courses.Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Marcos Ambrose is back with Ford and he is now on a resurgent two team Richard Petty Motorsports team.  Ambrose is lights out on a NASCAR road course and in the races at Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen he is an instant favorite before he unloads his Cup car from the hauler.

    Ambrose has improved over the course of his career on short and intermediate tracks but he has also taken a liking to tracks such as Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.  Now that Ambrose is with RPM he will have a better restrictor plate car and this could set the tone for his season with a great finish at Daytona.

    Look for Marcos Ambrose to make the NASCAR Chase in 2011 and he will win both NASCAR Sprint Cup races on the road courses.  Do not rule Ambrose out of winning a race at Fontana or Pocono this season either.

No.5. Kasey Kahne: Red Bull Racing

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    Kasey Kahne begins his first and last full season with the Red Bull Racing team in 2011.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Kasey Kahne had a rough season in 2011.  He was not happy racing for a Richard Petty Motorsports team that was on the verge of closing their doors on a weekly basis.  When Kahne signed with Hendrick Motorsports mid season the relationship with RPM soured and he was eventually released from his contract. 

    The only issue with Hendrick Motorsports was that they did not have a ride available for Kahne and he was forced to team up with Red Bull Racing for the 2011 season.  Now with Kahne on a temporary stop over with Red Bull many are writing off this season for the former sprint car racing ace.

    Not so fast my friends.  Kahne will be looking to prove himself all season in 2011 and with a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder he will not disappoint.  Look for Kahne to win four to five races and make the NASCAR Chase.

No.4. Mark Martin: Hendrick Motorsports

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    Fan favorite Mark Martin has plenty left in his tank for a spiited title run.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Mark Martin is just two years removed from his magical season in the No.5 Hendrick Motorsports Cup car.  Now he has a new crew chief and new life in the last year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports. In most sports it is tough to measure how an athlete will perform in a contract year but this is Mark Martin.

    Martin has been through the NASCAR wringer and he knows this may be his last chance driving the best equipment in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage.  Look for Mark Martin to have the best year of his career beginning with the Daytona 500. 

    Martin has never won Daytona and there will be a ground swell of support to make sure he has every opportunity to cash in at the Great American Race.  Martin has performed well in all but a handful of restrictor plate races in his career but he has been snake bit the last few years. 

    Mark Martin will not only make the NASCAR Chase in 2011 but he will also contend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

No.3. Martin Truex Jr: Michael Waltrip Racing

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    Truex had an up and down season in 2010 but Sonoma was a turning point.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Martin Truex Jr had an eventful first year racing for Michael Waltrip Racing.  He was in contention to win races and he established himself as a potential contender for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. 

    Truex looked sharp in the restrictor plate races and he had a good run at Sonoma ruined by Jeff Gordon in the middle of the season.  That race was a turning point for the usually mellow Truex.  Truex was not happy with the four time NASCAR champion Gordon and made it known in the garage that he would deliver payback to Gordon. 

    Truex enters the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a year under his belt with the new team and a fresh outlook on making the NASCAR Chase. Look for Truex to be in contention for the NASCAR Chase in September.

No. 2. Brad Keselowski: Penske Racing

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    Brad Keselowski won his first NASCAR title last season when he captured the 2010 NASCAR Nationwide title.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Brad Keselowski takes a major step up with  Penske Racing as he steps into the No.2 Miller Lite Blue Deuce for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.  Keselowski suffered through a tough learning curve in the 2010 season but he dominated and learned how to win in the NASCAR Nationwide series.

    Now Keselowski will have his NASCAR Nationwide crew chief Paul Wolfe on the pit box for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.  With Wolfe Keselowski has a crew chief he can communicate with effortlessly. 

    The Penske Racing team has downsized to two teams this season and this will also be huge benefit for Keselowski in his second year.  Look for Keselowski to make the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase and possibly contend for a title.

No.1. Dale Earnhardt Jr: Hendrick Motorsports

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr has experienced little success since joining Hendrick Motorsports.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr has struggled since signing with Hendrick Motorsports.  2011 is the third year of Dale Earnhardt Jr's contract and the pressure is on Rick Hendrick to make the No.88 team successful.  The Hendrick Motorsports shakeup has everything to do with making Dale Earnhardt Jr a winner in 2011.

    The No.88 team will now be housed with the five time NASCAR champion No. 48 team.  Chad Knaus will now have a hand in Dale Earnhardt Jr's team and the excuses will end this season.  Dale Earnhardt Jr will be teamed up with a team that does not know how to lose.

    With new crew chief Steve Latarte as his new leader both will have fresh perspectives on the new season.  Look for the No.88 to be at the top of the leader board for the month of February at Daytona.  Dale Jr has also been successful at Phoenix and Bristol in the past which could get him off to a great start in 2011.

    Look for Dale Earnhardt Jr to make the 2011 NASCAR Chase and also contend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.