NASCAR 2011: Predicting Top 5 Contenders: Cup, Nationwide and Trucks
The top three NASCAR series will see some changes at the top of the points leader boards this season with the new rules in place that force NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors to declare what championship they will run for.
This will stop double-duty drivers from crisscrossing the country on race weekends and will allow many new faces to emerge as the next hottest drivers.
No. 5 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Contender: Travis Kvapil
Travis Kvapil will step into the Randy Moss Motorsports truck for the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and he will be an instant wild card pick to win the truck title in 2011.
Kvapil has been bouncing from NASCAR series to NASCAR series over the last few years, and once he settles down for the 2011 season with the truck series, he will be able to prove to the elite teams that he does have what it takes to advance to a full-time NASCAR Cup ride with the potential to win.
Randy Moss Motorsports is no longer a start-up, and the seat Kvapil will be stepping into is that of Mike Skinner. The team is a competitive one that is looking to go in a new direction and reach the next level of competing for a title. Look for Kvapil to be in contention from Daytona on.
No. 4 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Contender: Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon is getting comfortable in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and he is primed and ready to make his first serious run at a NASCAR title.
Dillon has shown he can compete in all facets of the truck series, and this upcoming season will define Dillon in his young racing career.
Dillon has the advantage of his grandfather Richard Childress' bankroll and the technology of the RCR brand. Dillon's RCR-fabricated trucks and ECR engines are stout on the superspeedways and the short tracks alike.
Look for Austin Dillon to start Daytona off on the right foot with a top five and compete for the title all season long.
No. 3 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Contender: Ron Hornaday Jr.
Ron Hornaday Jr. is the wily old veteran of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but he is also one of the best drivers in the series heading into the 2011 season.
Hornaday is an expert at setting up these trucks for all situations, but his bad luck was insurmountable last season.
Hornaday and the KHI trucks will be the most dominant trucks in the series, along with the KBM trucks, and it will be up to Hornaday to close the deal. Look for Hornaday to be in contention when the series travels to Homestead for the final race.
No. 2 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Contender: Matt Crafton
Matt Crafton returns with his Menards sponsorship and added confidence that he can compete for the NASCAR Camping World Truck title.
Crafton suffered a few meltdowns in 2010 that may have led to him falling out of contention for the title, but with another year of experience and maturity under his belt, there is no reason for Crafton to be out of the top five once the truck series makes its final stop in Homestead.
Matt Crafton and his No. 88 Menards team are ready to step up and contend for his first NASCAR title in 2011.
No. 1 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Contender: Johnny Sauter
2011 is going to be a breakout season for Johnny Sauter. He has earned his reputation as a hothead in the past, but Sauter began to mature as the 2010 season wore on.
This season the more experienced Sauter will be ready to take his place at the head of the table as the 2011 Camping World Truck Series Champion.
Sauter has cleared the hurdles of maintaining an operation that runs up front consistently. His team competed for wins in every race it entered in 2010, and with a little luck Sauter will win five to six races and will carry the point lead into the Homestead race in November.
No. 5 NASCAR Nationwide Series Contender: Brian Scott
Brian Scott has been a consistent competitor on the NASCAR Nationwide Series for a few years, but now things are on the fast track for the resilient driver. Scott has jumped over to the Joe Gibbs Toyota No. 11 in NASCAR Nationwide, and his opportunities for success have increased immensely.
Scott will be a full-time driver in the NASCAR Nationwide series, and Denny Hamlin will no longer make guest appearances in the car. Scott inherits one of the best NASCAR Nationwide teams to run the circuit.
Many teams in the garage felt the Joe Gibbs Toyotas were impossible to beat over the last few seasons, which will put enormous pressure on Scott. Look for Scott to notch a minimum of three race wins, and look for him to be in the top five when the series reaches Homestead.
No. 4 NASCAR Nationwide Series Contender: Michael Annett
Michael Annett will join forces with Rusty Wallace Incorporated, and he will take over the wheel of the No. 62 car. Brendan Gaughan leaves the seat of the No. 62 car after a dismal season filled with torn-up equipment and disappointing finishes.
Annett has been bouncing around the NASCAR Nationwide Series for a while and performed well in equipment that was well behind the top of the line NASCAR Nationwide teams. His last season in the No.15 Nationwide ride for Germain Racing earned him a perceived step up to the RWI team.
Look for Annett to make major progress in 2011 and be within striking distance of the NASCAR Nationwide title in November.
No. 3 NASCAR Nationwide Series Contender: Aric Almirola
Aric Almirola is another driver that has bounced around all three NASCAR series over the last few seasons, and now he appears to have a home with JR Motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled attempting to replace Brad Keselowski in his No. 88 Taxslayer ride.
Almirola is a proven winner, and he had more than a few successful runs for JR Motorsports in 2010. He also had his share of bad luck in 2010.
Almirola will win three to four races in 2010, and he will have a shot at the NASCAR Nationwide title in the last race of the season at Homestead.
No. 2 NASCAR Nationwide Series Contender: Justin Allgaier
Justin Allgaier was the best non-Cup driver on the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010. Allgaier won a race, ran up front and finished fourth in NASCAR Nationwide points at the end of the season. Allgaier was rewarded for his breakout season with a pink slip from Penske Racing.
Allgaier landed on his feet and has signed with Turner Motorsports to drive the No. 31 Chevy. Allgaier will also be mentored by NASCAR veteran Mark Martin over the course of the season.
Allgaier will visit Victory Lane several times over the 2011 season, and he will be within a few points of the NASCAR Nationwide title when the final race gets underway in Homestead.
No. 1 NASCAR Nationwide Series Contender: Elliott Sadler
Elliott Sadler will be racing full-time in 2011 for Kevin Harvick Incorporated. Harvick has been looking to fill the seat of his No. 33 NASCAR Nationwide car for some time, and Sadler may be the perfect fit.
Sadler is looking to prove himself after underperforming for years in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sadler has run well in KHI equipment recently, and he will have a stellar 2011 season. Look for Elliott Sadler to win five to six races in 2011 and dominate the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
No. 5 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career has taken a nosedive since joining Hendrick Motorsports. No one takes this to heart more than Rick Hendrick himself. He knows the legions of Dale Jr. fans hold him personally responsible for Earnhardt Jr.'s failings.
This season Dale Jr. will be teamed with the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion No. 48 team. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will now face the challenge of assisting Dale Earnhardt Jr to assert himself as a top contender for the NASCAR Cup, and more importantly to win races.
The move of the No. 88 team into the same building as the No. 48 team must be taken seriously. This is the last-ditch effort for the Hendrick Motorsports organization before they give up on Dale Jr.
This will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s most productive season since coming over to Hendrick Motorsports, and he will win several races.
No. 4 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender: Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch once again won more than 20 NASCAR races in 2011 in the three top series, but he once again failed miserably to contend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Busch struggled once the NASCAR Chase began this season, and he lost yet another opportunity to win a title.
The good news for Busch was that he won his first owner's title, and he won another owner's title for Joe Gibbs in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Now it is time for Busch to give his full attention to the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Will he do this? Time will tell, but Busch has matured, believe it or not.
Look for Kyle Busch to win four to five races in 2011 and be in contention for the title with a few races remaining.
No. 3 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender: Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch did not have his best season in 2010, but he did have the best May anyone could ever hope for. Busch won the All-Star Race and the 600 at Charlotte, which made his year.
Busch is the most difficult driver to work for, and crew chief Steve Addington appears to work well with Busch despite their disputes during a race.
The steady and smart Addington knows when to take the heat off his driver, and he knows when to put Busch in his place without making him defensive. Addington's calm demeanor worked well with Kyle Busch, and it looks like he and the elder Busch have found a middle ground.
The 2011 season will be a breakout season for Kurt Busch as he establishes his identity with a new sponsor and new number but the same team. Busch will be behind the wheel of the No. 22 Pennzoil Dodge, and maybe it is what he needs to get out of his funk. Busch will win three to four races in 2011, and he will have his best chance to win a title since 2004.
No. 2 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender: Mark Martin
Mark Martin had a season he would love to forget. He ended up on the wrecker more than any other season in his career and missed the setup completely in a few other poor showings.
Martin is just two years removed from the most amazing season of his career. In 2009 he won five races and almost beat out the unbeatable No. 48 team for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
This year Martin is teamed with the young Lance McGrew, and the change of scenery could do both of them well. Martin is a driver that gives a lot of feedback and knows how changes to his car will react on the track without turning a lap. McGrew will have a field day with Martin's knowledge, and it could help him become a better crew chief in the future.
Martin is also mentoring Justin Allgaier this season for Turner Motorsports. As is always the case when an older driver mentors a younger driver, the older drivers inevitably learn more about themselves.
Mark Martin will win four races and be within a few points of the title when the final race at Homestead begins.
No. 1 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contender: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart has already shown everyone he is fired up and back to his old ways.
Stewart went down under to Australia for his annual Sprintcar Racing trip with his driver Donny Schatz. Stewart and Schatz barnstormed the country until Stewart got into an altercation with Australian race promoter Brett Morris.
According to reports on Speed Cafe, Stewart was upset about track conditions and confronted Morris. Stewart threw a helmet, and it was reported that Stewart boarded his plane with a black eye.
The statement from local police in Sydney stated simply, "A 39-year-old man was arrested at the scene and was taken to Parramatta Police Station after a 46-year-old man was allegedly struck in the face by a racing helmet.
"The 39-year-old man was released by police without charge, pending further investigation."
The old Smoke is back, and the competition better buckle their seat belts. Stewart runs well at the first three tracks on the schedule, and if he is fired up to prove himself as an owner/driver, it will be a fun year. Stewart has also locked up his sponsors for the season and now can focus on racing.
Stewart will win four races in 2011 and will be leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings when the series arrives in Homestead this January.
Check back with me in November and let me know how I did.