Even though Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team continued their unprecedented dynasty by winning a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship last season, a critical victory by the eventual runner-up made the quest for another Chase title a bit harder than in years past.
After keeping pace with Johnson throughout the first seven races of the Chase, Denny Hamlin scored the last of a season-high eight victories by dominating at Texas Motor Speedway Nov. 7—giving him a 33-point lead over Johnson that would eventually disappear over the final two races.
While consistency is still somewhat rewarded, there's little doubt that winning—as it always has been in the Chase era—is the most important thing.
With that in mind, here's an educated guess at who will be visiting Victory Lane throughout the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
With yet another revised criteria for qualification this year, 30 drivers may take the green flag for this 75-lap, two-segment season preview next month.
Featuring last season's Chase participants, past Sprint Cup and Budweiser Shootout champions, past active winners at Daytona and every Rookie of the Year since 2001, a bigger field will experience the newly-repaved Daytona International Speedway for the first time.
Junior Nation will be pleased before the season even officially begins, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win this race for the third time—his first under new crew chief Steve Letarte.
Additionally, Earnhardt Jr. will join the returning Brian Vickers on the front row after Daytona 500 qualifying earlier in the day, creating a myriad of story lines to unfold in the week ahead.
As we've seen since the resurfacing of Talladega in October 2006, anything can and will happen in a restrictor-plate race on a newer surface.
The "Great American Race" will reinforce this concept, as a track-record 65 lead changes between 24 drivers will occur throughout the race's 200 laps. After a clean and caution-free first 160 laps, expect one or two "Big Ones" to occur in the latter stages of the event—causing at least one red flag.
Because of this, a "dark horse" will pull off the upset for the second straight year, as David Reutimann wins the Daytona 500 and the No. 00 Toyota becomes the first car backed by a foreign manufacturer to win the Super Bowl of stock car racing.
In the first of a group of new/reshuffled dates on the 2011 slate, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Phoenix International Raceway for the second race of the season.
Shortened once again to 500 kilometers (312 laps) after a 600-kilometer (375-lap) event last April, the spring race at Phoenix will move to a daytime start for the first time.
Denny Hamlin will avenge a dominating performance spoiled by poor fuel mileage calculations last November and win his first race of the 2011 season, providing a boost to what could be a championship season for the No. 11 Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.
For the second consecutive season, five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
After three of 36 races, Hamlin will hold a slight edge over Johnson in the points standings—forming one of the best on-track rivalries the sport has seen in quite some time in the process.
A familiar face will reach Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway for the second straight race, as Kyle Busch will win again at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile."
This time around, the major twist will be that the driver formerly known as "Scrub" will not compete in the Nationwide race the day before, continuing to cut back his slate in the series in lieu of younger drivers under contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Formerly the second race of the season, Auto Club Speedway's lone date on the 2011 slate is moved to late March. In addition, the event is cut from 500 to 400 miles—a decision made after the fall race last season produced better action under a shorter distance.
For the first time since 2008, Carl Edwards will perform a backflip at the start-finish line at the two-mile superspeedway. The trademark backflip will occur more than once in 2011.
In what may be another uninspired pick, Hamlin will win this event for the second consecutive season— his third straight victory at Martinsville Speedway.
At this point, expect Hamlin to pull away from the pack like Kevin Harvick did last season in the points standings, maintaining the top spot until the Chase begins.
For the first time, the spring race at Texas Motor Speedway will move from a Sunday afternoon to a Saturday night.
A red-hot Denny Hamlin will win his second consecutive race of 2011 and his third straight at the Great American Speedway, continuing an impressive start.
Junior Nation (and NASCAR executives) gets to rejoice, as Earnhardt Jr. will finally break his long drought and win a points race for the first time since June 2008.
The No. 88 Chevy will thread the needle on an impressive Trevor Bayne in the No. 21 Ford in a last-lap pass, returning "Little E" to the top 10 in the points standings.
Brian Vickers will continue the feel-good story of 2011, winning his first race since August 2009 by pulling off a slight upset at Richmond International Raceway.
While Vickers will fail to make the Chase, he will likely finish in the top 15 in the Sprint Cup points standings.
Another lengthy winless streak will end in 2011, as Jeff Gordon will finally break his drought and win the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
It will mark his third win at the event (formerly known as the spring 400-mile race at the "Lady in Black," despite the heritage indicated with the title), and it won't be his only win in 2011.
Concrete will be kind to Kyle Busch in 2011, as he wins another race at the "Monster Mile" in a dominating performance. It will mark his second straight win in the event formerly known as the Autism Speaks 400, and his second win of 2011.
For the second straight season, Martin Truex Jr. will win the Sprint Showdown, with A.J. Allmendinger advancing via his second-place finish. If the Sprint Fan Vote returns for this season, expect Kasey Kahne to run away with the vote.
As for the All-Star Race, I'll pick Jeff Gordon—after a surge of momentum provided by his Darlington win—to win the event for an unprecedented fourth time.
After going winless for what seems like an eternity for every other driver, Jimmie Johnson returns to Victory Lane at a very familiar track. The No. 48 Chevy dominates like it did in 2004, lapping the field at one point in the race.
The inaugural second race at Kansas Speedway will bring the return of the No. 43 to Victory Lane, as A.J. Allmendinger finally earns his first career win for Richard Petty Motorsports.
In three career starts at the track, Allmendinger has two top 10 finishes. While the Champ Car veteran may not make the Chase this season, he will emerge as a serious contender to win another race or two in 2011.
Winless since April, Denny Hamlin again finds success through repetition, winning the June race at Pocono Raceway for the second consecutive season.
Unlike last year's edition, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick will keep to themselves this time around.
Carl Edwards' return to Sprint Cup prominence continues with a win at Michigan International Speedway, his first at the track since 2008. The win solidifies Edwards into the top five in the Sprint Cup points standings.
After an attempt to save fuel while leading in last season's race resulted in a stalled engine and a sixth-place finish, Marcos Ambrose becomes the second driver this season to win his first career race, winning at Infineon Raceway in dominant fashion driving the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports.
After a surprisingly quiet first half of 2011 for Richard Childress Racing, Clint Bowyer begins to turn the tide for the organization with a win at the "World Center of Racing."
It will mark the second straight win for RCR at the event and will propel Bowyer towards a midseason charge into the Chase.
In the inaugural Sprint Cup race at the 1.5-mile superspeedway, the advantage will certainly go to those with experience at the track in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series levels.
Perfect with three victories in three Nationwide starts, Joey Logano will score his second career Sprint Cup victory—his first not affected by rain.
Denny Hamlin continues his stellar 2011 season with a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his fifth win of the season. It would be a natural progression for the No. 11 Toyota, as it finished second to Clint Bowyer at the one-mile track last September.
After two years of dominant performances cut short by pit road penalties and failed strategies, Juan Pablo Montoya finally wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a stock car.
For Earnhardt Ganassi Racing co-owner Chip Ganassi, it marks his second straight Brickyard 400 title.
Additionally, Ganassi sweeps both major races at the Brickyard once again, as young Americans Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball shock the racing world by finishing 1-2 at the Indianapolis 500 in Ganassi IndyCars two months prior.
As doubts begin to spread regarding the No. 48 crew's ability to win another Sprint Cup title, Jimmie Johnson brings home the defending champion's third win of the season. It is his first at the track since sweeping both races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 2004.
For the second consecutive season, Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 42 team win at Watkins Glen, holding off a charging Tony Stewart for the road course victory.
For the first time since sweeping the first two races of the 2009 season, Matt Kenseth returns to Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway. To the surprise of many, the race features just one caution (a debris delay in the early stages of the 200-lap event), forcing fuel mileage to come into play.
Crew chief Jimmy Fennig and the No. 17 team save fuel successfully, and Kenseth passes Kurt Busch— who ran out of gas—on the final lap to secure the win.
Roush Fenway Racing returns to Victory Lane for the second time in six days, as Greg Biffle wins his first Sprint Cup race in 17 attempts at Bristol.
Along with Auto Club Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway lost one date in 2011; in this case, the track kept the Labor Day weekend date for the third consecutive season.
For the third straight week, a veteran driver wins his first race of the season. This time around, Tony Stewart wins at Atlanta for the second straight campaign.
In the aptly-titled final race prior to the 10-race playoff, Kyle Busch wins his first race since his March win at Bristol, leading 297 of 400 laps at Richmond's .75-mile oval.
Yes, that's actually the working title for the opening race of this year's Chase.
For the first time, the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway instead of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in an attempt to draw in a bigger market to view the first race of the 10-race playoff.
Jeff Gordon will take the early points lead by winning his first race in Joliet since 2006, doing so in dominant fashion.
Jimmie Johnson strikes fear into his fellow Chasers by leading almost every green-flag lap in the season's second race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It marks the No. 48 Chevy's second win in four races at the "Magic Mile."
However, Jeff Gordon follows up his Chicagoland victory with a runner-up finish, suffering minimal damage to his points lead.
Chaser Carl Edwards tames the "Monster Mile" in a crash-filled event at Dover International Speedway. A big wreck late in the race takes Chasers Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the running for a Sprint Cup title.
In the season's second race at Kansas Speedway, Greg Biffle wins what is now known as the fall race at the track in back-to-back seasons.
Four races into the Chase, the battle for the Sprint Cup is essentially down to six drivers—Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and still-winless Kevin Harvick.
Charlotte Motor Speedway produces a surprise winner in the fall race at the 1.5-mile oval, as Joey Logano scores his second win of the season by taking the lead from Greg Biffle in the race's late stages.
While Logano fails to make the Chase, he becomes a name to watch for the 2012 season.
The final restrictor-plate race of the season is marred by an early "Big One" that takes out Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin along with nearly 20 other teams.
Thus, the dominant cars in the race include Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan (who will be released by Roush Fenway at the end of the season), Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin.
The race fails to come anywhere near the 89 lead changes recorded last season, but Harvick finally scores his first victory of 2011 by holding off a Keselowski-led charge over the final 10 laps. Additionally, Harvick is now in the thick of the Chase hunt.
Denny Hamlin sweeps both races at Martinsville for the second straight season, scoring his most important win of the campaign by leading over 300 laps at the paper clip-shaped short track.
Winless in the season's first 31 events, Kevin Harvick wins two of the next three races by scoring his first Sprint Cup win at Texas Motor Speedway. With two races remaining, the points race is between three drivers—Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Sound familiar?
For the second time in three seasons, Jimmie Johnson wins the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway.
However, instead of sealing up his sixth straight Sprint Cup title, the points race is as tight as ever between himself and Denny Hamlin—who once again led the most laps in a runner-up effort.
In a finish only Brian France would love, Denny Hamlin makes a last-lap pass by Carl Edwards to win both the Ford 400 and his first Sprint Cup championship, avenging the 2010 title that slipped through the No. 11 team's hands.
What are your picks for 2011? Comment below.
Ryan Papaserge is a junior journalism/mass communication student at St. Bonaventure University and a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.