NASCAR: 10 Predictions Heading Into the 2011 Sprint Cup Season

Brian KennedyCorrespondent IJanuary 24, 2011

NASCAR: 10 Predictions Heading Into the 2011 Sprint Cup Season

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    It's January and that can only mean one thing; Speedweeks 2011 is right around the corner. Each year the Nascar season produces surprise winners, standout drivers, and disappointing results from those who we all expected to produce.

    With less than a month away, it is time for my top 10 predictions going into the 2011 Sprint Cup season.

#10. Dale Jr. Will Be The Driver Everyone Thought He Would Be at Hendrick

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    Did you hear me Junior nation, I am finally giving you hope. Let's all face it, watching Dale Jr. fall as fast as he has is like a train wreck. After switching to Hendrick Motorsports a few years ago, everyone thought that this was the defining move to get Junior back on track. But after lackluster seasons and various crew chief changes, Junior has become the Casey Mears of Hendrick Motorsports. (too harsh?)

    This year however will finally be THE year fans get the Dale Jr. of old. After last season, Rick Hendrick made a dramatic crew chief exchange between 3 of his 4 teams. Now Junior is teamed with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's old crew chief who helped get Jeff Gordon back on track. If Letarte can't get it done, I don't see anyone (other than Chad Knaus) who can help resurrect Junior's career. 

    Look for Junior to not only get back on track, but back in Gatorade Victory Lane.

#9. Red Bull Racing Will Be a Force To Recon With.

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    Even though this will only be for a year, I see nothing but good things coming for Red Bull Racing. As Kasey Kahne patiently waits for Mark Martin to give up his ride, he is teamed up with the returning Brian Vickers, who was forced out of his seat because of blood clots in his leg. This team was on the verge of being good before Vickers left, and having Scott Speed as your main driver for the last half of the season isn't exactly what you would call good.

    With Kahne entering the picture, you get another veteran driver who not only brings experience, but a winning attitude to a team who is looking for their first win since Michigan of 2009. Red Bull Racing knows how to win poles and contest for wins, but now is the time to take the checkered flag.  Look for Red Bull Racing to step up their game.


#8. Marcos Ambrose Will Sweep The Road Course Races

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    I know, this isn't exactly a prediction that makes everyone go WHAT!?!? Watching Ambrose lose the Sonoma race last year was heartbreaking. I don't know why a driver would turn off his car going uphill with plenty of fuel in the tank. Was it driver error or a crew chief's decision? Whatever the case, watching Ambrose walk out of the track after the race was like watching a prize fighter leave the ring after getting pummeled.

    But that was then and this is now as Ambrose enters 2011 with a new team and outlook. After leaving JTG Racing at the end of last year, Ambrose joined Richard Petty Motorsports. At the time it seemed like a risky move because of all the legal and financial troubles going on within the organization. Now King Richard Petty has taken over the team and day-to-day operations and that only means good things. Ambrose now has better equipment under him and an owner who only knew how to win during his time racing. (Is 200 wins good?)

    If I had to put money down on the road course races, I'd put them down on the Tasmanian Devil himself.

#7. Kevin Harvick Will Not Duplicate Last Years Success.

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    Kevin Harvick had the best season of his Sprint Cup career last year after finishing 3rd in the points standings, He racked up 3 wins, 16 top 5's and 26 top 10's, which were his best since 2006. But if history has shown anything about Kevin Harvick, it is that the season after he performs great, he stumbles. Don't believe me? Just check the facts.

    After having 5 wins in 2006 and finishing 4th in the standings, Harvick fell back the following year finishing 10th in the points and only having one win. In 2008, Harvick again finished 4th in the season standings only to crash down to 19th in the points the next year. If history proves itself right again, Kevin Harvick will not produce the same way he did this year.

#6. AJ Allmendinger Will Win His 1st Race

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    AJ Allmendinger was by far the surprise driver of the 2010 Sprint Cup season. Even though the stats don't show it (2 top-5's and 8 top 10's) Allmendinger completed 94 percent of the laps during last year's season. His average finish was 17th place for the year and don't forget he has the new king of road racing Marcos Ambrose as a teammate/coach.

    Add to the mix King Richard owns this team, you know AJ will be be given all the resources he needs to compete for wins. It's put up or shut up time this season for AJ Allmendinger, and I see him putting up.

#5. Brad Keselowski Will Not Have a Sophomore Slump

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    Last year Brad Keselowski was nearly untouchable in the Nationwide Series. He won 6 races and had 25 top 5's and 28 top 10's. (In 34 starts) He went on to win the Nationwide Series title over Carl Edwards by a dominant 445 points. Keslelowski's Nationwide season helped overshadow what was his dismal rookie year in the Sprint Cup Series.

    In the 36 races he ran for Penske, Keselowski posted a best finish of 10th twice at Martinsville and Talladega and won a pole at New Hampshire. If that weren't bad enough, Keselowski finished 20th or worse in 20 of the 36 races.

    Even through all this, Keselowski can only get better and he will this year. He is with a new Penske team driving the blue deuce and his Nationwide crew chief Paul Wolfe has been brought in to help Keselowski out. I see Keselowski getting more top 5's and 10's and finishing in the top 15 in points. OK, top 20, lets not get too crazy.

#4. Mark Martin Will Contest For The Sprint Cup Title

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    In one year Mark Martin went from King of the Mountain to bottom of the pile. Martin ended 2009 with 5 wins, 14 top 5's and 21 top 10's. Martin was also finished 2nd for the Sprint Cup championship and many were wondering if this would be the last time he would contest for a title.

    After this past season, it sure seemed like Martin had lost his edge going win-less and missing the chase completely. But if there is one thing to Mark Martin, it is you can't keep the him down. Martin is in his last year with Hendrick Motorsports, and knowing the wiley old man, he will go out with a bang. Will Mark Martin continue to drive once Kasey Kahne takes over his ride? More than likely. But the evidence is clear; Mark Martin is getting older and does not have much left in the tank.  If there is anytime where Martin should go all in, it will be this season.

#3. Jeff Gordon Will Get Back To Victory Lane

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    Jeff Gordon did everything but win last year during the Sprint Cup season. Gordon finished 2nd a handful of times and was in contention for many of the races. But while Gordon finished in the top 10 of the chase, he has not won a race since the Samsung 500 at Texas in April 2009.

    That will all change this year as Gordon has a new crew chief, a new sponsor and a new drive for five. Jeff Gordon is this writer's early pick for the 2011 Daytona 500.

#2. Joe Gibbs Racing Will Put All 3 Cars in The Chase

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    Last year, Denny Hamlin missed out on his 1st Sprint cup title by 39 points. Kyle Busch finished 8th in the points, but had 3 wins to his credit. Joey Lagano started last season slow but finished the season with a bang with five top 10's in the last 5 races.

    These 3 drivers are primed and ready to lead Joe Gibbs Racing to the top. Hamlin is itching to get the title he missed out on last year. Busch is finally staring to show the maturity he needs to contest for a title, and Lagano finally silenced his critics wondering why Joe Gibbs put him in the home depot car.

    If there is one owner everyone pulls for to get another Sprint Cup title, it is the coach. He is the guy everyone loves and no one hates. If ever there were a year for Joe Gibbs to get a another Sprint Cup Title, it is in 2011. 

#1. Jimmie Johnson WILL NOT Win His 6th Straight Title.

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    Jimmie Johnson fans I hope you have enjoyed the ride. Jimmie Johnson is a Hall of Fame driver after winning 5 straight titles, no doubt. But 2011 is the year that Jimmie gets knocked off his throne. Johnson barely scathed by last year after just beating out Denny Hamlin in the points standings. The saying "It's better to be lucky than good" never rang so loud last year for Johnson.

    Who exactly will dethrone Johnson this year you ask? 5 potential players come to mind almost instantly. (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards) Team Gibbs is primed to repeat its success from last year. Denny Hamlin will be hungry to get back what he lost last year, and Kyle Busch is get more matrue as a driver day by day. Jeff Gordon has been knocking on Winner's Circle door for the last year and being paired with Alan Gustafson will only help Jeff. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards had what many would call off years, but at the end of the season starting showing promise for this upcoming year.

    The run by Jimmie Johnson is one that will never be touched I can promise you that. But all things must come to an end and this is the year Jimmie Johnson will not win another title.