This is installment No. 3 in "head-to-head" challenges. Today, I am going to look at the drivers who finished third and fourth in the 2010 point standings, respectively, and tell you which one of them, Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards, will finish higher in the points in 2011.
Kevin Harvick had a near flawless 2010 campaign. He visited victory lane three times, snapping a winless streak that had spanned three full years in the process, and was the regular season points leader for much of the year.
He entered the Chase as one of the favorites to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, and his performance didn't disappoint. Although he didn't win the championship and only finished third, he was in contention all the way through the season finale, and had the points been decided under traditional rules, Harvick would have been the runaway points champion.
As it were, he still posted a career-best points finish with his third-place effort. His 26 top 10 finishes not only shattered his previous season high of 20, but they were also three more than any other driver had in 2010.
For the season Harvick averaged a finish of 8.7. That was a full three spots higher than Johnson, who was his next closest competitor in that category. Furthermore, he had the second best average finish of any full-time driver over the last 10 years.
Only Jeff Gordon's 7.3 average finish in 2007 was better than what Harvick accomplished this past year.
Harvick was the definition of consistency last year. Out of 36 races, he only failed to finish inside the top 20 three times, and only one time was he not running at the end of the race.
Over the final 11 races of the year, Harvick finished in the top 10 in all but one race. So the big question is, can he repeat his successes from a season ago?
The short answer is no. That in no way means that he won't have another strong season. I just think it will be near impossible to be that good two years in a row.
I expect Harvick to win at least one race in 2011, maybe two, but he will not match his three wins from a year ago. He has proven to be quite proficient at the restrictor plate tracks, so look for him to be a contender right out of the gate this year starting in Daytona.
I have a hard time imagining him matching 26 top 10s again. I think that 20 is a much more realistic expectation. Harvick should make the Chase again, but expect him to finish the year toward the bottom of the top 10.
Carl Edwards had a quietly solid season going for 34 races in 2010. Then over the final two weeks, he really burst out of the shadows and emerged as a heavy favorite for the 2011 season by winning both events.
Edwards' first win of the season, at Phoenix, snapped an almost two-year winless streak and gives him some much-needed momentum heading into the new season.
For the year, Edwards had 19 top 10 finishes and, maybe more impressively, three pole positions, which is a career best for him in any particular season.
As under the radar as much of the season was for Edwards, he still managed to finish fourth in the standings, marking the third time in six full-time seasons that he has finished fourth or better in the points.
The season was a tale of two halves for Edwards. The first half of the season was very mediocre. Through 17 races, Edwards had only scored six top 10s, with just one of those being in the top five. By the time the series made it back to Daytona in early July, Edwards had led a total of two laps for the entire season.
Then things turned around big time. Over the final 19 races, Edwards scored two wins, had 13 top 10 finishes and had just one finish outside of the top 20. He also put himself in contention for more wins, as he led 425 laps during the second half of the year.
Now, the question is, will the momentum carry over to 2011? I believe it will. After a very poor 2009 season and an uninspiring start to the 2010 season, Edwards and the No. 99 team really started to figure things out.
Roush Racing as a whole really turned a corner midway through last year, and I see Edwards returning to the championship contending form that he had in 2008, when he won a series-best nine races.
I expect at least two wins out of Cousin Carl this year but wouldn't be surprised if it was actually three or four. He should be in the conversation as it pertains to who can wrestle the championship away from Jimmie Johnson.
So in the battle between Harvick and Edwards, I like Edwards' chances this year. Both drivers will win races, and both will qualify for the Chase, but in the end, I think Edwards will ride the momentum that he brings from last year and turn it into a top five points season.