Daytona 500: The Biggest Question Surrounding Each of the Top 25 Drivers

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IFebruary 17, 2011

Daytona 500: The Biggest Question Surrounding Each of the Top 25 Drivers

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    The Daytona 500 is less than four days from going green. With that, a lot of questions for the 2011 season will begin to be answered:

    How will the new points system work out? Will the wild card aspect of the Chase come into play?

    These are a couple of the questions that the fans, as well as everyone within NASCAR, are waiting for an answer on.

    But what about the drivers? Each driver has at least one question that can be asked of them as it pertains to the upcoming season. I am going to look at each of the top 25 drivers and answer those questions.

1. Brad Keselowski

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    How will not being able to defend his Nationwide Series Championship affect him this season?

    Call me crazy but I think the new championship chasing rules actually do Brad Keselowski a lot of good. While he still plans on running the full Nationwide Series schedule, he will not be able to accumulate any points, as he will be collecting points in the Sprint Cup.

    That may be just what he needs. By not having to worry about any Nationwide points, Keselowski can focus all of his efforts on gaining experience in the top series.

    The move over to the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge should be a boost as well. While I don't anticipate Keselowski scoring his second career victory this season, he should be able to improve his 25th place standing from a year ago.

2. David Ragan

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    Does David Ragan have any chance of returning to his 2008 form?

    David Ragan had a breakthrough season in 2008. That year, he scored 14 top-10s. For his four-year career, he has 22 total. He also scored six of his eight career top-five finishes that season.

    Since then, in two full seasons, he has just five top-10 finishes and has failed to crack the top five in any event. After finishing 13th in the standings in 2008, Ragan has finished 27th and 24th respectively.

    This year, he could turn that around. While it is unlikely that he will have quite the year that he had three seasons ago, with the improvements that Roush Racing showed at the end of 2010, the potential is there for Ragan to at least improve on his last two points finishes.

3. Paul Menard

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    How will the move to Richard Childress Racing impact Paul Menard?

    Moving to RCR will pay huge dividends to the career of Paul Menard. Last year was his best year in four years on the circuit. He scored six top-10's. That marked the first time in his career that he had multiple top-10 finishes.

    That number should increase yet again at RCR. He goes to a team that last year put all three of its cars into the chase and had five wins as a team.

    Menard is my pick for breakthrough driver of the year. While he may not score his first career win, he is automatically better just by being aligned with RCR.

4. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Can Martin Truex Jr. ever contend for a Chase spot again?

    Talent-wise, Truex should be light years ahead of where he is in his career.

    In five full seasons in Sprint Cup competition, Truex has recorded just one win. That is also the same number of times he has qualified for the Chase.

    Last year was just another mediocre year for Truex. He had seven top-10s and finished a disappointing 22nd in the standings. There were some races where he had cars capable of contending, but bad luck would strike.

    Truex has never had the consistency needed to be a real contender. This year should be no different. While there will no doubt be a few races where Truex is one of the drivers to beat, there will also be just as many races where he can't get out of the 20s.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever be the dominant driver everyone expected him to be?

    The simple answer here is no.

    If Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't become one of the greats in the sport by this point, he definitely never will. For a career that started off with so much promise, it has turned into nothing more than a bunch of question marks.

    Since joining Hendrick Motorsports three seasons ago, Earnhardt has scored just one victory and only amassed 29 top-10 finishes. When news first broke that he was joining the premier organization, expectations skyrocketed to unprecedented heights.

    Unfortunately, the expectations were too much for him to take, and the results have certainly shown that. This year will see some slight improvement for the sport's most popular driver. I don't foresee him qualifying for the Chase, but at long last, his two-and-a-half-year-long losing streak will come to an end.

    Earnhardt Jr. will score at least one victory in 2011.

6. Kasey Kahne

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    How much will the 2011 season mean to Kasey Kahne?

    Not much.

    While I am in no way insinuating that Kahne will not give any effort, he does know where he will be racing in 2012 and beyond, and he knows that greener pastures are lying ahead.

    As a racer, you have to assume that Kahne wants to win and prove that he is one of the best, but I really believe it will be hard for him to get up for every race knowing that Red Bull Racing is just a quick pit stop towards the ultimate ride.

    Kahne failed to score a win in 2010, and I see that trend continuing for this season as well. Don't expect much change in Kahne's performance from last year to this year.

7. AJ Allmendinger

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    How will AJ Allmendinger fare as the face of Petty Motorsports?

    AJ Allmendinger had his best season in Sprint Cup competition in 2010. He finished a personal best 19th in the standings after setting new career highs in top fives and top 10s.

    He also won his first career pole and led 181 laps over the course of the year. Pretty impressive for a driver that had led a total of 10 laps in three previous seasons combined.

    With the departures of both Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler, Allmendinger becomes the face of the franchise. Petty Motorsports has scaled down a from four-car operation to a two-car team.  Along with new teammate, Marcos Ambrose, he is looking to revive a franchise that was on life support towards the end of last year.

    Unfortunately, there are just too many obstacles in the way for Allmendinger to overcome. Until Petty Motorsports can get straightened out, Allmendinger will be hard-pressed to see a whole lot of improvement.

8. David Reutimann

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    Is David Reutimann the real deal?

    Honestly, the answer to this question really depends on what your definition of "the real deal" is. In my opinion, yes. He is the real deal.

    David Reutimann is a driver that has shown significant improvement over the course of his career. When he broke into the series in 2007, he almost had that "deer in the headlights" look to him. Now, he is a driver whose confidence seems to grow by the year.

    In 2009, Reutimann scored his first career win, in a rain-shortened Coca Cola 600. Many people shrugged it off, claiming he didn't earn it, and that he lucked into the win. Then last year, at Chicago, Reutimann was able to silence the critics when he went out and won the race without the aid of Mother Nature.

    Reutimann has been very consistent over the last couple of years. His top-10 totals have been nearly identical the last two seasons, and he has finished 16th and 18th in the standings.

    While he may not be a championship-contending driver, Reutimann is certainly more than capable of running with those that are.

9. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    Will Juan Montoya finally win a race on an oval track?

    This question has been asked of Montoya for years. And every year, we seem to think that it could be the year that he finally wins a race on an oval.

    Well, I am here to tell you, with 100 percent confidence, that this is definitely the year that it happens. Simply put, Montoya is long overdue to get one. He has two career wins, but both of those have come on the road courses, one each at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

    This year will be different. While I am being brave to say he will win on an oval, I won't guess at which one it will be. I will just say that it seems like Indianapolis owes him a good finish after the last two seasons.

10. Joey Logano

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    Is this the year that Joey Logano becomes a superstar?

    Not yet.

    Logano is still another year away from really breaking out into a full-blown superstar. While this year will continue to see his development, the big breakthrough that everyone is waiting to see will have to wait until 2012.

    The thing to remember about Logano is that, while he is entering his third full-time season in the series, he is still just 20 years old and has a long time left in the sport.

    Last year, he more than doubled his top-five and top-10 output from his rookie season. He also saw his points standings finish improve from 20th to 16th. While I can see him matching his output from last year, contending for a spot in the Chase will have to wait one more year.

11. Ryan Newman

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    Is Ryan Newman one of the top drivers in the sport or not?

    Ryan Newman has been one of the hardest drivers to figure out for years now. In 2003, his second full-time season in Sprint Cup, Newman led all drivers with eight wins. He also scored 11 poles that season.

    While he continues to solidly win poles on a yearly basis, the wins have been much harder to come by. In the seven seasons since 2003, Newman has scored a total of five wins. Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, Newman has qualified for it just three out of seven times.

    While people constantly want to put him in the upper echelon of drivers, it is becoming harder and harder to do so. He is another one of those drivers that is just plagued by inconsistency. One week he can be a top-five driver, and the next, he just can't seem to get out of his own way.

12. Jamie McMurray

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    How will Jamie McMurray follow up his dream 2010 season?

    Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive series championship. Kevin Harvick had an amazing comeback season. Denny Hamlin was a race away from winning his first championship.

    Those were all great stories in 2010, but the real story of the year was Jamie McMurray. A driver that had been written off by many more than silenced his critics. He went out and won the biggest race of the year: the Daytona 500. Then he followed it up by winning at both the Brickyard and at Charlotte.

    It will be nearly impossible for McMurray to top that this season. And while he won't be able to repeat the dream season he had a year ago, he will still do just fine for himself.

    I think McMurray will visit Victory Lane once again this year, but unfortunately, he also has too many poor finishes that will result in him missing the Chase once again.

13. Mark Martin

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    Which Mark Martin will show up in 2011?

    The last two seasons have been polar opposites for Mark Martin. In 2009, he won five races at 50 years old. He won a series-high seven pole positions, and for the fifth time in his career, finished runner up to the championship.

    In 2010, his performance was more like what would be expected from a 51-year-old. He finished last year with no wins, one pole position and failed to qualify for the Chase, as he finished a very disappointing 13th in the standings.

    So which Martin should we expect this year? I think it will be a combination of the two. I don't think he will win five races, but I don't think he will be shut out either. He has looked good thus far at Daytona, as he paced the field in both of the early practices and put down the eighth fastest lap in time trials.

    I expect him to qualify for the Chase in his final year driving for Rick Hendrick and wouldn't be at all surprised to see him score one or two wins in 2011.

14. Jeff Burton

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    Can Jeff Burton find his way back to victory lane in 2011?

    Many times in 2010, Jeff Burton was poised to get a win. Then, every time, something happened that took him out of contention. Whether it was a cut tire or an untimely caution, victory was always snatched from Burton's hands.

    He is currently in the midst of a two-plus year winless draught. It had to be especially hard for Burton this past year, as he watched his teammate Kevin Harvick win three races, and other teammate, Clint Bowyer, win twice.

    This year will mark his return to Victory Lane. The strength of his car in the Bud Shootout makes me feel real confident in that prediction. He is just far too talented and driving such strong equipment for him to not get another win sometime real soon.

15. Kurt Busch

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    Is his Bud Shootout win a sign of big things to come for Kurt Busch in 2011?

    I don't think it is.

    It was nice to see Busch in Victory Lane at Daytona, a place he has come close to so many times before, but I think Busch is going to have a letdown year.

    He finished 2010 on a real cold streak. After qualifying for the Chase, Busch only scored two top-10 finishes during the fight for the championship. He was able to score two wins last year plus the win in the All-Star race.

    I don't see Busch matching his two wins from a season ago. I think—it's just a hunch—that one win is the most he can achieve this season.

16. Clint Bowyer

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    Is Clint Bowyer a serious championship contender?

    Yes, he is.

    Points-wise, Bowyer had an average season by his standards. He finished 10th in the final standings, but that was due in large part to a penalty that he incurred after his win at the Chase opening race in New Hampshire.

    Across the board, Bowyer actually had his best statistical season. He scored multiple wins for the first time in his Sprint Cup career, and his top-five and top-10 totals either set or tied his personal bests.

    On the whole, Richard Childress Racing found vast improvement in 2010 as compared to 2009, and Bowyer was able to reap the benefits.

    And, let's not forget that Bowyer has been in serious contention for the championship before. In 2007, he finished third in the standings, and the following year, he proved it was no fluke by finishing fifth.

    Expect another very good year out of Bowyer in 2011.

17. Jeff Gordon

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    Will the old Jeff Gordon ever be back?

    Remember a time not too long ago when Jeff Gordon was winning countless races each season and always in contention for the championship trophy?

    It wasn't really all that long ago, but sometimes it feels like decades ago.

    Well, get ready to relive those feelings again. Gordon is poised to have a really big season. Although he has won just once in the last three seasons, I think all that changes this year, starting in Daytona.

    Gordon has been paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson for the 2011 campaign, and I think that duo has some real potential to click and win a lot of races together. Last year, Gordon came close to winning on numerous occasions, and this year, I think he will not only put himself in position to win, but will actually get the job done.

18. Kyle Busch

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    Is this the year Kyle Busch makes a serious run at the championship?

    Here is a stat that really surprised me:

    For as dominant a driver as Kyle Busch is, and for all the winning he does, his best points finish in six full-time seasons in Sprint Cup competition is only fifth. That came back in 2007, a season that saw him win just one race.

    Since then, he has won 15 times over the last three years, but his points finishes are just 10th, 13th and eighth. For a guy that does so much winning, you would think that contending for the championship would be a certainty.

    Well, this year, it will be.

    He is just far too talented to not be in the mix at Homestead. More than anything, bad luck has plagued Busch once the Chase rolls around. This year, lady luck will be on his side. At least, more than usual anyway.

    I don't expect Busch to win the title this year, but I do expect him to have a career-best finish in the standings.

19. Tony Stewart

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    Can Tony Stewart win a championship as an owner/driver?

    Tony Stewart can absolutely not win a championship while being an owner/driver. He just has way too much on his plate in that role. While he is doing a phenomenal job as a team owner, it is starting to take its toll on his on-track performance.

    Stewart won two races in 2010. In fact, he has won at least one race in every year of his Sprint Cup career, which started in 1999. However, for the first time over that stretch, he failed to record a double-digit amount of top-five finishes.

    Add to that the fact that his top-10 total was the second-lowest of his career, and the facts just seem to add up that at this point, winning a third championship will be nearly impossible for Smoke.

20. Greg Biffle

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    What is a realistic expectation for Greg Biffle?

    Greg Biffle may be the most underrated driver in NASCAR. He always seems to be flying underneath everyone's radar.

    Yet year in and year out, he always delivers the same thing: consistency.

    The last three years, Biffle has averaged between one and two wins. He averages 17 top-10s and 10 top-fives per season. And somehow, people seem to forget all about him. His points finishes over that time span have been third, seventh and sixth.

    There is nothing wrong with being consistently good.

    I think 2011 will feature more of the same for Biffle. A couple of wins is not out of the question. He should have no trouble qualifying for the Chase yet again, and he will put himself in contention for the championship, all while going virtually unnoticed.

21. Matt Kenseth

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    Will Matt Kenseth ever return to championship form?

    I have been singing Matt Kenseth's praises for weeks and building him up big time, so he better not make me look like a fool.

    I have extremely high expectations and hopes for Kenseth going in to 2011. I think he will make a serious run at the championship this year.

    As a team, Roush Racing improved so much in the second half of last year. Until Greg Biffle won at Pocono, the team had gone 56-straight races without a win. Then, between Biffle and Carl Edwards, they won four races in the final 15 events.

    While Kenseth failed to win, he started to show signs of life at the end of the year. He put himself in contention numerous times down the stretch and had some momentum to build on going forward. Kenseth has always been consistent; he just needs to turn that consistency into some wins, and he could be a real threat.

    I expect his personal winless draught to come to an end very early in the season, and I have said it numerous times before, but he is my pick to win the Sprint Cup championship in 2011.

22. Carl Edwards

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    Will Carl Edwards' late season success last year carry over to this year?

    I think it will.

    Edwards finished the season by winning the last two races of the year and turned that into a fourth-place finish in the championship standings. While it took nearly all season to win, Edwards had plenty of good runs throughout the year.

    Edwards had a stretch over the summer where he was absolutely red hot. From Daytona in early July through Kansas in early October, a span of 12 races, Edwards scored 10 top-10s. His worst finish over that period was a 12th place run.

    As mentioned, the whole Roush organization really started to click midway through the year, and that should continue on through the new season. Edwards is no stranger to winning races in bunches. No one can forget his great 2008 season when he rattled off nine wins.

    Don't expect him to win quite that many this year, but anything less than three would have to be considered a disappointment after the way he ended his 2010 campaign.

23. Kevin Harvick

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    Will Kevin Harvick's 2011 season look anything like his 2010 season did?

    There is no chance of it.

    Kevin Harvick had such a strong season in 2010 that it will be impossible for him to repeat those same successes. Harvick had 26 top-10 finishes, which were three more than any other driver. He also had an average finish of 8.7, which was over three-full positions higher than anyone else.

    Harvick won three times a season ago and was the runaway point leader for much of the regular season. When the Chase started, Harvick maintained his strong season. Though he only finished third in the final standings, he was still alive for the championship throughout the entire race at Homestead.

    Had the points been decided using the traditional method, Harvick would have been the winner by 285 points over Johnson.

    There is no reason to think that Harvick won't have another productive year—most-likely finding Victory Lane at least one time—but it would be ridiculous to think he can come close to matching his 2010 output.

24. Denny Hamlin

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    Will last year's runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson affect Denny Hamlin going forward?

    Denny Hamlin came as close as anyone has to dethroning the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

    He took the points lead into the final race at Homestead, but after spinning out early in the event, he could never recover and had to settle for runner-up to the title.

    Will any of that disappointment carry over to the start of this season for Hamlin? Sadly, I think it will.

    Hamlin is a very emotional driver who is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. He was clearly devastated at not winning last year, and I think that will cause him to overdrive a little bit to start the season.

    I think, eventually, Hamlin will right the ship but don't expect him to come anywhere close to matching his eight wins from a season ago. I expect the season to start slow for Hamlin, but he will rally to make the Chase again this year. Just don't look for him to be much of a factor when it starts.

25. Jimmie Johnson

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    Can Jimmie Johnson make it six championships in a row?

    At this point, you would be foolish to bet against him.

    No one thought he could win three in a row, but he did it. Four in a row was considered impossible, but Johnson pulled it off. Last year, there was absolutely no chance he could make it five in a row, and what do you know—he did it again.

    Can Jimmie Johnson make it six championships in a row? Absolutely he can.

    The real question is, will he make it six championships in a row? That answer, is no.

    Sheer logic says that it has to end sometime. For most of the year last year, you could tell that the rest of the garage had caught up to Johnson and the No. 48 team.

    In fact, for the first time in his championship run, Johnson actually trailed in the standings going into the season finale. Yet, there he was again, holding the championship trophy when it was all said and done.

    It can't go on forever, though. With the competition having finally caught up, it is time for someone else to win it all. There is no doubt that Johnson is fully capable of winning his unprecedented championship in a row, but for the sake of the non-Johnson fans out there, let's just hope he doesn't.

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