Daytona 500: NASCAR's 10 Non-Chase Drivers From 2010 Who Could Make it In 2011
All things considered, Trevor Bayne is probably making the right choice to run for the Nationwide Championship instead of switching to the Sprint Cup pursuit. But it's fun to wonder what the season holds for this young man who performed flawlessly at the Daytona 500. We'll just have to wait and see.
Who among the drivers who finished outside the Chase in 2010 could end up contending for the Sprint Cup Championship? Here, in no particular order, are 10 drivers who might have something to say about winning the Cup when the season ends in November.
10. Bobby Labonte
Bobby Labonte already has one Sprint Cup Championship under his belt, so he knows what it takes to win the ultimate prize. The biggest problem he's had in the past several years is having a ride that can legitimately compete week to week. In his first year with his new owner, JTG Daughterty racing, Labonte has equipment that is miles ahead of what he has driven over the past couple of years.
Labonte ran strongly all day in the Daytona 500 and took home a fourth place finish for his efforts, which was his best finish in quite a while. Daytona can't be used as a reliable measuring stick for the rest of the season, but a strong run shows the equipment appears to be strong.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
There are few who would argue that Juan Pablo Montoya knows how to drive a race car. Although his two wins have come on road courses, he has shown he knows how to get around an oval course as well. A minor mistake took away an almost-certain win in the 2009 Brickyard 400.
The Earnhardt Ganassi equipment Montoya pilots each week appears to be up to the challenge of contending for a championship, even with Jamie McMurray's engine failure at the Daytona 500. That was more a result of racing conditions than a weakness in the power plant.
If Montoya can put together a consistent performance, along with a win or two, look for him to make a real run at the Sprint Cup finals.
8. Mark Martin
2011 may be the last chance Mark Martin has to claim a championship at NASCAR's highest level.
Working with new crew chief, Lance McGrew, Martin is confident he will find his way back to victory lane in 2011. Even though he missed the Chase in 2010, he was in the running right up until Richmond.
If desire is all it takes, Martin has it made in the shade. There is no driver in the garage area with more desire to be successful. Even though McGrew didn't have great results with Dale Earnhardt Jr., he does have talent as a crew chief; maybe his personality and Martin's will prove to be a winning combination.
If anyone doubts Martin's ability to dig deep, all they have to do is play back Sunday's Daytona 500.
After being caught up in "The Big One," Martin took a damaged car and not only finished on the lead lap (after picking up a Lucky Dog Pass), he ran at the front of the pack, both pushing and being pushed. His refusal to give up rewarded Hendrick Motor Sports with a team-high 10th place finish.
7. A.J. Allmendinger
One of A.J. Allmendinger's best attributes is his ability to stay focused, even in the face of uncertainty.
The turmoil at Richard Petty Motorsports in 2010 has been well-documented. Yet Allmendinger stayed focused and performed pretty well at the end of the season. In the final 10 races of last year, A.J. finished outside the top 20 only twice, picked up three top 10's and one top five.
Now that things have settled down for the Petty organization, Allmendinger has a very good chance to build on his success from the end of 2010. Look for him to at least be gunning for a couple of wins to get one of the wild card positions in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a legion of fans sending up prayers that his fortunes change in 2011. Working with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Junior needs to find the right chemistry to justify the major changes owner Rick Hendrick instituted.
Throughout Speedweeks, there was a visible change in Junior's demeanor when he appeared on television or was interviewed. It looked like some of his previous confidence was starting to make an appearance. Even the conversations on the radio in the Daytona 500 sounded different with Junior voicing satisfaction over his equipment. That has been missing for at least the past two years.
Earnhardt Jr. knows how to drive a race car, and he knows how to win races. You don't get into victory lane 18 times by accident. Is this the year the No. 88 gets back to victory lane? If Sunday's performance is any indication, there's a pretty good chance of that happening.
5. Ryan Newman
The only hardware Ryan Newman has taken home from Daytona since winning the Great American Race in 2008 is wrecked race cars. After leading the most laps (39) on Sunday, Newman got caught up in someone else's mess, and his hopes for a second win evaporated.
No stranger to the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Newman has fallen victim to inconsistent finishes several times over the past three or four years, keeping him out of the top 12. If he is able to avoid poor pit stops, multiple DNF's and other issues, look for Ryan to finally make a real run at the Sprint Cup.
4. Brian Vickers
A blood clot not only almost ended Brian Vickers' career, the condition also almost took his life.
After corrective heart surgery last year and medical treatment for the blood clotting issue, Vickers received a clean bill of health to get back behind the wheel. Being out of a race car for an extended period of time gave Vickers a strong determination to be successful in 2011.
Vickers made the Chase in 2009, so the team knows what is required to get there. With a new teammate in Kasey Kahne, there is a better chance the two teams can work together to find winning setups. Kahne brings experience and knowledge that was lacking in Scott Speed, Vickers' old running mate.
3. Kasey Kahne
Making the decision to move to a new race team early in 2010, Kasey Kahne ended up signing a contract with Hendrick Motor Sports. But a seat in a Hendrick car doesn't open up until next year, so Kahne is spending a year with Red Bull Racing.
Kahne is adamant that he doesn't see this as a year to mark time until he climbs into the HMS No. 5. With every intention to race for wins and possibly contend for a championship, Kahne plans to go all out in 2011.
2. David Reutimann
"The Franchise" is David Reutimann's nickname at Michael Waltrip Racing, and if he could make it into the Chase for 2011, he would cement that moniker for the rest of his career.
Consistency is the key for this quiet performer. If MWR can deliver quality equipment, and Reutimann performs up to his potential, there's a real chance this team will be sitting at the awards banquet in Las Vegas at the end of the year.
Reutimann has two wins at the Sprint Cup level and knows how to get around the track. In the fourth year of their existence, perhaps the MWR crew can take the gains in experience and put it to their advantage.
1. Jamie McMurray
In 2010, the hottest driver not in the Chase had to be Jamie McMurray.
After winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Bank of America 500 (at Charlotte), it was almost a crime McMurray was not in the Chase. The good news is, if he can find his way to victory lane three times in 2011, there's a good chance he would make the Chase under the new rules.
Although he suffered an engine failure in the the Daytona 500, Jamie indicated he was ready to pick up with a performance similar to last year. If McMurray is able to use last year's lessons to build on, look for him to be a front runner as the season winds down to the finale at Homestead in November.