NASCAR Trends: Which Sprint Cup Drivers' Title Hopes Are Looking Strong in 2011?

Luke KrmpotichContributor IIMarch 17, 2011

NASCAR Trends: Which Sprint Cup Drivers' Title Hopes Are Looking Strong in 2011?

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    The 2011 Sprint Cup season is only a few races old, but already some teams have set themselves apart from the pack with strong performances.

    Other championship hopefuls have run into bad luck and find themselves far back in the points.

    Which drivers have hit the ground running, and which have struggled out of the gate?

    Read on to find out if your favorite driver's title hopes are trending up or down.

Stock Up: Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards has been the hottest driver on the Sprint Cup circuit since winning the final two races of 2010.

    Arguably, he could easily have won the first three races of 2011.

    Edwards finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500, narrowly losing the race to Trevor Bayne.

    At Phoenix, he had the car to beat until he was wrecked by Kyle Busch.

    Edwards finally collected his first win of 2011 at Las Vegas. With three dominating performances in the season's first three races, Carl Edwards is the hottest driver in NASCAR.

Stock Down: Jamie McMurray

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    Jamie McMurray—the 2010 Daytona 500 winner—has experienced a very different start to his 2011 campaign.

    With just one top-20 finish so far, he sits all the way back in 28th place in the standings. McMurray was plagued by inconsistency last year and missed the Chase despite three victories.

    He can ill afford this rough start to the season, and must turn things around quickly to have any chance of making the Chase.

Stock Up: Tony Stewart

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    In years past, Tony Stewart has often started slowly before heating up during the summer months.

    Not so in 2011.

    In three starts, he has led over 200 laps with one top-5 and two top-10 finishes. Stewart is currently tied with Kurt Busch for first place in the Cup standings.

    With his sizzling start to the season, "Smoke" has put the other drivers on notice that he will be a force to be reckoned with.

Stock Down: Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick has struggled to find consistency a year after leading the standings for most of the regular season.

    So far in 2011, he has finished 42nd, fourth, and 17th, with only six laps led. Those results have him currently at 20th in the standings.

    Harvick is an elite driver driving top-notch equipment, so it's not time to panic yet.

    However, Harvick missed the Chase as recently as two years ago, and he knows that with a few more bad runs he could find himself looking up a long ways in the standings.

Stock Up: Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch has been one of the strongest and most consistent drivers so far this season.

    Along with Tony Stewart, he sits atop the standings. He was fifth in the Daytona 500 and is the only Sprint Cup driver with top-tens in each of the first three races.

    In addition to his strong performance in points races, Busch won the Bud Shootout and his Gatorade Duel at Daytona.

    Busch has led 51 laps in 2011 and should be in the mix at Bristol, where he leads active drivers with five victories.

Stock Down: Jeff Burton

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    Jeff Burton has been struggling for quite a while now.

    Burton had only two top-10 finishes in the final eleven races of 2010 and has yet to score a top-10 in 2011.

    He currently sits 31st in the standings, behind the likes of Bill Elliott, Robby Gordon and David Ragan.

    Burton is fully capable of making a recovery and climbing into the 2011 Chase. But in order to do so, he'll need to put together some strong runs very soon.

Stock Up: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to his most promising start since 2008.

    He ran in the front and led laps in the Daytona 500 before being collected in a crash, and has rattled off consecutive top-tens in the two races since.

    If Earnhardt and new crew chief Steve Letarte can keep running well, their confidence level will grow, and Junior may be around to have a say in the championship picture at the end of the year.

Stock Down: Greg Biffle

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    Greg Biffle was a major part of the Roush resurgence last season, bagging two victories in the second half of the season.

    However, he has not shared in the recent success of his teammate Carl Edwards.

    With no top-tens and two finishes of 28th or worse, he has fallen to 31st in the current standings. Already 63 points behind the championship leaders, Biffle will need to put together some solid finishes in order to dig himself out of that hole.

Stock Up: Ryan Newman

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    Following a lackluster 2010 season in which he led only 63 laps and was fifteenth in the standings, Ryan Newman was in need of new life in 2011.

    So far he has found it.

    After a rough finish in the Daytona 500, Newman has consecutive top-5 finishes and has climbed to fifth in the standings. He has already led 44 laps in 2011 and appears ready to contend for the championship.

Stock Down: Joey Logano

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    Joey Logano was a popular preseason pick to challenge for a berth in the Chase and live up to his much-hyped potential.

    Instead, it's been a miserable beginning of the year for the Home Depot team.

    Logano has finished 23rd or worse in each of the first three races, and he has yet to lead a lap in any race.

    Unless Logano finds a way to improve his performance dramatically, he'll have to wait at least another year before he can make the Chase for the first time in his young career.