There should be a notice before every prediction article on this site that notes that predictions are just that not an accurate pick for who will win every weekend.
After all, who could have predicted that a 20-year-old Nationwide Series regular in his second career Sprint Cup race named Trevor Bayne would win the Daytona 500? Who could have predicted that Jeff Gordon would win at Phoenix to break a lengthy winless drought? Who could have predicted that last weekend's race at Auto Club Speedway would feature a dull 245 laps and a thrilling final five laps?
With this in mind, here's a look at one writer's predictions of who will visit Victory Lane throughout the duration of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
For this slideshow, I will also present my picks from January from an article that can be found here.
Some of these picks have changed from the previous article and some have not—I'll outline those changes throughout the article.
Then: "In what may be another uninspired pick, Hamlin will win this event for the second consecutive season—his third straight victory at Martinsville Speedway. At this point, expect Hamlin to pull away from the pack like Kevin Harvick did last season in the points standings, maintaining the top spot until the Chase begins."
Now: I'm still picking Hamlin to win this weekend, as a victory would be a much-needed one for the No. 11 Toyota. Currently 21st in the Sprint Cup points standings, Hamlin already needs a great run in order to stay in Chase contention via consistency, not race wins.
Then: "A red-hot Denny Hamlin will win his second consecutive race of 2011 and his third straight at the Great American Speedway, continuing an impressive start."
Now: While Hamlin will certainly be in contention throughout the Saturday night race, I'll go with the dark horse pick and take Ryan Newman. The No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing team has quietly moved into second place in points and has four straight top-10 finishes. "Flyin' Ryan" also won at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2003.
Then: "Junior Nation (and NASCAR executives) gets to rejoice, as Earnhardt Jr. will finally break his long drought and win a points race for the first time since June 2008. The No. 88 Chevy will thread the needle on an impressive Trevor Bayne in the No. 21 Ford in a last-lap pass, returning "Little E" to the top 10 in the points standings."
Now: I'll stick with Junior as my pick to finally break through into Victory Lane once again. It's still unknown whether Bayne, the Daytona 500 champion, will run this event.
Then: "Brian Vickers will continue the feel-good story of 2011, winning his first race since August 2009 by pulling off a slight upset at Richmond International Raceway. While Vickers will fail to make the Chase, he will likely finish in the top 15 in the Sprint Cup points standings."
Now: In what may appear to be the second upset of the Sprint Cup slate, Paul Menard will continue his consistent start to the season by winning his first career race at NASCAR's top level. While the driver of the No. 27 Chevy has never finished in the top 15 at Richmond, he's bucked a lot of his career trends this season.
Then: "Another lengthy winless streak will end in 2011, as Jeff Gordon will finally break his drought and win the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It will mark his third win at the event (formerly known as the spring 400-mile race at the "Lady in Black," despite the heritage indicated with the title), and it won't be his only win in 2011."
Now: Even though Gordon has ended his winless streak by claiming a victory at Phoenix in February, I still pick him to win his second race of the season.
Then: "Concrete will be kind to Kyle Busch in 2011, as he wins another race at the 'Monster Mile' in a dominating performance. It will mark his second straight win in the event formerly known as the Autism Speaks 400 and his second win of 2011."
Now: Considering Busch's win at Bristol earlier this month, I'll stick with this pick.
Then: "For the second straight season, Martin Truex Jr. will win the Sprint Showdown, with A.J. Allmendinger advancing via his second-place finish. If the Sprint Fan Vote returns for this season, expect Kasey Kahne to run away with the vote. As for the All-Star Race, I'll pick Jeff Gordon—after a surge of momentum provided by his Darlington win—to win the event for an unprecedented fourth time."
Now: Looking back, even though both Truex Jr. and Allmendinger have run well this season, I'll take Allmendinger for the Showdown win over the driver of the No. 56 Toyota. As for the Race, I'll stick with Gordon to continue his hot start in 2011.
Then: "After going winless for what seems like an eternity for every other driver, Jimmie Johnson returns to Victory Lane at a very familiar track. The No. 48 Chevy dominates like it did in 2004, lapping the field at one point in the race."
Now: While I doubt that Johnson will lap the field at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I still think he'll win once again at the 1.5-mile oval, beginning what could be an impressive summer run.
Then: "The inaugural second race at Kansas Speedway will bring the return of the No. 43 to Victory Lane, as A.J. Allmendinger finally earns his first career win for Richard Petty Motorsports. In three career starts at the track, Allmendinger has two top-10 finishes. While the Champ Car veteran may not make the Chase this season, he will emerge as a serious contender to win another race or two in 2011."
Now: Martin Truex Jr. has been on the verge of returning to Victory Lane for quite some time and he could do it at Kansas. Despite no top-10 finishes at the track, I expect Truex Jr. to be in the top 10 in points entering this race and a contender to win with the No. 56 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Then: "Carl Edwards' return to Sprint Cup prominence continues with a win at Michigan International Speedway, his first at the track since 2008. The win solidifies Edwards into the top five in the Sprint Cup points standings."
Now: Once again, I feel confident that my pick will stand. Edwards is currently leading the Sprint Cup points standings and he may linger around the top five throughout the regular season.
Then: "After an attempt to save fuel while leading in last season's race resulted in a stalled engine and a sixth-place finish, Marcos Ambrose becomes the second driver this season to win his first career race, winning at Infineon Raceway in dominant fashion driving the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports."
Now: I'll take another driver with plenty of road course experience, as Juan Pablo Montoya gets an insurance win by taking the first of two events on the schedule that require left and right turns. JPM may linger around the top 10 in points this season and a win here may be enough to lock him in the Chase if he falls out of contention.
Then: "After a surprisingly quiet first half of 2011 for Richard Childress Racing, Clint Bowyer begins to turn the tide for the organization with a win at the "World Center of Racing." It will mark the second-straight win for RCR at the event and will propel Bowyer towards a midseason charge into the Chase."
Now: As much as I want to take another upset pick after what Trevor Bayne pulled off in February, I think I'll stick with Bowyer on this one. He'll be due for a win at this point.
Then: "In the inaugural Sprint Cup race at the 1.5-mile superspeedway, the advantage will certainly go to those with experience at the track in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series levels. Perfect with three victories in three Nationwide starts, Joey Logano will score his second career Sprint Cup victory—his first not affected by rain."
Now: While I'll stick with Logano as my top pick for now, I would not be surprised to see either Hamlin or Kyle Busch, Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, reach Victory Lane in this inaugural event.
Then: "Denny Hamlin continues his stellar 2011 season with a victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his fifth win of the season. It would be a natural progression for the No. 11 Toyota, as it finished second to Clint Bowyer at the one-mile track last September."
Now: Once again, I'll keep my pick. At this point, I expect Hamlin to be near the top 10—if not the top 5—in the Sprint Cup points standings.
Then: "After two years of dominant performances cut short by pit road penalties and failed strategies, Juan Pablo Montoya finally wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a stock car. For Earnhardt Ganassi Racing co-owner Chip Ganassi, it marks his second straight Brickyard 400 title. Additionally, Ganassi sweeps both major races at the Brickyard once again, as young Americans Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball shock the racing world by finishing 1-2 at the Indianapolis 500 in Ganassi IndyCars two months prior."
Now: While I no longer think Rahal and Kimball are going to sweep at the Brickyard in May, I still believe Montoya will finally get his revenge and win the 400-miler.
Then: "As doubts begin to spread regarding the No. 48 crew's ability to win another Sprint Cup title, Jimmie Johnson brings home the defending champion's third win of the season. It is his first at the track since sweeping both races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 2004."
Now: I'll stick with the Hendrick Motorsports group at Pocono, but I'll change my pick to the man formerly known as the "Rainbow Warrior," Jeff Gordon. A win at the track would be the No. 24's first since a rain-shortened win in 2007.
Then: "For the first time since sweeping the first two races of the 2009 season, Matt Kenseth returns to Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway. To the surprise of many, the race features just one caution (a debris delay in the early stages of the 200-lap event), forcing fuel mileage to come into play. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig and the No. 17 team save fuel successfully and Kenseth passes Kurt Busch—who ran out of gas—on the final lap to secure the win."
Now: Matt Kenseth usually manages to steal a race or two every season, so I'll keep this pick for now.
Then: "Roush Fenway Racing returns to Victory Lane for the second time in six days, as Greg Biffle wins his first Sprint Cup race in 17 attempts at Bristol."
Now: Considering how I have Kyle Busch winning both races on concrete until this point and his dominance at Bristol over the past couple of seasons, I'll take the No. 18 Toyota for the season sweep at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile" yet again.
Then: "In the aptly-titled final race prior to the 10-race playoff, Kyle Busch wins his first race since his March win at Bristol, leading 297 of 400 laps at Richmond's .75-mile oval."
Now: I'll keep Kyle Busch as my pick and he'll hold the points lead heading into the Chase.
Then: "Yes, that's actually the working title for the opening race of this year's Chase. For the first time, the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway instead of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in an attempt to draw in a bigger market to view the first race of the 10-race playoff. Jeff Gordon will take the early points lead by winning his first race in Joliet since 2006, doing so in dominant fashion."
Now: I'll stay with my Gordon pick, which would be his fifth victory of the season.
Then: "Jimmie Johnson strikes fear into his fellow Chasers by leading almost every green-flag lap in the season's second race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It marks the No. 48 Chevy's second win in four races at the 'Magic Mile.' However, Jeff Gordon follows up his Chicagoland victory with a runner-up finish, suffering minimal damage to his points lead."
Now: I'll stick with Johnson on this pick, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Gordon or Hamlin win this race as well.
Then: "Chaser Carl Edwards tames the "Monster Mile" in a crash-filled event at Dover International Speedway. A big wreck late in the race takes Chasers Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the running for a Sprint Cup title."
Now: I'm once again going to change my pick for a race to Kyle Busch, as he'll sweep all four races run on concrete in 2011. As for the big wreck, I don't foresee Dale Jr. sticking around in the top 10 long enough to make the Chase and Kurt Busch may be able to keep his nose out of trouble more so than last season.
Then: "In the season's second race at Kansas Speedway, Greg Biffle wins what is now known as the fall race at the track in back-to-back seasons. Four races into the Chase, the battle for the Sprint Cup is essentially down to six drivers—Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and still-winless Kevin Harvick."
Now: While I think Biffle will tally a win at Kansas, I'm going to take him out of the final six left in Chase contention and replace him with Kyle Busch.
Then: "Charlotte Motor Speedway produces a surprise winner in the fall race at the 1.5-mile oval, as Joey Logano scores his second win of the season by taking the lead from Greg Biffle in the race's late stages. While Logano fails to make the Chase, he becomes a name to watch for the 2012 season."
Now: While I'm tempted to stay with my Logano pick, I now think Hamlin will reach Victory Lane at Charlotte for the first time. He'll need a charge in the Chase and a win at the home track for many teams could do just that.
Then: "The final restrictor-plate race of the season is marred by an early "Big One" that takes out Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin along with nearly 20 other teams. Thus, the dominant cars in the race include Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan (who will be released by Roush Fenway at the end of the season), Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin. The race fails to come anywhere near the 89 lead changes recorded last season, but Harvick finally scores his first victory of 2011 by holding off a Keselowski-led charge over the final 10 laps. Additionally, Harvick is now in the thick of the Chase hunt."
Now: While the early "Big One" seems very similar to what occurred at the Daytona 500, I think Harvick will still win at Talladega. No upset at a restrictor-plate track once again.
Then: "Winless in the season's first 31 events, Kevin Harvick wins two of the next three races by scoring his first Sprint Cup win at Texas Motor Speedway. With two races remaining, the points race is between three drivers—Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Sound familiar?"
Now: I now believe Hamlin will earn the win, his third in four races. The points race will still be between three drivers, with Kyle Busch replacing Jimmie Johnson.
Then: "For the second time in three seasons, Jimmie Johnson wins the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway. However, instead of sealing up his sixth straight Sprint Cup title, the points race is as tight as ever between himself and Denny Hamlin—who once again led the most laps in a runner-up effort."
Now: While I have Johnson fading out of the Chase fairly early, I could still see him winning this race to climb into the top five in points heading into Homestead.
Then: "In a finish only Brian France would love, Denny Hamlin makes a last-lap pass by Carl Edwards to win both the Ford 400 and his first Sprint Cup championship, avenging the 2010 title that slipped through the No. 11 team's hands."
Now: As of now, I still believe this is how the Chase will end. Despite their early struggles, the No. 11 team will rebound in the next two weeks on tracks that favor them (Martinsville and Texas). Kyle Busch seems finally primed to make the charge of his career towards the Sprint Cup title, but he may have to wait one more season.
Thoughts on these updated picks? Comment below.
Ryan Papaserge is a junior journalism/mass communication student at St. Bonaventure University and a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.