The NASCAR Cup season kicks off Sunday with the Great American Race in Daytona.
For me, it will be my third year following the sport, so being the talking head that I am, it's time to weigh in on the 2011 racing season.
The biggest question will be if Jimmie Johnson can continue his unprecedented streak by winning his sixth consecutive Cup. However, there are several other question regarding the Chase.
Along the lines of the Johnson question, can Denny Hamlin overtake Johnson's 48? Can a Richard Childress Racing (RCR) team that saw three drivers (Kevin Harvick - 29, Jeff Burton - 31, Clint Bowyer - 33) make the 2010 Chase repeat the feat or will they slip closer to 2009 when they had no drivers? Can Roush Fenway Racing take the final step into becoming an elite team? Which drivers could be the biggest sleepers? Which could be the biggest busts? And, how will the new points system affect the Chase qualifiers?
The easiest way to answer these questions is to highlight some drivers to pay attention to this season.
Checkered Flag Group - consistent finishers
Jimmie Johnson (48) - Johnson's feat of five straight championships is as hard if not harder than other sports. When you consider that one crash or DNF ("did not finish") during the Chase is probably enough to take you out of contention, that's an impressive run. Simply put, in 50 playoff races, Johnson hasn't let his foot off the gas.
Jeff Gordon (24) - Gordon hasn't won in 65 races, since taking the checkered in Texas on April 4, 2009, so I see the irony of putting him in this group. However, aside from his extended absence in Victory Lane, Gordon has been a consistent finisher and is always a shoo-in for the Chase.
Green Flag Group - racers on the rise
Denny Hamlin (11) - Ok, before you argue that Hamlin should be viewed among the elite, let me agree with you. I simply placed him here because he has never won the Chase. Last season, he nearly knocked off Johnson, and this year he should again be the 48's top competitor. He's in this group because he still has one more step to take: Champion, thus he's still on the rise.
Carl Edwards (99) - When I first started following NASCAR, Edwards was supposed to be the guy. He'd won nine races in 2008 and was expected to unseat Johnson. He didn't. In fact, he didn't even win a race and started the 2010 season without winning any of the first 34 races. However, he closed the season by winning the last two, so the expectations are again heightened for the 99 and the show horse for Roush Fenway Racing as it enters the 2011 season.
Joey Logano (20) - Logano's only won one race, a rain shortened affair in New Hampshire in 2009. But, he's also only twenty! He strung together five straight races in which he finished seventh or better near the end of last season, and he could close out the trifecta for Joe Gibbs Racing this year if he can join Hamlin and Kyle Busch (18) in this year's Chase.
Caution Flag Group - cautious optimism
Kevin Harvick (29) - After a dismal 2009 season in which no RCR driver made the Chase, Harvick led the renaissance last season. He finished with a circuit leading 26 Top 10s and closed the season with 6,581 points, a mere 41 behind winner Jimmie Johnson. But, the question: after a terrible 2009 and incredible 2010, which Harvick will we see this season? I expect somewhere in between, although he'll be better than worse.
Clint Bowyer (33) - Bowyer snuck into the last spot of the Chase in 2010. Then, he announced his arrival by visiting Victory Lane in the Chase opener in New Hampshire. The glory was short lived, officials determined his car didn't meet specifications and he was docked 150 points, which more or less eliminated his chances to win. He only finished 10th in the Chase and was 10th among Chase drivers in Top 5s on the year. He doesn't possess the consistent top finishes to win the Chase, but he definitely could show some improvement.
Jamie McMurray (1) - McMurray is a beast of famine. He tends to really only win big races (in the last two years he's won Talladega, Daytona, and the Brickyard). He's inconsistent, but NASCAR's new system reserves two Chase spots for the drivers who win the most races but don't finish in the Top 10 in points. McMurrray stands the most to gain with this new rule, last year he won three races (two before the Chase) and would have qualified under this rule in 2010.
Kyle Busch (18) - Busch took huge strides last year, not only as a racer, but as a person, which went hand-in-hand. Long viewed as a selfish driver that tries to win at all costs, Busch became a smarter driver last year. He seems to understand that he has the resources and the car to make the Chase every year, so long as he keeps it on the track.
Greg Biffle (16) - I tend to forget about Biffle more so than any other contenders. I think it's because he's not flashy, but he's also usually comfortable enough in the standings that you don't have to talk about whether he can make the Chase or not. In the last three seasons, he's finished the season third, seventh, and sixth (respectively). He's not going to be Chase favorite, but if Roush Fenway can get its team rolling, aside from Edwards, Biffle has the most to gain. I could still picture him being consistent enough to win it all, even if it's not likely.
Red Flag Group - not moving anywhere
Kurt Busch (22) - The connotation of a red flag is bad, yes, but Kurt Busch is not. However, I just don't see him climbing much higher. He finished fourth in 2009, but tailed off in last year's Chase for a disappointing eleventh. He doesn't have one of the characteristically stronger teams and it's hard to compete with the best when you don't have the same resources as the top teams.
Tony Stewart (14) - Like the 22, Stewart is not a bad driver. In fact, he's one of the best drivers on the circuit and making the Chase the past two years with a team he owns is a testament to that. Sadly though for Stewart, it's tough to see him being a top contender when he's competing with teams like Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, RCR, and Roush Fenway.
Matt Kenseth (17) - Kenseth hasn't won since he strung together back-to-backs to open the 2009 season and he tied Jeff Burton for last among Chase drivers in 2010 in Top 5s (6) and Top 10s (15). After he blew away the competition for the Cup in 2003, NASCAR instituted the Chase format and he hasn't been in sight of the winner since he finished in second, 56 points back, in 2006.
Jeff Burton (31) - I just mentioned Burton and Kenseth finished last among Chase drivers in Top 5s and Top 10s. He hasn't won a race since 2008 and hasn't finished in the Top 5 for the season standings since 2000. Last year he faded late and finished in last (twelfth) in the final Chase standings. That doesn't bode well for this season.
Juan Pablo Montoya (42) - Montoya seemed to be on his way up after making the Chase in 2009, but he fell to seventeenth last year. He always seems to lose control of races late. Last year, he started in the front row seven times, and four of them finished out of the Top 15 (in three of those, he finished 32nd or worse). He won his first Cup race last season, but it came with an asterisk since it was at the Watkins Glen road course. He's still looking for his first win on an oval. He has a fast enough car that you'd think he could do well, but you also figure that if he and his team were going to translate that into wins on Sundays, they would have started doing it by now.
Black Flag Group - not even on the the track
Mark Martin (5) - Martin had a phenomenal resurgence in 2009 when he finished in second, but remove that year and, in three of the last four, he has no wins and just 32 Top 10s in that time. With Kasey Kahne waiting to take over his car in 2012, I think 2009 was his encore performance.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) - I'm not a Junior fan, but I'm not anti-Junior either. To be honest, I just feel bad for him. He's not nearly the driver his father was and, at some point, people need to let go of the notion that "3" can live on through Junior. He's missed three of the last four Chases and has won just once in that span. He's not a bad guy, but he's not a good driver either.
Kasey Kahne (4) - Kahne's stock fell significantly last year. He went from a trendy fan favorite in the Chase in 2009 to getting let go at Richard Petty Motorsports and finishing 20th in 2010. Here's the good news: Kahne's impressed Hendrick Motorsports enough that he'll join them in Mark Martin's ride in 2012. However, in the meantime, he'll be with the smaller Red Bull Racing Team and will likely be left out of the Chase this season.
Regular Season Standings
*12. Jamie McMurray (1) - 2 wins
*11. Clint Bowyer (33) - 2 wins
10. Joey Logano (20)
9. Kurt Busch (22)
8. Kevin Harvick (29)
7. Tony Stewart (14)
6. Greg Biffle (16)
5. Kyle Busch (18)
4. Jimmie Johnson (48)
3. Carl Edwards (99)
2. Jeff Gordon (24)
1. Denny Hamlin (11)
* - spots 11, 12 determined by most regular season wins, as opposed to point total
12. Jamie McMuarry
11. Kurt Busch
10. Joey Logano
9. Clint Bowyer
8. Tony Stewart
7. Greg Biffle
6. Jeff Gordon
5. Kevin Harvick
4. Kyle Busch
3. Carl Edwards
2. Denny Hamlin
1. Jimmie Johnson