The approaching start of the 2011 Sprint Cup season brings with it both expectations and hope. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and his Lowes race team are expected to make The Chase and battle for a sixth consecutive title. In fact any team that made the top twelve in 2010 probably expects to return there this year. Could 2011 be the year we see some dark horse candidates for the Sprint Cup break into this exclusive group? The two most likely drivers to do this have to be Dale Earnhardt jr. and Jamie McMurray, but there are others as well.
It might be hard to consider Jamie McMurray a dark horse after the year he and his Bass Pro Shops team had in 2010. They finished just outside the top twelve in fourteenth place and won the two biggest races of the year, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard. The only thing the team seemed to lack was experience and consistency in 2010. They now have the experience of the previous year and an owner who knows how to win championships, Chip Gnassi. This team doesn’t need much to improve over last year. A little better luck for them and some misfortune for one or more of the favorites to make The Chase, and we may very well see Jamie McMurray contending for his first Sprint Cup title.
Dale Earnhardt jr. would have trouble having a worst year than 2010. He drives for the same car owner, Rick Hendrick, who put two cars in The Chase and had the overall winner in Jimmie Johnson. Yet he was winless, had only one pole, and finished a very disappointing 21st in points. He did manage to finsh more than 99% of his laps, but was hardly ever a factor in a race all year. The National Guard/Amp Energy Drink Chevrolet was rarely the victim of mechanical failure or crashes, rather they just didn’t perform. The 2011 season brings Dale jr. a new crew chief in Steve LeTarte, formerly of the Jeff Gordon Dupont race team. In fact the whole team has been swapped by Rick Hendrick in an off season move to try and change the fortunes of this team. Dale jr. has the talent, he has the equipment, and now it looks like he has the crew needed to compete not only for wins,but a championship. The real question might be does he have the desire to do what needs to be done. If he can find a way to regain his confidence and be competitive early, it just may be enough to propel him into The Chase.
A young driver who just may be ready to start contending for a Sprint Cup championship is Joey Logano. He finished the 2010 season 16th in points, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the organization that also put two cars in The Chase. He and his Home Depot team have a championship winning crew chief in Greg Zipadelli, who won the Sprint Cup with Tony Stewart. His talent has been talked about ever since Mark Martin noticed him in quarter midget racing as a child. He arrived in Sprint Cup one year earlier than planned and has now gained the on,ly thing holding him back, experience. He could be ready for a real break out year, and possibly give Joe Gibbs three cars in The Chase.
As a two time winning Nationwide Champion, Martin Truex jr., is no stranger to what it takes to win. He and his Michael Waltrip Racing team, sponsored by Napa, showed signs at the end of the 2010 season that they could run up front. His team is backed by Toyota who would like nothing better than to win a Sprint Cup championship. This team was plagued by bad luck all last season. Crashes, flat tires, and part failures always seemed to strike as they were running up front or even leading. Toyota will surely improve the reliability of the cars, all they may need this year is a little better luck.
The feel good story of the 2011 Sprint Cup season would be a good year for Brian Vickers. The Red Bull driver lost his 2010 year to blood clots. His health kept him out of the car for most of the year. He returns in 2011 with a strong desire and a new teammate in Kasey Kahne. He is certain to be out to make the most of every moment he spends in the car after having what he loves taken away from him last year. He and his team should also benefit from having a driver like Kahne to bounce ideas off of. Whether any of this will be enough to put him in contention for The Chase we don’t know. It would certainly be a nice story if it happened.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup could certainly use some new faces in 2011. Could that be any of the drivers mentioned here? Possibly, or maybe someone none of us would expect. We do know that when the green flag flies on this year’s Daytona 500 there will be forty three teams all tied for first. We also know the winner of the race may not be a contender come the end of the year. The 2011 Sprint Cup champion will need a good team, consistency, and good luck. Right now that could be just about any of thirty teams.