Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Friday, February 18, 2011

2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Preview

In honor of the Chase, 12 questions as we gear up for Sunday's running of the Daytona 500 ...

1) What's with the new nose?
The nose of the Sprint Cup car has a different look this season; the front splitter has been filled in and the braces have been removed. The braces, on top of being an eyesore, proved problematic when the front of the car was damaged. The new nose is much stronger, as we've seen whenever cars spun through the grass, and it looks much better. This is part of the continuing evolution of the car -- the wing was replaced by the rear spoiler last season -- and it's come about, in part, because of the new-generation Nationwide Series car. NASCAR wants to bring brand identity back to the Cup Series by 2013, and the new nose is part of that process.

2) Okay, lots of new rides out there. Who's who now?
Part of the new NASCAR season is figuring out where certain drivers or sponsors have gone, and 2011 is no different. Kevin Harvick is still driving the No. 29 for Richard Childress Racing, but he's now sponsored by Budweiser (and honestly, the black paint scheme unnerves me); likewise for Jeff Gordon, who's No. 24 Impala is now sponsored, in large part, by the AARP's Drive To End Hunger program. Kurt Busch is now driving the No. 22 Penske Dodge, sponsored by Shell/Pennzoil, meaning Brad Keselowski, the 2010 Nationwide Series champion, is now driving the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Marcos Ambrose is now driving the No. 9 Stanley Tools/DeWalt Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, while Bobby Labonte is now piloting the No. 47 Toyota. Need a flow chart?

3) What about the crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports?
To put it simply: Alan Gustafson is now Jeff Gordon's crew chief. Steve Letarte now calls the shots for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Lance McGrew has been paired with Mark Martin. Junior and Jimmie Johnson now share a race shop, with Gordon and Martin sharing the other. Though Johnson won his fifth straight title last season, he wasn't as strong as he'd been in years past, and none of the other Hendrick teams found Victory Lane (and Martin and Junior both missed the Chase). Rick Hendrick's never been afraid to mix things up, and time will tell whether these changes work. A lot of people expect Gustafson, believed to be the smartest crew chief not named Chad Knaus, to be great for Gordon, while some feel Letarte's upbeat attitude will help Junior. I'm reserving judgement.

4) If Junior still struggles, will we have to face the fact that he's the issue?
Yes; I love Junior. I know he has talent, because you don't win 18 Cup races and two Nationwide Series championships if you don't. But because of his name, that's not good enough. It's a fact that Junior's had a rough go of it on the track since 2005, and he floundered at Hendrick, both with Tony Eury Jr. and McGrew. If his partnership with Letarte -- who was vilified toward the end of his tenure with Gordon -- doesn't work, we may have to just face the reality that Junior's the issue. Maybe the pairing with Hendrick is a bad fit, maybe Junior's not the driver he used to be. But if this season's a bust, I don't think we can blame the crew chief anymore.

5) So, new points system, huh?
Apparently; NASCAR re-vamped the points system for its three national touring series starting this season. The winner will receive 43 points, while second place will get 42 points, decreasing in one-point increments all the way down to one point for 43rd. Winners will receive a three-point bonus, and drivers will get one bonus point for leading a lap and one bonus point for leading the most laps. If a driver wins the race and leads the most laps, he gets 48 points (oh, the conspiracy theories that invites ...). Not so sure NASCAR needed to do this, but it is simpler, and it will place an emphasis on winning (read my in-depth analysis here). The 11th and 12th Chase spots will also to drivers outside the Top 10 in points, but in the Top 20, with the most wins.

6) So, it's the Jamie McMurray Rule?
More or less. Or the Kyle Busch Rule, if you go back to 2009 -- when Busch won four races but missed the Chase. Imagine if we go to Richmond for the Chase cutoff and there are three drivers outside the top 10 who have a shot to win their way into the Chase. Say what you want about the Chase, but I love this "wild card" idea -- just another way NASCAR is trying to emphasize winning without ignoring consistency. It's a difficult balance to achieve, and I don't envy the NASCAR brass in the slightest for trying to get there.

7) Carl Edwards had a strong end to 2010; can he be a threat this year?
He can, but I won't say he will. We thought the same thing after he won nine races in 2008 ... and Edwards went winless until the next-to-last race of last season. It can be hard to tell who's strong from year to year, which is part of what makes Johnson's five-year title run so impressive. Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team are certainly capable; Edwards is a talented driver, and it appears the Ford teams have the new engine figured out, so it's possible. I'm just not comfortable saying it will; and frankly, I think Edwards' insistence on running the full Nationwide Series schedule, even though he can't win the championship, will detract from his Cup effort.

8) Poor Denny Hamlin ... can he bounce back this year?
This can go either way; Hamlin and the No. 11 team can use last year's collapse as motivation to come out stronger in 2011 -- though it's hard to imagine the team being stronger than when it won eight races last year -- or the team can slump this season, still trying to pick up the pieces. To be frank, Hamiln gave away the title last year, both with his fuel gamble at Phoenix and his early-race contact at Homestead. Hamiln lost last year's title as much as Johnson won it, and how Hamlin performs this season will say a lot about his mental makeup. He could come out and dominate, or he could limp around and struggle to find consistency. It can really go either way.

9) Who's your Chase darkhorse?
I'm tempted to say Brad Keselowski, but that's just the fan in me talking. I'm gonna go with Joey Logano; this will be his third full-time season in the Cup Series, and a lot of experts will tell you that third year in when things really start to come together for a driver. He's obviously got really good cars at Joe Gibbs Racing, and Greg Zipadelli is still regarded as one of the best crew chiefs in the garage. He also had a strong end to 2010. His finishes to close out last season: 7th at Charlotte, 6th at Martinsville, 5th at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 3rd at Phoenix and 39th at Homestead (accident with Juan Pablo Montoya). Watch out for Sliced Bread this year.

10) What's up with Richard Petty Motorsports?
The team's finally got its finances in order, and Richard Petty is now more than just a figurehead. They contracted from four teams to two: the No. 9 or Marcos Ambrose and the No. 43 of A.J. Allmendinger. Both teams are fully funded for the season, and 2011 could be a case of "less is more." Allmendinger showed flashes of brilliance last season when the team was in flux every week, and Ambrose is a threat on the road courses. RPM still won't be the best Ford operation in the Cup garage, but now that the team's financial problems have been resolved, don't be surprised if this team makes a little noise in 2011.

11) Can Jeff Gordon win his fifth straight title?
I say he can, and only because of new crew chief Alan Gustafson. Gordon had fast cars last season, but bad luck and questionable calls from Steve Letarte kept the four-time Cup Series champion out of Victory Lane. Though he made the Chase, Gordon was again an afterthought as his protege won another championship -- No. 5, surpassing Gordon in the record books. Gustafson is one of the brightest minds in the garage, and Gordon has to be motivated by the fact that the guy he helped bring in has been kicking his tail the last few years. Will Gordon complete his Drive For Five? Probably not, but don't be shocked if he does.

12) Will Jimmie Johnson win his sixth straight championship?
I want to say no. I want to say this year's title will go to someone like Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick or Jeff Gordon or Carl Edwards. But let's face it; Johnson and the No. 48 team have won the last five championships for a reason, and it'll take a Herculean effort to stop them. Johnson wasn't even at his best last season, and he still won the title. At this point, Johnson's the preseason favorite by default. I'm picking Johnson until someone beats him, so until further notice, Jimmie Johnson is the favorite to win the 2011 championship -- as much as you guys might hate it.

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