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Season Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton Highlight Long List of Drivers Looking to Stop Losing Skids in 2011
Only three active drivers – Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson – have won at least one NASCAR Cup race each season for the past nine years. For those championship-winning drivers, a losing stretch is measured in weeks, occasionally months. But never has it been measured in years.
The same can’t be said for several of their fellow competitors. A dozen or more drivers will head into the 2011 season looking to return to the winner’s circle and end stretches of futility that span anywhere from a single season to seven years. For three – Bobby Labonte, Robby Gordon and Michael Waltrip – their last trip to victory lane took place before the arrival of NASCAR’s Chase For the Sprint Cup.
Some, such as Waltrip and Gordon, will run a limited schedule in 2011, thus limiting their opportunities to reclaim their status as winners. Others will be hoping their most recent winless season wasn’t a glimpse of what’s to come.
Here’s a look at the active drivers with the series’ longest losing streaks, and their chances at ending those streaks this year:
The only driver to win Cup and Nationwide series championships, Labonte has 21 career victories, but none since 2003. That earns the 46-year-old the unfortunate distinction of holding the longest non-winning run among active drivers.
It’s unlikely that Labonte, who won twice in 2003 and finished eighth in the points standings with Joe Gibbs Racing, envisioned such a lengthy dry spell. Since departing Gibbs, he’s had four top-five finishes, and only four top-10s since the start of the 2008 season.
Labonte will be making another fresh start in 2011, taking over the driving duties of the No. 47 Toyota for JTG Daugherty Racing. Although it’s a single-car team, JTG Daugherty does have a working relationship with the two-car Michael Waltrip Racing operation.
Marcos Ambrose, who drove for JTG in 2009-10, scored five top-10 finishes last year and seven the previous year in the team’s equipment, so clearly it’s durable.
Last win: Homestead, Nov. 16, 2003
Starts since last win: 252
Best bet at winning in 2011: Atlanta, where Labonte has a career-best six victories.
With his focus on attempting to raise money to extend his racing career, Gordon is expected to compete in a limited Cup schedule in 2011.
All three of Gordon’s Cup wins (New Hampshire, Infineon and Watkins Glen) came with Richard Childress Racing between 2001-03. The 42-year-old Gordon has scored three or fewer top-10s each season and has finished no higher than 26th in points since embarking on his own in 2006.
That being said, Gordon has still been able to contend on the series’ two road courses.
Last win: Watkins Glen, Aug. 10, 2003
Starts since last win: 248
Best bet at winning in 2011: Infineon. Even with limited resources, Gordon battled his way to a runnerup finish at the road course last season.
The owner/driver made only six attempts last season, qualified for four races and fell out of two of those. With another limited schedule ahead for 2011, it would seem Waltrip’s streak of 200 wins without a victory will continue to grow.
But maybe not. Waltrip’s proven to have a knack for being competitive in restrictor-plate races, and could be a factor once again this year. All four of Waltrip’s Cup wins, including a pair of Daytona 500 victories, came at plate tracks.
Last win: Talladega, Sept. 28, 2003
Starts since last win: 200
Best bet at winning in 2011: Daytona. The 47-year-old has three victories, six top-fives and 13 top-10s on the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
MARTIN TRUEX JR.
The 30-year-old Truex begins his second season with Michael Waltrip Racing and will be looking to end a 131-race winless skid.
Truex has failed to finish inside the top 20 in points in each of the two previous seasons and it’s been four years since he burst onto the scene with one win (at Dover), 14 top-10s and an 11th place points finish.
Still, he’s managed to run in the top 10 often enough to be considered a legitimate threat in recent seasons.
Last win: Dover, June 4, 2007
Starts since last win: 131
Best bet at winning in 2011: Texas. He’s scored five top-10s in 11 career starts at the track with one pole.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
After a one-win, 12th-place points finish in 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, most folks figured it would only get better for the sport’s most popular driver. But success has been slow to materialize for the 36-year-old Earnhardt Jr.
Can a move that pairs him with crew chief Steve Letarte do the trick in 2011? While Letarte enjoyed his share of success with Jeff Gordon, it should be noted that the pairing also went winless in 2008 and 2010.
Earnhardt Jr. has 18 career victories and will be making his 400th career start when the series kicks off next month at Daytona. But finishes of 25th and 21st in points the past two years have left many to wonder if this new combination can indeed rise to the top.
Last win: Michigan, June 15, 2008
Starts since last win: 93
Best bet at winning in 2011: Talladega. While he’s won on a variety of tracks, Earnhardt Jr. is one of a handful of drivers that excels on the series’ plate tracks. And nowhere is that more evident than at Talladega, where he’s won five times and scored 11 top-10s in 22 career starts.
The 2008 season appeared to be a turning point for Burton, who won twice and finished sixth in the points standings with Richard Childress Racing.
While two of the three RCR teams bounced back in 2010 after struggling the previous season, Burton’s No. 31 team wasn’t one of them. A 21-race winner, Burton finds himself, at 43, looking to end a 77-race winless streak that dates back to the 2007 season.
He came close last year, posting six top-five finishes and 15 top-10s. With teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer combining to win five races, it seems only a matter of time before Burton returns to the winner’s circle.
Last win: Charlotte, Oct. 11, 2008
Starts since last win: 77
Best bet at winning in 2011: Richmond, where he has three top-10s in his last five starts, or Charlotte, where he’s won three times and has eight top-fives.
An 18-time winner in Cup, the former series champion started off 2009 with back-to-back wins in the season’s first two races. And he began 2010 on a strong note, with top-fives in four of the first 12 events. But the team was never able to put it all together, and managed just two top-fives over the remainder of the season.
He did rally to finish fifth in points, and with teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards winning again, it appears as if the Roush Fenway Racing train is back on track.
Last win: Auto Club Speedway, Feb. 22, 2009
Starts since last win: 70
Best bet at winning in 2011: Auto Club Speedway. Three of his 18 wins have come at the 2-mile track, and he’s finished seventh or better in nine of his last 11 starts there.
When the four-time champion failed to win a race in 2008, it was seen as an anomaly. After all, it marked the first time since his rookie season in 1993 that Gordon, the leader in career wins among active drivers with 82, had failed to win at least one race during a season.
But with just one win the last three years, and coming off a second winless effort, is Gordon’s trophy chase full?
For 2011 he’ll be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson, and could contend not only for wins, but for the title as well.
Last win: Texas, April 5, 2009
Starts since last win: 65
Best bet at winning in 2011: Martinsville. Gordon is 3-for-3 in top-five finishes at Darlington and Kansas, but he’s really turned up the wick at Martinsville, where he has five top-fives in his last six starts. He has seven career victories at Martinsville, most among active drivers.
It took Logano just 20 starts to score his first win in the Cup series, capturing the rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in 2009. But that victory lane celebration is fading as the 20-year-old heads into the 2011 season riding a streak of 55 winless starts.
Logano had ample opportunity to shorten the skid this past season, posting seven top-five finishes, and should continue to improve his performance with Joe Gibbs Racing. With no more than four career starts at the majority of tracks, Logano is still getting a feel for what it takes to contend at most venues.
Last win: New Hampshire, June 28, 2009
Starts since last win: 55
Best bet at winning in 2011: Talladega. Maybe younger drivers aren’t smart enough to be concerned about the dangers of racing on the series’ biggest track. Or maybe they’re just fearless. In four starts there, Logano has posted three top-10s, including a pair of top-fives.
Keselowski won his first Cup race in just his fifth start. But the well quickly ran dry for the Penske Racing driver, who failed to score a top-five last year and had only two top-10s.
Some of that, no doubt, was a result of his split duties between Nationwide and Cup. And some was due to the fact that it was his first time at several of the tracks. Still, the No. 2 team will have to show much improvement in 2011 for Keselowski to find his way back to the winner’s circle.
Last win: Talladega, April 26, 2009
Starts since last win: 48
Best bet at winning in 2011: Darlington. He’s finished 15th or better in a combined five starts (Cup and Nationwide) at the legendary track. A Penske-owned team hasn’t won there since 1975 when Bobby Allison swept both races. Keselowski could be the next.
A six-time winner in 2006, Kahne has won just four races in the past four seasons, and went winless in 2010. And while much will be expected from the 30-year-old when he moves to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, it’s likely he could return to the winner’s circle this season in a one-year deal with Red Bull Racing.
Kahne will once again be paired with crew chief Kenny Francis, who oversaw the No. 9 team at Richard Petty Motorsports. The team, which has switched from the No. 82 to No. 4, posted just two top-10s a year ago with driver Scott Speed.
Last win: Atlanta, Sept. 6, 2009
Starts since last win: 47
Best bet at winning in 2011: Charlotte, where the Washington state native has earned three of his 11 career victories.
One of the biggest surprises of 2010 was Martin’s inability to return to victory lane. After winning five times in 2009 with the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team and finishing second in points, much was expected of the veteran. While Martin had his opportunities, finishing with seven top-fives, the wins remained just out of reach.
He’ll head into 2011 with 40 career victories and a new crew chief (Lance McGrew) for what is expected to be his final full-time run with Hendrick. And there would be no better way to step away than by getting back to the winner’s circle.
Last win: New Hampshire, Sept. 20, 2009
Starts since last win: 45
Best bet at winning in 2011: Phoenix. Martin has four top-fives, including one win, in his last six starts at the 1-mile track.
BRIAN VICKERS – The Red Bull Racing driver likely feels as if he has much to prove in 2011. After scoring his second career win and qualifying for the Chase in 2009, Vickers made just 11 starts last year before being sidelined for health reasons.
The big questions? How long will it take a team that used six drivers a year ago to regroup? And how long will it take Vickers, 27, to regain his focus?
Last win: Michigan, Aug. 16, 2009
Starts since last win: 24
Best bet at winning in 2011: Michigan. Vickers has finished ninth or better, with one win, in his last five starts at the wide, 2-mile track. He also won three consecutive poles there (2008-09).