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Season Preview:Seven Drivers on the Hot Seat, with Something to Prove in 2011
There’s a long list of them every year – drivers coming off disappointing seasons who desperately need to turn things around.
Some are in a prolonged slump. Others just had a bad year.
But they all have one thing in common – they need to show significant improvement in 2011 or they could find their future in jeopardy beyond this season.
Here’s a look at NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers who are either on the hot seat in 2011, or at least have something to prove.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The sport’s most popular driver is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports, and the results of the mega deal have not been pretty.
Earnhardt Jr. won a race and made the Chase in his first year with Hendrick in 2008, but has slumped to 25th and 21st in points the past two seasons.
While teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have taken turns challenging Jimmie Johnson for the championship, Earnhardt Jr. has just one win and two top-five finishes in the past two seasons. That’s a pretty dismal record by Hendrick standards.
Earnhardt Jr., who enters 2011 with his third different crew chief at Hendrick, must step up and turn things around this season or Hendrick and its sponsors may begin to question whether to sign him to a contract extension.
Another disappointing season might put Earnhardt Jr.’s future in doubt and force him to think about pursuing other options.
Ragan has been on the hot seat for a couple of years, faltering after an impressive second season when he finished 13th in points.
Since then, he’s finished 27th and 24th in points and shown few flashes of his 2008 form.
He is in the final year of his contract with Roush and so is high profile sponsor UPS. This is clearly a make-or-break year for the young driver.
He is in his third season with Richard Petty Motorsports, and although he just signed a contract extension, it’s time for Allmendinger to have a true breakthrough year.
He showed considerable improvement last season, climbing from 24th in points in 2009 to 19th last year. He had eight top-10 finishes and showed plenty of potential, leading five times for 181 laps, including 143 at Dover.
This will be his fourth full season, however, and he is now the lead dog at RPM. With just three career top-five finishes, he needs to run up front more often and win a race for his future to continue being bright.
Martin Truex Jr.
The move to Michael Waltrip Racing was supposed to be a boon for Truex, who struggled in 2009 at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Many predicted he would win again and possibly even return to the Chase. Instead, he struggled, producing just one top-five finish and slumping to 22nd in points.
He now has three straight disappointing seasons (15th, 23rd and 22nd in points) after winning his first race and making the Chase in 2007. Teammate David Reutimann has won in each of the past two seasons and finished ahead of Truex last year in points (18th). Another disappointing season might put Truex in jeopardy at MWR.
Juan Pablo Montoya
It might seem strange to see Montoya’s name on this list, and he indeed is not in jeopardy of losing his ride. He and team owner Chip Ganassi go way back, having won the Indy 500 and CART title together.
Montoya is still regarded as one of the top racers in the world, but his transition to NASCAR has not exactly gone as planned.
He has two Cup wins, both on road courses, and made the Chase in 2009. But after an encouraging rookie season, Montoya’s last three years have been up and down and he has not flown to the front of the pack like many expected.
A year after making the Chase, he had just six top-five finishes last year and slipped to 17th in points. Often a victim of bad luck, he had eight DNFs, six due to wrecks, while taking a backseat to emerging teammate Jamie McMurray, who won three races.
Though Montoya is not likely to leave Ganassi, it’s time for he and his team to step up. Another lackluster year could leave he and Ganassi questioning his move to NASCAR.
Vickers is on this list through no fault of his own. After making the Chase and scoring his second career victory in 2009, he missed most of last season after being stricken with a terrible illness, battling blood clots that required heart surgery and blood thinners.
He has since returned to his Red Bull Racing team and is poised to start the season in the No. 83 car.
But questions linger. How long will it take Vickers to shake off the rust? Can he return to the form he showed in 2009? And how will he handle taking a backseat to new, high profile teammate Kasey Kahne?
Vickers is anxious to prove that he has fully recovered and can continue to run up front.
Ambrose was considered a rising star after an impressive first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, producing four top-five and seven top-10 finishes and nearly winning both road-course races in 2009.
But he stumbled badly last season, slumping to 26th in points with eight DNFs. He finished in the top five just twice and threw away a sure win with his infamous gaffe at Infineon Raceway.
By mid-season, Ambrose was fed up and announced that he was leaving JTG Daugherty Racing following the season. He soon signed to replace Kahne in RPM’s No. 9 car.
Ambrose’s struggles in 2010 created a classic dilemma: Was it the team or the driver?
Though he has excelled on road courses and short tracks, he has struggled on speedways, particularly the intermediate tracks.
The 2011 campaign will be a pivotal season for him to gauge his progress in NASCAR’s top series.