As Daytona inches closer on the calendar, the NASCAR.COM writing staff looks ahead to the 2011 season and offers up some predictions. The focus for Thursday is which driver is the one on which you should keep your eyes in 2011.
For all the victories he's piled up in Nationwide and Trucks -- including the 2009 Nationwide drivers championship -- Kyle Busch remains somewhat of an enigma in Cup. He has 19 wins and has made the Chase four of the past five seasons, but there's still a sense that the mercurial 25-year-old Las Vegas native has the talent and tenacity but perhaps not the temperament that leads to the title.
But it's not from lack of trying. In 2006, Busch collided with Jeff Green four laps into the Chase opener at New Hampshire. In 2007, Busch was 10 points out of the lead after two races when he wrecked 30 laps into the race at Kansas. In 2008, Busch won eight times and was the clear-cut favorite when a broken sway bar ruined his day at New Hampshire. He missed the Chase in 2009 and an on-track spat with David Reutimann at Kansas ruined his 2010 chances.
Busch's talent seems to be unlimited. His equipment is top-notch. He's a galvanizing force with the fans. If he could find a way to keep from self-destructing at key moments, he'd be virtually unbeatable. When watching him, there's a sense that once he figures out what he needs to do to win one Cup crown, he'll have multiple trophies on his mantel.
Love him. Hate him. But you definitely can't ignore him.
About the only bit of stability Paul Menard has known throughout his Cup Series career is his family-based sponsor. In the past three years, Menard has raced under a different banner each season -- from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Yates Racing to Richard Petty Motorsports. The uncertain futures of all those teams made for some bumpy rides.
And while Menard's newest team, Richard Childress Racing, is certainly on solid footing, he will remain under the microscope for several reasons, some beyond his control. In the past four years, RCR has had three drivers make the Chase every season except one -- in 2009 when the team went to a fourth full-time car.
If RCR struggles out of the gate in 2011, fingers will start to point at the addition of Menard and the fourth car. Menard can't control that, only what he is able to accomplish behind the wheel of the No. 27 Chevrolet. If he can build upon a 2010 season in which he posted career bests in top-10 finishes (six, including just his second top-five), average finish (19.8), lead-lap finishes (20) and points (23rd), then just maybe Menard will be able to feel at home.
Other than five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, perhaps no driver had a better Chase than Joey Logano, who posted seven results of 11th or better over the final 10 races that may very well have put him in the thick of things -- had he qualified. That strong finishing kick, the result of improved communication between crew chief Greg Zipadelli and his 20-year-old driver, signaled Logano as a driver to watch as the 2011 campaign nears.
Can he make the Chase? That may still be a little much to ask from a developing driver with one career victory, but clearly things are trending in the right direction. Last year's points finish, 16th, was a four-position improvement from the year before, and over the latter third of the season Logano made huge strides in terms of his ability to run up front. Yes, he had his share of run-ins with the likes of Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman and, yes, he had a few DNFs. But anyone who paid attention to the No. 20 car last year saw clear signs of growth.
That growth has been fostered by Zipadelli, who's learned to dial back the intensity somewhat and provide his young driver with the positive reinforcement he thrives on. Yes, making the Chase may be a little too much to ask of Logano, who's probably still a year away. But he should make it interesting nonetheless.
Ryan Newman has been up and down in his two seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. The first year, he made the Chase and ended up ninth. Last season, he broke through to win his first race with the team -- at Phoenix -- but finished 15th in the points.
While everyone's talking about the late-season push Carl Edwards put on, Newman also closed 2010 on a hot streak. Newman racked up eight of his 14 top-10s in the final 12 races of the season, and that includes a four-race run in which he finished 20th or worse in each.
Qualifying has never been a problem for Newman, and with Hendrick support and a third-year team, the key now becomes doing on Sunday what he does on Friday. Never in Newman's career has his average finish been better than his average start.
Getting them closer to each other, at least, would go a long way toward giving Newman a return to the sixth-place points finishes he had in 2002, '03 and '05.
My, how soon we forget.
It seems so long ago -- Paul Menard required to come into the media center because he was in the top 10 in points. It seems so long ago -- Menard finishing fifth at Atlanta to jump to ninth in points and becoming the story heading into Bristol with four finishes of 18th or better to start the season.
But we shouldn't forget.
Menard had a career year in 2010, and it came as Richard Petty Motorsports was inching close to demise. Menard's six top-10s were a career high and the first time he had more than one in a season. His 19.8 average finish was the first time he averaged better than 20th, crushing his '09 average by seven positions. Menard had 20 lead-lap finishes, another career high, and his 23rd-place points finish was the best in his four-year full-time Cup career.
Menard's biggest obstacle in the Cup Series has been timing. He spent his first two years with Dale Earnhardt Inc., as the team was clearly on the downturn. In 2009, he went to Yates Racing -- the final year of that team's existence. And last year, RPM had so much turmoil, the team nearly collapsed.
This year, Menard moves to Richard Childress Racing -- the same RCR that had all three of its drivers in the Chase last year. Yes, RCR has done the four-car thing before and it failed miserably, but there is no way owner Richard Childress allows that to happen again. This team has learned from its previous mistakes and Menard is coming in at the perfect time -- for the first time in his career.
Menard won't make the Chase, but you won't forget about him either.
With NASCAR's new championship eligibility rules set to go into effect this season, there are those who believe Brad Keselowski should decide to defend his Nationwide Series championship and elect to run in the Sprint Cup Series merely to take shots at poles and wins while gaining valuable experience behind the wheel. Of course, his new sponsor -- he'll be driving the famous No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge -- would never go for that.
So it will be left up to Keselowski and his new Cup crew chief, Paul Wolfe, with whom he won last season's Nationwide title, to surprise some folks in NASCAR's most challenging national touring series. And after what they did together last year on the Nationwide circuit, why can't they pull it off?
This isn't to say Keselowski is likely to contend for a Cup championship. But if the Chase field is expanded to 15 drivers as has been widely speculated, he has the skill and determination and know-how behind him to at least make an interesting run at getting in. That would be a worthy accomplishment in a season when most expect less of his Cup effort and are possibly underestimating him and his team.
Plenty of people during the coming season are going to be watching others, but no one -- repeat, no one -- is going to have more eyes on him than Dale Earnhardt Jr. And with that, unfortunately for Earnhardt -- who neither seeks the attention nor basks in it -- will come uncountable truckloads of barely-throttled expectations.
It's unavoidable, because the former two-time lower-tier series champion has at least a tie for the most recognizable surname in the sport. He's achieved just enough, via those two titles in 1998-99 as well as 18 Cup points victories and a half-dozen special event scores, to make you just know there's a bunch of ability just waiting to burst out and sing.
So for better or worse, along with millions of pairs of eyes being fixated on Junior, an equal number will transfix upon likeable crew chief Steve Letarte. Letarte gets his turn in the barrel, working alongside Earnhardt, after an off-season roster shuffle by team owner Rick Hendrick.
Jamie McMurray and team started preparing for 2011 the day they knew they wouldn't make the Chase in 2010. With nothing to lose, crew chief Kevin Manion started experimenting with setups in October and helped snag McMurray's third victory of the season at the Charlotte Chase race.
McMurray showed signs of greatness during a break-out 2010, earning a trio of trophies from NASCAR's biggest tracks, and there's no reason to think he and the team won't be carrying that momentum into this season.
With wins come confidence and with big wins -- which McMurray snagged at Daytona, Indy and Charlotte last season -- comes an even greater amount of confidence. All things appear to be in place for McMurray and team in 2011.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.