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 Tuesday is which driver won't live up to expectations in 2011.
When it comes to reasonable expectations in 2011, returning the No. 88 Chevrolet to respectability should be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 1 goal. And there's no doubt that with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Junior's confidence in his team -- and more importantly, himself -- should be on the upswing. For a driver with the talent Earnhardt has shown in the past, finishing outside of the top 20 in the final standings is unfathomable.
Earnhardt's recent history is filled with contradictions. Only 37 others in NASCAR history have more Cup wins, but Junior's visited Victory Lane three times in the past six seasons. At 36, he should be in the prime of his career but hasn't made the Chase since 2006.
Snapping his two-season winless streak, putting together consistent top-10 runs and being a threat to make the Chase are all attainable for Junior with good equipment and good fortune. But there's the problem. When it comes to NASCAR's most popular driver, racing for the sport's top team, many fans don't think that's enough. And the weight of those expectations may be too much for even Junior to overcome in 2011.
Carl Edwards entered 2009 all the rage to knock off Jimmie Johnson following Edwards' nine-win, second-place showing in '08. He then went 70 races before winning again.
Mark Martin entered 2010 the feel-good story of '09 after the fifty-something finished second in points. He had such a bad season in '10 he didn't even make the Chase.
For the previous season's runner-up, anything less than a championship the next year is a disappointment. And that is the situation Hamlin finds himself. The guy was so distraught after the fuel gaffe at Phoenix there was no way he was going to right himself at Homestead, despite still holding the lead.
Hamlin showed tough grit by first driving through knee pain and then recovering nicely from surgery to throw a scare in Johnson, but putting behind a painful finish to 2010 will be his biggest obstacle going forward in '11.
He couldn't do it last year. If he can't do it this year, you know what will come next:
Note: Of course, because of the torn ACL, I predicted Hamlin would miss the Chase last year. So what do I know?
Success always brings heightened expectations, and no driver on NASCAR's premier circuit embodies that more entering the 2011 season than Jamie McMurray. After winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and the fall race at Charlotte last season, the driver of Earnhardt Ganassi's No. 1 car will undoubtedly be a popular pick to do something he's never done -- finally qualify for the Chase.
It's a heavy burden, because as good as McMurray was in some individual races last year -- and let's be clear, he earned every one of those victories, particularly the Daytona 500 where he held off a storming Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- the No. 1 team never found the consistency required to be a real Chase threat. McMurray would win the Brickyard, and then finish 22nd the next week at Pocono. His was a see-saw of a season, with the highs unbelievably high, and the lows somewhat overshadowed by the grandness of what he had accomplished in other weeks. The Chase always seemed further away than their points position may have indicated, given that they could never mount that push to get over the top.
So it's a somewhat difficult thing to ask McMurray to make the Chase this year, based on the strength of a few, isolated weeks in 2010. This team has to make a major step up in terms of consistency first. But of course, people will pick him anyway, and if he doesn't make it, some will consider him a disappointment. Winning a few more race trophies might help them think otherwise, regardless of what the final standings say.
Kasey Kahne has never been comfortable in the spotlight, and that spotlight figures to be as bright as ever this season. The last time Kahne was on the spot, he said goodbye to Richard Petty Motorsports with five races left in the season by spectacularly burning every bridge he had built.
Kahne makes his one-season pit stop with Red Bull Racing in 2011. It's essentially his one-year preparation for the pressure of joining Hendrick Motorsports, and he goes into it on a 47-race winless streak.
In his career, Kahne finished with more than 25 lead-lap finishes out of 36 starts only twice. Last season as the rumors and conjecture swirled around him, Kahne fell apart. The announcement he would join Hendrick in 2012 was made in mid-April, and his move to Red Bull for one season was announced nearly four months later.
In the final 14 races after the Red Bull announcement -- including five races for Red Bull -- Kahne finished 25th or worse in half of them. That doesn't portend well for a lame-duck driver who is looking to snap out of a slump and will have the eyes of the sport on him.
I have more respect for Jeff Burton than anyone in the garage, but it's clear he's going to end his Cup career with a glaring omission on his resume -- a championship -- and that slide starts this season.
Yes, he made the Chase in 2010, but he won't be making a return visit. Burton just doesn't dominate anymore. For the second consecutive year, Burton failed to visit Victory Lane, in fact, he's currently mired in a 77-race slump. He posted top-fives in just a half-dozen races and his 15 top-10s was his second-lowest total in the past five years.
Burton hasn't truly been a championship contender since his third-place points finish in 2000, when he was with Roush. Richard Childress Racing had a dream season in 2010, and Burton might have benefitted from that the most. But RCR will slip this year, and the one who can't afford a drop is Burton.
As long as he remains with RCR he will be competitive, but I'm afraid Burton's best days behind the wheel are behind him.
While the driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing is considered a solid championship contender in many camps, and rightly so, there could be another side to his 2011 coin if he suffers any kind of mental hangover from coming close and failing to unseat defending champion Jimmie Johnson last season. Blowing what arguably should have been a commanding lead the final laps of the fall Phoenix race and the opening laps of the season finale at Homestead, Hamlin ended up falling 36 points short in the 2010 championship hunt.
Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford worked remarkably well together during the course of the entire 2010 campaign. But they have had their differences in the past and will need to make certain the frustration of what happened at the end last season doesn't spill over to adversely affect this one. It really will be up to them.
Use last season's disappointing finish to motivate and they likely will do well again this season. Allow last season's disappointing finish to divide them and cause them to doubt each other, and it could be their ugly undoing.
Putting a black eye on Brad Keselowski's Sprint Cup season before it even starts -- especially after his scintillating Nationwide Series championship season in 2010 -- is an awful tough thing to do. It's an especially tough call to make when you believe Keselowski's position in the standings will be about 10 positions better -- at least -- than it was a year ago.
Keselowski and new Sprint Cup crew chief Paul Wolfe are being asked to overachieve in a totally new venue -- the toughest racing series in the world -- and Keselowski will most likely win a pole position for the second consecutive season.
And in mind-boggling fashion, it's quite likely Keselowski could even make another trip to Victory Lane this season. Expecting something like making his first Chase after struggling last season, or to even make it into the top 10 in the running order, is a pretty tall order. Keselowski and Wolfe will impress, no doubt, but excellent consistency is probably a season away.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. never has and sadly, I don't think he ever will. I hope I'm wrong, I really, really do, but Junior tops the list of drivers who just can't seem to get it done. Furthermore, I honestly think he's performing to his potential which unfortunately isn't enough to visit Victory Lane week in and week out.
In terms of expectations, who could possibly live up to what a plethora of fans expect from the son of one of the sport's most legendary figures? That's too much to ask of anyone, but you'd think with the equipment and support Hendrick provides, the results would be better than what they have been.
Credit goes to Junior for admitting his shortcomings, arguably the first step toward overcoming failure. But if we're being honest, no matter how much we want to see someone succeed, I don't see Junior living up to what others expect of him on the race track, ever.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.