Top 5: Drivers to Watch in 2011
Aric Almirola has spent virtually his entire, albeit young, stock-car career with a carrot dangling just out of reach. He's produced every step of the way, with his first four career poles and first then-Busch Series race win at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2006-2007; a top-10 Cup finish in his sixth start with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008 and vying for a Camping World Truck Series title for Billy Ballew in only his second full season in 2010. JR Motorsports' No. 88 Nationwide Series ride is his best chance, yet, to really excel.
After struggling for seven years across all three of NASCAR's national tours, Brendan Gaughan is happy to be back in the series where he's had the most success. New father Gaughan has signed with defending Truck Series champion Germain Racing and he's teamed with bosom buddy, two-time and defending series champion Todd Bodine. It'll be fascinating to see if the charismatic Gaughan can be competitive again.
After showing the ability to win the Sprint Cup Series' biggest events braced with the sheer speed necessary to lead the league with four poles in 2010, Jamie McMurray's breakout season for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing demands an even more competitive follow-up effort in 2011. Three DNFs and seven finishes of 30th or worse kept McMurray and crew chief Kevin Manion out of the Chase, but 15 top-10 starts and 346 laps led showed plenty of potential for the team that won at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte, three plum venues.
Austin Dillon is unquestionably a large part of the future of Richard Childress Racing and when you consider the lack of experience the 20-year-old college student had prior to 2010, his breakout Camping World Truck Series' season only leaves RCR fans licking their lips in anticipation of 2011. He had a league-leading seven poles, including three-in-a-row and two consecutive to close the season, two race wins and fifth in his first shot at the championship. Just how good he can be will be a weekly can't-miss event.
Hendrick Motorsports stable
Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Hendrick Motorsports' three drivers behind five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, are united under the same magnifying glass in 2011 after owner Rick Hendrick aligned his three veteran pilots with new crew chief/race team combinations after last season. How well Gordon does with Alan Gustafson, Earnhardt with Steve Letarte and most importantly, considering 2011 might be his last full-time Sprint Cup season, Martin with Lance McGrew will be riveting viewing.