The 2010 NASCAR season had nearly everything for which a fan could ask.
Compelling races, thrilling finishes, driver confrontations and feuds and, at the end, one of the closest championship races in history.
The exciting finish to the season gave NASCAR plenty of momentum heading into 2011.
What can it produce for an encore?
Here’s a look at 10 storylines that should dominate headlines in 2011:
1. Can anyone unseat Jimmie Johnson?
After his amazing comeback and ability to fend off the stiff challenges of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last year, the obvious answer is “no.”
Johnson will enter 2011 as the overwhelming favorite to win a sixth straight Cup championship. But eventually the magic has to end.
Could this be the year? If so, who are the top contenders capable of dethroning the five-time champ?
The list has to start with Hamlin and Harvick, who were both in contention through the final race last season.
But veterans Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, could be serious contenders again with new crew chiefs and crews while Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, will always be a threat with his ability to win races in bunches.
But the group that could bounce back in a big way is Roush Fenway Racing, which struggled in 2009 and for much of 2010, but came on strong at the end of last season, with Carl Edwards winning the last two races of the season.
If Roush returns to form, Edwards, Greg Biffle and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth could all be serious contenders again.
2. Can Hamlin sustain the excellence he demonstrated last season?
Hamlin had a big breakout campaign in 2010, establishing himself as a serious title threat with a series-high eight wins and by carrying the points lead into the season finale at Homestead. He came closer than anyone has in five years to unseating Johnson.
Can he sustain that excellence and do it again?
If recent history is any indication, the odds are against him.
Gordon had a spectacular 2007 season, winning six races and finishing second in points to Johnson. The following year he went winless and slumped to seventh.
Edwards won nine races in 2008 and finished second to Johnson. The following year he went winless and slumped to 11th.
Martin won five races in 2009 and finished second to Johnson. He, too, went winless last season and failed to make the Chase.
That trend doesn’t bode well for Hamlin.
3. How will the crew changes at Hendrick Motorsports impact Gordon, Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
This is perhaps the most intriguing question entering the 2011 season, and the one that could have the biggest impact on the championship race.
While Johnson rallied to win his fifth straight championship, the other three teams at Hendrick uncharacteristically struggled. Martin and Earnhardt Jr. both missed the Chase and Gordon went winless and faded badly after contending most of the year.
As a result, team owner Rick Hendrick swapped the crew chiefs for all three drivers. Gordon is now paired with Alan Gustafson, whose team worked with Martin last year. Martin is now paired with Lance McGrew, whose team worked with Earnhardt Jr., who inherits former Gordon crew chief Steve Letarte and his team.
The moves were made to spark all three teams, returning them to victory lane and the Chase.
If they work, both Gordon and Mark could be serious threats to Johnson, lifting Hendrick Motorsports back to the dominance it displayed in 2009.
But the biggest winner could be Earnhardt Jr. If he can win again and make the Chase, it would be a boon to all of NASCAR, including his enormous fan base.
4. Which drivers will have the biggest feud, and could it develop a full-fledged rivalry?
The 2010 season was the year of the feud, with numerous drivers squaring off on and off the track – Edwards and Brad Keselowski, Gordon and Johnson, Gordon and Jeff Burton, Harvick and Joey Logano, Busch and Keselowski.
All traded paint and insults, but none of them ever developed a true rivalry to watch each week. Edwards and Keselowski came closest, their long-running feud resulting in two violent crashes and a war of words, but it seemed to fizzle near the end of the season and was never a weekly storyline.
NASCAR fans would love to see two of its biggest stars sustain their dislike for each other, creating a long-running rivalry likes the ones that dominated headlines in the ’70s and ’80s.
5. Can Richard Childress Racing contend again?
RCR experienced resurgence last year, returning all three drivers to the Chase and combining to win five races. Harvick led the standings most of the regular season and finished third in the final standings, contending right down to the final lap.
But RCR has been prone to drop offs over the last several years. After placing all three drivers in the Chase in 2007 and ’08, all of them missed it in 2009. And RCR is once again expanding to four teams, which seemed to be at least part of the problem in ’09.
Harvick in particular has experienced an up-and-down career, often following an outstanding season with a disappointing one.
Can RCR, like Hamlin, sustain the excellence it displayed last year and remain a serious title contender?
6. Can Kyle Busch finish strong and finally be a serious championship contender?
Busch has proven that he can win races. He won 24 in NASCAR’s top three series last year and has 15 Cup wins over the past three seasons, including three last year.
But when it comes crunch time, Busch tends to fade. He has never finished higher than fifth in the Chase and faded to 10th, 13th and eighth in the final standings the past three seasons.
With teammate Hamlin having established himself as a serious contender, Busch, the 2009 Nationwide champion, needs to prove he can step up during the Chase.
7. What will Jamie McMurray do for an encore? Can he finally make the Chase?
McMurray shocked the NASCAR world last year by winning its two biggest races at Daytona and Indy and establishing himself as a legitimate star with a career-high three victories.
Can the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver win another big race this year? And, more importantly, can he finally make the Chase?
He made a late run last year, finishing 14th in the final standings, but has never made NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
Finally making it would be a further boon to McMurray’s career.
8. Who will be this year's McMurray, or the biggest surprise of the season?
There is a long list of drivers that could step up and win multiple races and challenge for a spot in the Chase.
The most likely candidates appear to be Joey Logano, who finished strong last year, and Keselowski, last year’s Nationwide Series champion.
9. How will changes to the Chase and Nationwide Series impact those championship races?
NASCAR officials are expected to announce major changes to both the Chase format and the Nationwide Series in the next couple of weeks.
The Chase field is likely to expand from its current 12-team format, making the race to make the Chase even more compelling, and could undergo other format tweaks.
The Nationwide Series championship should be more compelling as well since NASCAR appears ready to prohibit Cup drivers from competing for the series title.
Cup drivers have won the last five Nationwide championships. This year, only non-Cup drivers who run the full Nationwide schedule will likely be eligible, meaning drivers such as Elliott Sadler, Aric Almirola, Justin Allgaier, Trevor Bayne and others could emerge as new stars.
10. Who will be the biggest names to miss the Chase?
Every year there are a handful of top stars that have disappointing seasons, falling out of Chase contention.
Martin, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne each missed the Chase last year after making it in 2009.
The list of possibilities will shrink this year if NASCAR expands the Chase field, but there still will likely be a few perennial contenders that fall on hard times.
Kurt Busch and Burton both struggled in the Chase and faded badly at the end of last season while two-time champion Tony Stewart had an up-and-down year.
Will their 2010 struggles continue in 2011, or will another big-name driver slip up this year?