By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
February 16, 2011
Last season, Jimmie Johnson faced the biggest challenge of his championship streak, but he pulled out title No. 5. Until someone knocks him off, he's tops on our list of the best Cup drivers.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Never mind those who want to give crew chief Chad Knaus all the credit for the No. 48 team's overwhelming success. Johnson is a huge talent, too. The only question this year is the pit crew, which is being overhauled after last year's missteps in the Chase.
Where he's strong: Almost everywhere, now that he has won at Bristol and Infineon.
Where he struggles: Homestead—just because he has never won there.
Johnson says: "I don't care what races are in the Chase (or) the format to win the championship. … I feel confident that my team will be able to win championships under any set of circumstances."
2. Carl Edwards
Edwards enters 2011 on a roll, having won the final two races of last season. Once Roush Fenway Racing sorted out its problems by using computer simulations, the Roush cars were fast. Edwards is still hungry. Make that ravenous.
Where he's strong: Atlanta, Bristol, Homestead, Michigan, Pocono, Texas.
Where he struggles: Daytona, Talladega.
Edwards says: "The way we finished the 2010 season is the way we'd like to run all the time, and I feel the way our team is structured right now, we're set to have one of our best seasons."
3. Jeff Gordon
Out of Johnson's shadow and into a shop with Hendrick teammate Mark Martin instead, Gordon has the impetus he needs. He also has new crew chief Alan Gustafson, a more technically-minded pit boss than Steve Letarte, the man he replaced.
Where he's strong: Darlington, Daytona, Infineon, Martinsville, Talladega.
Where he struggles: Homestead, Texas.
Three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip says: "Jeff is probably more methodical and technology-driven and can use a lot of that kind of input into the car. That's exactly how Alan is. He's a smart kid. I like him, and I think that's a good marriage."
4. Denny Hamlin
For most of 2010, Hamlin had the fastest car on the track. That's not likely to change. Add crew chief Mike Ford and an excellent over-the-wall crew to the mix, and it's a safe bet Hamlin will challenge for the title that eluded him last season.
Where he's strong: Martinsville, Pocono, Richmond, Texas.
Where he struggles: Atlanta, Charlotte, Infineon, Texas.
Hamlin says: "There are a lot of areas that I've got to improve on, that I know I can improve on. Qualifying is one. I can't start dead last every single week like we did last season."
5. Kevin Harvick
Harvick learned some valuable lessons from last year's third-place finish. If his pit crew holds up, he could win his first championship—and the first for Richard Childress Racing since 1994.
Where he's strong: Chicago, Daytona, Phoenix, Talladega.
Where he struggles: Charlotte, Darlington, Dover, Kansas.
Harvick says: "It's all about winning a championship at this point, nothing else."
6. Kyle Busch
Busch, 25, is arguably the most gifted driver in stock car racing. When he learns to harness his prodigious talent, he'll win his first Cup championship—likely the first of many.
Where he's strong: Bristol, Dover, Richmond.
Where he struggles: Homestead, Indianapolis, Kansas, Pocono.
Crew chief Dave Rogers says: "After Homestead, we sat down and said, 'You know what? We're not clicking like we should.' We worked hard on that over the offseason. Last year we were a race team. This year we're more of a family."
7. Clint Bowyer
How different might 2010 have been had Bowyer not incurred a 150-point penalty when his New Hampshire Chase race-winning car failed inspection by .060 inches?
Where he's strong: New Hampshire, Richmond, Talladega.
Where he struggles: Darlington, Dover, Michigan, Watkins Glen.
Bowyer says: "I just think that the changes that were made over the (2009) offseason are going to be things that we can benefit from for many years to come."
8. Tony Stewart
Running out of fuel after dominating the first Chase race seemed to suck the energy out of Stewart's effort. To win a third title, Stewart must figure out how to finish the season on a crescendo, not a whimper.
Where he's strong: Atlanta, Daytona, Infineon, Pocono, Richmond, Watkins Glen.
Where he struggles: Darlington, Las Vegas.
Stewart says: "This is a series where the technology changes so much that you can't rest on the things that were good. You can't overlook those and focus on other things. You have to worry about every aspect of your company."
9. Greg Biffle
Put speed in Biffle's car and he'll take full advantage of it. There are times, though, when he may be too much of a hard charger. Tempering his natural tendency to run flat-out might produce more consistent results.
Where he's strong: Darlington, Dover, Homestead, Kansas, Michigan.
Where he struggles: Chicago, Martinsville, Talladega.
Biffle says: "It's simple. I want to win a bunch of races and win the title."
10. Jamie McMurray
With NASCAR's new 1-43 points system, McMurray has two ways to make the Chase—on points or on wins. It will be tough to top his marquee victories of 2010—Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400—but he certainly could be more consistent.
Where he's strong: Charlotte, Daytona, Indianapolis, Talladega.
Where he struggles: Atlanta, Kansas, Pocono, Richmond.
Crew chief Bono Manion says: "The blow-up races that we had, if we can fix those issues, then we're going to be a great race team."
11. Joey Logano
NASCAR's youngest full-time Cup driver, Logano, 20, finished 2010 on a tear, posting finishes of seventh or better in five of the last six races. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli is a huge asset for Logano, who improved exponentially in his sophomore season.
Where he's strong: Charlotte, Michigan, New Hampshire, Talladega.
Where he struggles: Atlanta, Bristol, Infineon, Pocono, Watkins Glen.
Zipadelli says: "I think Joey's pretty excited about the year. I think he's built a lot of confidence in himself that he can do this."
12. Matt Kenseth
Mr. Consistent sneaked up to fifth in the standings with a string of solid finishes in the Chase, but Kenseth would rather be racing for wins and challenging for a title. His cars should have speed this year, but a strong start to the season is crucial.
Where he's strong: Bristol, California, Dover, Michigan.
Where he struggles: Darlington, Infineon, Talladega, Watkins Glen.
Kenseth says: "Last year we finished the year pretty strong. Hopefully, we can roll that into this year and keep it going."
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With new crew chief Steve Letarte and proximity to Johnson's championship operation in the newly christened 48/88 shop, Earnhardt has the opportunity to turn his program around. But will the chemistry be there?
Where he's strong: Daytona, Phoenix, Richmond, Talladega.
Where he struggles: Homestead, Indianapolis, Infineon.
Earnhardt says: "Wherever we get the next win, it's going to be good, regardless of whether it's at Daytona or anywhere else."
14. Kurt Busch
You'd think Busch would be a lock for the Chase, but late-season struggles raised questions about the performance of the Penske cars. With a new car number (22) and sponsor (Shell/Pennzoil), Busch will be looking to recapture last year's midseason magic.
Where he's strong: Atlanta, Bristol, New Hampshire, Michigan, Pocono.
Where he struggles: Chicago, Kansas, Las Vegas, Watkins Glen.
Busch says: "We've definitely got a charged-up attitude this year. We actually added a new engineer position to our team, so we're stronger, with more people coming to the track each week."
15. Mark Martin
Uncertain about his plans after 2011, Martin knows one thing for sure. He wants to race the heck out of the No. 5 car in his last season at Hendrick. The separation from crew chief Alan Gustafson was painful, but new pit boss Lance McGrew can get the job done.
Where he's strong: Charlotte, Dover, Michigan, Pocono, Watkins Glen.
Where he struggles: Chicago, Talladega.
Martin says: "Lance crew-chiefed the Nationwide car that I drove at Las Vegas in 2008. That's the only race we worked together in—and we got a win."
16. Juan Pablo Montoya
After a methodical run to the Chase in 2009, Montoya suffered through an unlucky, inconsistent 2010 season. Seven DNFs in the first 26 races ruined his chances of making the top 12. Montoya should win his first Cup race on an oval this year—he's overdue.
Where he's strong: Atlanta, Indianapolis, Infineon, Watkins Glen.
Where he struggles: Charlotte, Homestead, Las Vegas.
Montoya says: "Our pit crew has changed a little, and we're hoping to get a little better there. And our strategy sometimes—we've just got to deliver a better job."
17. Ryan Newman
Newman ended the season powerfully, but by then, he had already missed the Chase. Newman needs to get off to a good start.
Where he's strong: Charlotte, Darlington, Dover, Infineon, Michigan, New Hampshire, Richmond.
Where he struggles: Atlanta, Homestead, Las Vegas.
Newman says: "I look forward to starting strong. That's the one thing that we have not done on the No. 39 side, is start the season with a good Daytona 500."
18. Kasey Kahne
Though Kahne hasn't started his first full season with Red Bull Racing, he's already a lame duck—waiting to succeed Martin at Hendrick in 2012. With Brian Vickers sidelined, the Red Bull cars had a miserable season in 2010. This year will be better.
Where he's strong: Atlanta, California, Charlotte, Infineon.
Where he struggles: Chicago, Dover, Martinsville, Kansas, Watkins Glen.
Kahne says: "I'm really excited. I think we can do a lot. I think we can run strong and have a lot of fun at the same time."
19. Jeff Burton
Burton's finishes didn't match the speed of his cars, and that became a chronic problem in 2010. Crew chief Todd Berrier has one of the best minds in the Cup garage, but all the moving parts have to be working in sync this year for Burton to challenge for a title.
Where he's strong: Charlotte, Darlington, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Texas.
Where he struggles: Indianapolis, Infineon, Kansas, Watkins Glen.
Burton says: "I really think that we can go fast enough to win the championship, but we've got to find the little speed that we lost through the summer."
20. AJ Allmendinger
Allmendinger is getting better all the time, as the level of his experience begins to match the level of his talent. It helps that Richard Petty Motorsports is on firmer financial footing and Mike Shiplett is growing in his role as Allmendinger's crew chief.
Where he's strong: Daytona, Homestead, Kansas, Watkins Glen.
Where he struggles: Bristol, California, Michigan.
Allmendinger says: "This team has got a lot of potential, but potential doesn't mean anything if we don't live up to it. That's our job."