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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard have the potential to be breakout performers of 2011

Heading into 2011, some things are certain.

Jimmie Johnson will contend once again for a title; Denny Hamlin should continue to be a threat. And unless the fourth car screws things up, RCR and Kevin Harvick should still run solid next year.

But every year, some things happen that aren’t expected. Looking back at 2010, it was the resurgence of Harvick, and the unexpected success of Jamie McMurray, who missed the Chase but still racked up some huge wins in the biggest races of the year.

So heading into 2011, who will be the surprise? Who will step up and perform better then we all expect?

I would say there are a few candidates, including NASCAR’s favorite son … Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Among the biggest off-season news was the shuffling of three crew chiefs at the Hendrick team, and the #88 team will now be housed in the same shop as the #48 team.

Any success by Jr., of course, hinges on Steve Letarte and Dale Jr. developing a good relationship, but if they do it’s possible that being around the championship-caliber #48 team on a regular basis will rub off. With the amount of crew chiefs Jr. has gone through, it’s time for him to show some results and stop running mid-pack or worse, like he’s done far too often since arriving at Hendrick.

I wouldn’t go placing bets quite yet that Jr. will make the Chase and contend for a title, but the changes made in the offseason make it much more likely.
If not Jr., who else?

I believe Brad Keselowski will make a big move in 2011. In 2010, his first full season in Cup, Brad didn’t make too much noise, mostly running toward the back. But now that he’s earned Roger Penske a tltle in the Nationwide series, the focus is all on Cup.

When he made the move to Penske, Keselowski knew the transition would not be easy, or achieve instant success. He started off slowly, never really took off, and only racked up a couple of top-10s at the end of the season.

But having learned from his mistakes in 2010, and knowing how much talent he possesses, I see Brad getting off to a much better start in 2011, and finishing much better than the 25th place in points he claimed in 2010.

A third option I see for breakout star, though I would consider it a longshot, is Paul Menard. He is getting in to a top-notch team at RCR, has shown flashes of his ability (especially in the Nationwide series) and is definitely on a mission to prove wrong all the doubters who say he just has a ride because of his family’s money.

While I recognize that he could fail miserably just like Casey Mears did in the fourth car at Childress a couple years ago, the team seems to have made a full turnaround and should be better equipped to handle a fourth driver. If Menard can apply his skills and gets the cars he needs to compete, he may end up surprising a lot of people in 2011.

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Anonymous Marybeth said...

Matt, "Any success by Jr., of course, hinges on..."...his going to a new owner. His being in the same garage as the 48 makes it more convenient for Chad to continue using the 25/88 for r&d.

December 29, 2010 at 3:22 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny thing. Kenseth had 3 crew chiefs in 1 year and nothing is ever said about that. Steve couldn't get Jeff a win, but he's supposed to get Jr a win? And if he doesn't, it's all Jr's fault? It would be so nice if Jr could be judged by the same criteria every other driver is. Just dreaming I guess. The media will never give Jr a fair shake.

December 30, 2010 at 6:08 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many crew chief changes will it take for you to realize that Junior is the problem, not his crew chief, his car, his car owner, his car number, or his choice of breakfast cereal. I don't know why you guys keep going out on a limb for Junior when it is clear he hasn't had it since his wreck in the sports car race a few years ago. And he wasn't all that great before either. You could give Junior the entire 48 team, including Chad Knaus, and the results would still be dismal. Of course, Chad would volunteer to be chief janitor before he would take such a job, but the point remains. Brad and Paul, maybe, but I am not holding my breath for either of them. Seems these days you have to get it right from day one or somebody new passes you by pretty quickly. My pick would be Joey Logano giving JGR three drivers in the Chase and one Cup champion in the 18 or 11. Past performance DOES provide an indication of future results. The three kids from JGR can only get better. Brad may get better. It's too late for Junior.

December 30, 2010 at 2:54 PM 

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