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