The start to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has been rather unpredictable, with five different winners in the first five races, the first time we’ve had as many different winners as races run since the start of the 2005 season.
Before anyone starts in with the “we’re only five races in, it’s too early to be talking about the championship!” comments, let me just say this ... I KNOW!
It’s never too early to start speculation on a season, especially since most of us started making 2011 predictions just shortly after Jimmie Johnson captured his fifth consecutive championship.
Of the five drivers who have thus far been able to break into Victory Lane, who has the best shot at unseating Johnson (who, surprisingly enough, is not one of the five)?
Let’s take a look:
Trevor Bayne (winner of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway) - Let’s clear this up right away: Bayne has 0% chance of unseating Johnson and not just because he’s a rookie.
He’s also ineligible for points in the Sprint Cup Series.
That’s right. NASCAR’s 2011 Daytona 500 champion didn’t even earn points for his historical win, as Bayne became the youngest driver ever to win the Daytona 500 at 20 years of age. So clearly there’s no need to analyze Bayne’s championships of a title run.
Or is there? Bayne may not be contending for the title against the likes of Johnson and Jeff Gordon, but he has his own war to win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Bayne, running a full season for Roush Fenway Racing in their Nationwide Series program, is gunning for his first NASCAR title this season along with RFR teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Currently, Stenhouse is leading the standings by six points over Jason Leffler, thanks in large part to NASCAR’s new rule over the offseason that says drivers could only contend for points in one series. Bayne, on the other hand, is back in the 6th position, 31 points out of the lead.
Results have been mixed for the young driver, capturing three top 10 finishes in the first five races of the season. However, a right front tire at Phoenix International Raceway and some oil on the track at Bristol Motor Speedway gave him finishes of 31st and 19th respectively.
Bayne is in some of the best equipment in the series, and it’s so early in the season, Bayne could gain back some lost ground in the points, lose it, and gain it all back again before the season is out. With the way Stenhouse has been running, if Bayne can shake off some of these poor finishes and start running more consistent he should be right up there with Stenhouse after a while.
Jeff Gordon (winner of the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway) – Gordon probably received the most cheers—and least amount of boos—for his win at Phoenix since he entered the NASCAR scene as a polished Indiana native back in 1992. Even then, his youth and lack of citizenship in a primarily southern state quickly brought about the ire of the blue-collared fans of the sport.
However, prior to the February 27th race at Phoenix, Gordon hadn’t seen the inside of Victory Lane (other than to congratulate his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson of course) since the spring race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2009. Before that, Gordon’s last win came at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in 2007 in a season that saw him win six races and finish ahead of every driver in points except for, you guessed it, Johnson.
It’s amazing how so much can change in a short amount of time.
Gordon broke a 66 race winless streak at PIR, with Alan Gustafson atop the pit box in just his second race with Gordon. Gustafson, who worked with Gordon’s teammate Mark Martin the past two seasons, was part of an offseason crew chief swap that saw three of the four HMS crew chiefs working with a different driver this year.
Aside from the win, though, Gordon’s season has been less than impressive. Gordon’s next best finish is a 14th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway and he’s led a total of two laps since the Phoenix victory. TWO!
I’ve heard some people say that if anyone is going to jump in the way of Johnson’s championship-winning streak, it will be someone from the HMS camp. Judging by the performance of the HMS drivers in five races this season, though, the one putting up the biggest fight aside from Johnson is Dale Earnhardt Jr.! Yes, you read that right.
Gordon’s Phoenix victory may have been a popular one, but otherwise he hasn’t shown this season will be any different than the past few years.
Carl Edwards (winner of the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) – One word: Momentum. Edwards hasn’t slowed down since winning the final two races of 2010, finishing second in the Daytona 500, showing some speed at Phoenix International Raceway before an early crash took him out of contention, and finally sealing the deal with a win at LVMS. His strong start to the 2011 season has propelled him to the top of the standings, holding a 9-point advantage over second place Ryan Newman.
Edwards largely attributes his success to Ford Racing’s new FR9 engine, which debuted in 2009. The change also seems to be helping his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, with Matt Kenseth finishing in the fourth position the last two weeks and Greg Biffle finished in the top 11 at Bristol and Fontana.
It wasn’t very long ago—2008 in fact—that Edwards was Johnson’s biggest threat. Edwards won nine times, had 19 top 5s, 27 top 10s, and finished second in points that season. He went winless the following season and failed to make the Chase, but made up for it last year when we went on to win two races and finished fourth in points.
Edwards shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, as he’s had quite a bit of success on several upcoming tracks and excels on the 1.5-mile racetracks that make up a bulk of the NASCAR schedule. Most likely Edwards will end up winning multiple races this season and finishing top 5 in points. Johnson, watch your back!
Kyle Busch (winner of the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway) – They might as well change the name of Bristol Motor Speedway to “Busch Motor Speedway.”
Yeah I know that was a lame joke, but in all seriousness Busch is nothing short of a stud at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile”. Busch hasn’t lost a race in any of NASCAR’s three national series since the March 21st, 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500.
But Busch’s Bristol victory was no fluke. Aside from a blown engine at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch has yet to finish any worse than eighth and had the car to beat last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
There’s not many other ways to put it other than Busch seems to have some sort of personality change over the offseason. Whether it’s team ownership, marriage, or a combination of other things, Busch has almost been, dare I say, politically correct.
It’s not as if he hasn’t had the opportunity to be a sour puss either. Even with some strong finishes, Busch has had his share of heartbreak. Just this past weekend at Fontana, Busch led an astounding 151 of 200 laps only to have the thrill of victory yanked from his hands on a late race restart. He wound up finishing third. Instead of smacking his steering wheel in the car and storming away from reporters after the race, Busch gave a very calm and (gasp!) diplomatic interview, explained what happened, and ...
…well nothing! That was it! No fussing, no temper tantrums. Just an interview.
Time and again, Busch’s maturity has been questioned and some have wondered if he’ll ever grab a championship with the “bad boy” role that, up to this point, he’s filled so well. However, that doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore. Sure there is more than enough for Busch to blow his stack and make a scene, but really what driver hasn’t at some point or another?
So is Busch’s newfound attitude proof that he’s ready to be a championship contender? I certainly think so.
Kevin Harvick (winner of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway) – Aside from Denny Hamlin, Harvick was the biggest threat to Johnson’s title run in 2010 but before Sunday’s win had gotten off to somewhat of a slow start in 2011.
In fact, Harvick’s win at Auto Club Speedway last weekend propelled him into the top 10 in points for the first time all season, and gave him his first victory since winning at Michigan International Speedway last August.
Richard Childress Racing in general hasn’t been very impressive so far in 2011, except for Paul Menard (another story for another time). Harvick wasn’t even a factor in last Sunday’s race until the very last lap, earning himself the nickname of “Mr. Where-Did-He-Come-From?”
Personally, I like “Happy Harvick” better, but I digress.
There’s no reason for Harvick not to contend for the championship again this year, even if it does look like he’ll have more to deal with than just Hamlin and Johnson. At the very least, he’ll finish out the season somewhere in the top 10 in points and quietly have a good season.