As expressed in a letter of sorts to Jamie McMurray I wrote just a short time ago, watching McMurray’s breakout season was undoubtedly my favorite storyline to follow all year. Sure Jimmie Johnson’s historic fifth consecutive championship was … historical. And yes “Boys, have at it” brought about its fair share of dramatic moments, too.
However, there’s something special about seeing someone achieve the success that they had only been able to dream about up to that particular moment. Now that McMurray’s dream season is in the books, here are a few other drivers looking for their own breakout years and have shown the potential to do so:
Based on all the hype surrounding “Sliced Bread’s” entrance into NASCAR, many already expected Logano to have a few wins under his belt and maybe even have been a contender in the Chase. It goes without saying that any of this has yet to happen.
Let’s be honest. For Logano to achieve the type of success that would match the media hype surrounding his NASCAR trek would be darn near impossible. Anything short of a Chase berth and a few wins would be a letdown. Throw in the fact that Logano himself has admitted several times that the jump from the Nationwide Series to the Sprint Cup Series entails a much steeper learning curve than he has experienced in any prior series and it wouldn’t be out of the question to say that the expectations placed on Logano were nothing short of unfair.
Since Logano’s debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway back in 2008, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has picked up 10 top 5s, 23 top 10s, one pole, and an average finish of 17th. He even picked up a victory at NHMS back in 2009 in a rain shortened event. His results aren’t anything extravagant, though there have been signs of improvement on his return to certain racetracks.
In 2010, that improvement continued. Logano more than doubled the amount of top 10s he earned this year and even picked up his first pole at one of the toughest racetracks on the circuit: Bristol Motor Speedway.
Logano really began to pick up some steam at the end of the season, finishing in the top 11 in 8 of the last 9 races including a string of finishes of 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd from Charlotte to Phoenix. He ended the season 16th in points.
If Logano can shake off some of the inconsistency and DNFs that have plagued him the last couple of years, Logano could very well be a Chase contender in 2011. At the very least, he could finish in the top 15 in points for the first time in his career.
Potential Victories: Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville Speedway, Michigan International Speedway
Prior to the 2010 season, Reutimann—like Logano—had a rain-shortened victory to his credit in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s (now Charlotte) Motor Speedway back in 2009. This season, Reutimann obtained his first “real” victory at Chicagoland Speedway in the LifeLock.com 400, leading 52 laps en route to the victory.
That was the highlight in what was essentially an under-the-radar season for Reutimann. Since 2008, Reutimann’s statistics have haven’t differentiated much. In fact, if you look at the statistics, 2009 was a better year for Reutimann than 2010 was despite the victory. The two areas he did excel—top 5s and laps led—were minimal at best.
However, Reutimann signed a contract extension with Michael Waltrip Racing back in July and will be with the team, sponsor Aaron’s, and Toyota until at the very least the end of the 2012 season. Reutimann obviously sees something in the organization that he likes, though admittedly there aren’t any other quality rides available anyway.
Reutimann isn’t a bad driver. When he runs well it’s often overlooked by his better known and popular competitors and even the more dismal days seem to be ignored. Reutimann is largely invisible in the world of Sprint Cup Series racing, going almost virtually unnoticed for most of his racing career.
However, this year Reutimann found himself in the midst of controversy and showed a passionate aggression on and off the track that many doubted he had. In fact, Reutimann ended up feuding with NASCAR’s current “bad boy” Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway. From candid comments in the media center to on-track retaliation, Reutimann fought back with some vigilante justice that added to the “Boys, have at it” saga that lasted throughout the season (there’s even a clip of it in the remix video … Just don’t blink!).
The passion is there. The commitment is there. Heck, even the equipment seems to be up to standard on certain weekends. If they can find just that little bit extra, we might see Reutimann doing more than just a rain dance next season.
Potential Victories: Charlotte Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway
I know, I know, I know… Daddy’s money, no talent, blah blah blah! Drop the haterade for a minute and listen up!
I’m not saying Menard is the next big thing, but he turned me into a believer this season. I don’t care how much Menard’s father John—who, by the way, owns the Midwestern chain Menards—gives to the team. You can’t put a monkey in a racecar and expect him to do well, no matter what Clint Bowyer says!
Menard has been, let’s say, unimpressive since he joined the series fulltime in 2007. Prior to 2010, Menard had a total of two top 10s in his entire career. In 2010 he picked up six top 10 finishes and even spent some time in the top 10 in points at the beginning of the season.
No, it wasn’t just that flash of brilliance at the beginning of the season that made me notice that yellow No. 98 car. I can recall several instances—especially towards the end of the year—where I’d take a glance at the drivers in the top 10 and … wait a minute, is that … PAUL MENARD?!
In fact, the only thing that I feel kept Menard from a higher finish in points (he ended up 23rd) was that dirty little “I” word: inconsistency. (Where did you think I was going with that?) Take a look at Menard’s 2010 results and there would be a few top 15 runs followed by that many more runs outside the top 25. It was a pattern that lasted all season and it’s no secret that NASCAR’s points system punishes bad finishes more than it rewards good ones.
Menard is moving over to Richard Childress Racing next season where he should have better equipment than what Richard Petty Motorsports had to offer, though RCR’s last outing with a four-car operation leaves enough room for doubt.
I’m not expecting Menard to make the Chase or win a ton of races. But I do expect eventually he will get a victory and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him pull it off in 2011 with a high quality team like RCR.
Potential Victories: Daytona International Speedway (Yes, THAT Daytona!), Atlanta Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway
With the possible exception of Logano, Allmendinger is the driver I am most looking towards to have a breakout year next season. The only hindrance I see is that Allmendinger has is he is with the struggling (and that’s putting it nicely) Richard Petty Motorsports that all but fell apart as the 2010 season wound down. However, the team will only have two drivers next year and it’s possible that Allmendinger will become their “premier” driver.
In 2010, Allmendinger led 181 laps total. In all previous years, Allmendinger had only led a combined total of 10 laps. Now, granted 143 of those laps led came in the fall race at Dover International Speedway but progress is progress! He also earned more top 5 finishes, top 10s, and poles than he had in any previous year. Plus he finished a career high 19th in points and had the best average finish of all four years he’s competed in the top level of NASCAR.
Like the other three mentioned in this article, Allmendinger struggles with some inconsistency. However, the improvement this open wheel crossover has shown recently is astonishing and maybe the drawbacks at RPM will help rather than hinder his progress.
Potential Victories: Dover International Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway
Images courtesy of NASCAR Media.