Carl Edwards, not JJ, the man to beat
The annual NASCAR Media Tour, when everyone is an optimist, begins in less than two weeks. Every driver, team owner, crew chief and sponsor will list reasons why their teams are going to have a spectacular 2011 season.
Some will be right, many will be wrong. So before we go on total spin cycle for the teams to make their case, I thought I would do my own little list on where some Sprint Cup drivers and teams stand heading into 2011.
Only two categories apply: moving up or moving down. Will they be better or will they fall back?
• Carl Edwards -- And I mean, way up, like the top. Edwards won the last two races of 2010 and qualified in the top three at the final three events. He's in his early 30s now (will turn 32 in August), about the time many contenders step up. And he's a dad now, something that tends to make a man see things differently.
He's also part of the Roush Fenway Racing team that made major gains for the Ford camp late last season.
The only thing that can stop Edwards is his temper. He needs to stay focused on his No. 99 team and avoid the controversial distractions, such as his have-at-it-boys moments last season with Brad Keselowski.
• Joey Logano -- Young Logano will make the biggest step up of the 2011 season. He will make the Chase and win some races.
It has been a slow process for Logano. Tony Stewart's departure from Joe Gibbs Racing forced JGR to move up Logano too soon. He doesn't turn 21 until May, but Logano appears ready to run with the big boys.
He finished seventh or better in five of the last six races of 2010. He also showed he will stand up for himself when he needs to, as everyone witnessed during his confrontation with Kevin Harvick at Pocono.
OK, maybe he shouldn't have dragged DeLana Harvick into it with the hilarious line, "His wife wears the firesuit in that family," but young Joey's experience and toughness have caught up with his talent.
• Jeff Gordon -- After years of being good but not great, Gordon has a chance to be great again. Why? Alan Gustafson, that's why.
Gordon is the big winner in the Hendrick crew chief shake-up because Gustafson is an extraordinarily talented man on the pit box. Nothing against Steve Letarte, who will help Dale Earnhardt Jr., but this is the move Gordon has needed for a long time.
In his first year with Mark Martin in 2009, Gustafson came one spot short of leading Martin and the No. 5 team to the championship. If that kind of chemistry blossoms with Gordon, Cup title No. 5 is coming for the No. 24 team.
• Team Red Bull -- Last season was a huge disappointment all around with Brian Vickers' illness and Scott Speed's lack of improvement. But Speed is gone and Vickers is back. And having Kasey Kahne for 2011 is bound to lead to some solid finishes.
• Roush Fenway Racing -- Edwards isn't the only one at RFR who will see better days this year. Jack Roush's boys are back. Bank on it.
Matt Kenseth finishing fifth in the 2010 standings was nothing short of remarkable. Talk about doing the most with the least.
He endured a difficult year with three crew chiefs and a car that wasn't top-10 worthy many days, but he made the most of it. That won't be a problem this year. If stability returns to the No. 17 team, Kenseth is capable of winning a second Cup crown.
Greg Biffle has a good team that needs a spark, something that will propel Biffle back to where he was in 2005 when he lost the title by only 35 points.
• Richard Petty Motorsports -- This is addition by subtraction, improvement by downsizing. After all the turmoil at the end of last season with the departure of the Gillett family's involvement, Petty found a new partner and reduced the team from four cars to two.
Sadly, some people at RPM lost their jobs, but the remaining teams will be better by incorporating the best people from the other teams.
AJ Allmendinger posted three top-15 finishes in the last five races of 2010 despite all the chaos surrounding RPM. And Marcos Ambrose gives RPM a top road racer along with an improving driver on ovals.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Really, there's nowhere to go but up at this point. Letarte's optimistic personality should rub off on Junior. And it won't hurt being in the same shop as Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team.
• Bobby Labonte -- He's not going to compete for the championship, but the move to the No. 47 Toyota gives Labonte a chance to go out in a competitive fashion.
Replacing Ambrose at the JTG/Daugherty Racing team basically makes Labonte part of a three-car operation at Michael Waltrip Racing. It's an improving group that will give the former Cup champ a chance to post some top-10 finishes.
• Jimmie Johnson -- Other than a sixth consecutive Cup crown, down is the only direction possible.
I have no compelling reason to predict that JJ will fall back, other than the inevitability that it has to happen at some point. But there is reason to believe, based on the end of last season, that four or five drivers are ready to play at the same level as Johnson and the No. 48 team.
• Denny Hamlin -- Here's a stat Hamlin doesn't want to hear: In the past six seasons, the man who finished second in the Cup standings failed to equal or better his spot the following year.
Two of them failed to make the Chase a year after finishing as runner-up -- Biffle in 2006 and Mark Martin last year. In the past six seasons, the average rank for the previous runner-up was 8.3.
But there is a little good news for Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing, where Hamlin resides, was the last organization to have a driver go from No. 2 to No. 1. Tony Stewart was the runner-up in 2001 before winning his first Cup title in 2002.
• Mark Martin -- Still a quality driver at age 52, but 52 is not 32. And Martin is in a lame-duck situation, keeping the seat warm for Kahne to take over in 2012.
Lame-duck years rarely turn out well. Martin loved working with Gustafson, so it's hard to say how things will go with Lance McGrew, the man who wants to prove he's better than Earnhardt made him look.
• Jeff Burton -- In case you didn't know, this is the most intelligent man in NASCAR. Other than maybe needlepoint or curling, I don't know a subject on which Burton couldn't offer an in-depth opinion and make a convincing argument for his position on the matter.
However, brain power alone won't win races. Burton turns 44 this year, and I hate to say it, but his best days as a racer may be behind him. He had only one top-15 finish in the last eight races of 2010 while teammates Harvick and Clint Bowyer were running well.
I hope he proves me wrong, but his run for a U.S Senate seat is getting closer every day.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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