5 DRIVERS I’M WATCHING IN 2011

There’s a reason everyone loves a new year. For those who experienced adversity or failure in the year prior, they get fresh start; a clean slate fresh for writing a new chapter to the story. For the young, it’s an opportunity to further build on the foundation that’s been set; perhaps a rite of passage to maturity is in store.

NASCAR drivers are no different. For Jimmie Johnson, 2010 further built his legacy. For Denny Hamlin, it was a breakout year. Jamie McMurray experienced a season of redemption. Kevin Harvick came back. On the other end of the scale, Jeff Gordon came so close, yet so far. It was another season of frustration for NASCAR’s favorite son — Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 2010 was a lost season for Brian Vickers.

There are plenty of story lines ready for 2011. Here are five I have my eye on…..

Carl Edwards. Two season-end victories ended a protracted drought for the 2008 runner-up. The vast majority of Edwards’ season was proof of how a perfectly good driver is running in wet cement without a horse to ride. What happens in the shop during the off-season can change everything, however Edwards may be very well poised to dethrone Johnson.

Denny Hamlin. You NFL fans have heard about the “Super Bowl Hangover”; the phenomenon where a team comes so close and misses it and then is so deflated they struggle the following year. Hamlin takes losing hard, very hard. How will this affect the 2010 runner-up in ‘11? That may be the real test of maturity for series leader in wins (8).

Joey Logano. While most were focused on the tight chase race between Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the phenom wrapped up 2010 with five top tens in his last six races. This season will be his third at the Cup level, often the time when we really begin to get a sense of a driver’s potential. Something else to watch where Logano is concerned is how he handles future “incidents” with other drivers. Some say he went from one extreme to another; from a pushover to a pugilist. Will other competitors try and/or succeed at getting in his head?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. His harshest critics say he’s NASCAR’s 7-Up. You know, “Never had it, never will.” That dismisses what was at one point, a very promising career before stalling out. Rick Hendrick has shaken the HMS etch-a-sketch to try to get any driver not named Jimmie kick-started, with a special emphasis on trying to get Junior going good again. This may be Earnhardt’s last shot at relevance. He can do it, the talent is there. But will he?

Jimmie Johnson. Huh? Sooner or later his run of dominance will end, but will this be the year? Conventional wisdom says “no,” but we’re neither conventional, nor suffer the burden of being wise, so we’ll see. He got raced hard last year, and someday, they’ll catch the five-time champion.