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CUP: Drivers Face Turning Points

There’s always pressure in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but for some drivers in 2011, there will be an added measure of urgency in putting together good seasons.

From the perspective of his millions of fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have lots of eyes on him next year, when he moves into the newly renamed 48/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports, where he’ll share a garage with Jimmie Johnson and have Steve Letarte as his new crew chief.

But when your last name is Earnhardt, pressure is a given, part of the nature of the business. For some other drivers, though, the big spotlight will shine a little brighter next season.

1. BRAD KESELOWSKI — The 2010 campaign was a tale of two seasons for Keselowski. The best of times was his dominating championship run in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he annihilated the competition. The worst of times was in his first full season in the Sprint Cup series, where his best finishes were a pair of late-season 10th-place runs at Martinsville and Talladega in his Penske Racing Dodge.

For 2011, the ante gets raised considerably. For one, Keselowski moves to Penske’s iconic No. 2 “Blue Deuce” with his Nationwide crew chief Paul Wolfe coming over with him. Keselowski has the talent to be a star and the kind of love him/hate him personality that NASCAR desperately needs to rekindle the fan base. But he needs to win races at the Cup level. And, truth be told, the entire Penske organization needs to step up after a disappointing 2010.

2. MARCOS AMBROSE — The affable Aussie might have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire when he left JTG-Daugherty Racing to join the perpetually struggling Richard Petty Motorsports team, which has undergone four ownership changes/mergers/reorganizations in the last 28 months.

Be that as it may, it’s time Ambrose steps up and wins a race or two. He has seven top-five finishes in 83 career Sprint Cup starts and there’s no question he’s had moments of brilliance, and not just on road courses. The 2011 season should give some insight about how far Ambrose can go at this level.

3. JEFF GORDON — If you think Denny Hamlin is frustrated at getting beaten by Jimmie Johnson, just imagine how Gordon feels: He hasn’t finished ahead of Johnson in points since 2002, when Johnson was a rookie. And Gordon, who in the late 1990s was as dominant as Johnson was, has only won one race in the last three seasons.

To help rectify that, Rick Hendrick is moving Gordon into Mark Martin's shop and giving him Martin’s former crew chief, the brilliant Alan Gustafson. The expectations are very high now at the No. 24 car, and with Gordon turning 40 next year, the time to get it done is right now.

4. PAUL MENARD — In 2011, Menard will be driving for his fourth team in four years, moving to Richard Childress Racing, after stints at Richard Petty Motorsports (2010), Yates Racing (2009) and Dale Earnhardt Inc. (2008). At RCR, Menard will be driving cars capable of winning on a regular basis and running top 10 virtually every week. He needs to show he has the skill to play with the big boys and not just be here because he brings sponsorship with him.

And realistically, he stands a very good chance of doing just that. In 2010, Menard finished a career-best 23rd in points with RPM. He also posted six top-10 finishes in 36 starts, after earning just one in his first 111 Cup races. He could be a pleasant surprise next season.

5. BOBBY LABONTE — The 2000 Sprint Cup champion will move to JTG-Daugherty Racing in 2011, where he’ll take over the seat Marcos Ambrose is vacating. The question is, does he have anything left in the tank? In the last six years, Labonte’s best points finish was 18th, but during most of that time, he was driving for backmarker teams.

By the same token, JTG-Daugherty, a satellite Michael Waltrip Racing team, didn’t make any progress in 2010, either. So both the driver and the organization have some things to prove.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.