Each new Sprint Cup season brings the possibility of drivers moving from the background to the forefront, from out of the Chase to into the Chase, from the middle rung of the ladder to near the top.
Which ones could make that leap in 2011?
That’s part of the mystery of the new season, but there’s an impressive list of candidates:
• Jamie McMurray. McMurray won events that were of such magnitude this year that his name should have been splashed all over the Chase. That wasn’t the case, however, simply because he didn’t qualify. McMurray won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, taking home a couple of major checks, but inconsistency kept him from the championship battle. He could make a big move toward that in 2011.
• Joey Logano. It seems as if Logano has been with us for quite a while, but he’s still only 20 years old. He had a huge run of consistency closing out the 2010 season and figures to be wrestling for a Chase spot next year.
• David Reutimann. If Michael Waltrip Racing can elevate the consistency level of its cars, Reutimann can be in the hunt for wins and a spot in the Chase. He’s shown the ability to race at the front, scoring a breakthrough victory this season at Chicagoland.
• AJ Allmendinger. As with Reutimann, much of the Dinger’s potential is linked to improvement in his machinery. He made significant strides this season in the crossover process from open wheel.
• Paul Menard. Yes, Paul Menard. Generally overlooked, Menard has developed into a consistent driver who protects his equipment and frequently pushes it into the top 10. A move to Richard Childress Racing could give him a lift.
• Brad Keselowski. It’s only a matter of time before Keselowski stirs the pot in a big way at the highest levels of Sprint Cup. He won the Nationwide Series championship in 2010 but was 25th in points in Cup with only two top 10s. That does not compute.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.