After nearly three months of hibernation, the green flag drops on NASCAR’s 2011 points championship this week. As usual, there are several new obstacles for the teams to deal with as they get ready to compete in the Sprint Cup Series this year: A new type of racing fuel, a new fuel delivery system, one less man over the wall and a hard limit on tires are all going to make crew chief strategies and decisions more important than ever.
And we haven’t even gotten to the drivers yet; but in the end, no matter what changes are thrown a team’s way the basic concept of how to win a championship remains the same. The best combination of a crew able to adapt matched with a wheelman able to execute when it counts will be the ones climbing the stage and accepting the big awards come the end of the year.
So is Jimmie Johnson going to be able to win another title with a new set of challenges laid before him? Can Denny Hamlin overcome his team’s collapse over the last two races of 2010 to take the big prize this season? Will the addition of a fourth team to the RCR stable drag the organization down as it did in the past, or will Kevin Harvick and company be able to rise above and grab the brass ring this year? Read this week’s Power Rankings to see where our pollsters have ranked your favorite heading into the heart of Daytona Speedweeks.
|FRONTSTRETCH TOP-15 POWER RANKINGS: FEBRUARY 16, 2011|
|Rank||Driver (First-Place Votes)||Votes||Last Week|
|1||Jimmie Johnson (5)||126||1|
|No more fingers on his hand for a sixth straight title. Will he grow one? That may be the biggest obstacle in his path for 2011.|
|2||Kevin Harvick (1)||122||2|
|Hmm. Black car at Daytona on the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s passing. Note there is still a small No. 3 by the B-pillar – and for good reason.|
|Second baby on the way, two straight wins to end 2010 and two 9s on the side of his car. All of this stuff points to… another runner-up finish in the standings, as long as Mr. Johnson stays on track.|
|Between the yellow-line penalty and the steering wheel coming off, don’t you have this feeling that 2011 is going to be “that kind of year” for this guy?|
|5||Kurt Busch (1)||96||15|
|Won the Bud Shootout just in time to give Jamie McMurray‘s new baby a nice little baptism trophy. He knows where the bread is buttered… you don’t want the guy to choose Matt Kenseth instead next time out, right?|
|His maturity level continues to rise and the potential for him to actually contend for a title grows in tandem.|
|For Gordon, the old adage must be “Life Begins At 40.” But if he endures a crappy season after a crew chief change, with Regis’s spot available on that corny morning talk show will it be “NASCAR Career Ends at 40?”|
|Hoping for all of the sixteenths of an inch measurements to be on the right side of the gauges this year.|
|Expect him to fade late in the year when he has to start changing diapers.|
|Still recovering from his “Worst of the Best” Chase effort where the team fell flat on their faces. Can RCR’s veteran leader shake it off and start bulldozing the competition all over again?|
|Still hasn’t found the right replacement for Robbie Reiser but he’s still consistent enough to be a top-five driver year in and year out.|
|One year ago, you probably never thought he’d hear the words “Defending Daytona 500 champion” preceding his name during driver introductions.|
|If he can keep the Australian incident from causing him to travel around the world multiple times during the season he’ll still be a contender.|
|Not sure what was more shocking for Newman – that he lost the Bud Shootout lead on the last lap or that he finished a restrictor-plate race right-side up and in one piece.|
|15||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||39||NR|
|Hard to rank him this low after winning the 500 pole. But hard to believe Junior’s year is turned around until we see what he does AFTER Daytona.|
|Dropped Out: Mark Martin (9), Joey Logano (10), AJ Allmendinger (13)|
|Also Receiving Votes: Mark Martin (36), Joey Logano (35), Juan Pablo Montoya (31), AJ Allmendinger (24), Paul Menard (22), Trevor Bayne (20), Martin Truex Jr. (13), David Reutimann (6), Brad Keselowski (5), Bill Elliott (4), Brian Vickers (3), Marcos Ambrose (2), Kasey Kahne (1), Derrike Cope (1)|
|Writer Voting Panel: Phil Allaway, Thomas Bowles, Bryan Davis Keith, Tony Lumbis, Mike Neff, Vito Pugliese and Garrett Horton|
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.