What are the significant schedule changes?
Atlanta Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway each lose a race. Kansas Speedway picks up a second date in the spring and Kentucky Speedway will host its first Sprint Cup race in July.
For the first time in the eight-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's playoff round opens somewhere other than New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which this year will host round two of the Chase. The first playoff race this year will be at Chicagoland Speedway in September.
What's the news in the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series?
The above changes apply in all three series, with the exception of the Chase, which remains exclusive to the Sprint Cup Series. One big change: Drivers can only accumulate championship points in one series. No more “Buschwhackers” winning Nationwide titles. That's huge.
In the Nationwide Series, the new-gen car that was raced four times in 2010 will be used in all 35 races. So, hello, Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger.
What are the big personnel moves?
There are a few mid-pack moves of note: 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte moves to JTG-Daugherty Racing, replacing Marcos Ambrose, who's now at Richard Petty Motorsports. Paul Menard and his sponsorship is now at Richard Childress Racing, his fourth team in as many years.
But there are two moves that dwarf the others: The first is a three-way swap of crew chiefs at Hendrick Motorsports. Dale Earnhardt Jr. moves into the same shop as Jimmie Johnson, with Steve Letarte as his crew chief. The other Hendrick shop will be Jeff Gordon (ABOVE) and crew chief Alan Gustafson, with Mark Martin and Lance McGrew.
The other intriguing combo is Red Bull Racing, where Brian Vickers returns after missing two-thirds of 2010 for treatment of blood clots. His teammate for 2011 only will be Kasey Kahne, who in 2012 will replace Martin at Hendrick. It wouldn't shock if Vickers and Kahne both make the Chase.
Who will surprise in 2011?
Trevor Bayne will drive the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in 17 races. The Woods have decided to go back to having Roush Fenway Racing build their cars and Bayne can flat get up on the wheel. Even without running a full schedule, he'll make some noise for sure.
Two other drivers to watch for: Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard. With his NASCAR Nationwide Series championship crew chief Paul Wolfe moving up and Keselowski shifting to Penske Racing's No. 2 Blue Deuce, this is a team that will win races. And Menard is more than just a member of the Lucky Sperm Club: He showed last year that he can drive and he will make people take notice with his performance at RCR.
Will Jimmie Johnson win six in a row? No. This year, the odds will finally catch up to him, and the five guys most likely to beat him, in order, are:
- Kevin Harvick For the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death, the swagger is back in a big way at Richard Childress Racing – fast cars, big horsepower and a team owner and driver who 100 percent believe not only that they can win it all, but that they will win it all.
- Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Racing closed out 2010 strong with two wins for Cousin Carl – once Jack Roush figured out how skewed his simulation software was relative to the competition. Plus, the FR9 Ford engine is now fully sorted.
- Denny Hamlin So close and yet so far in 2010, Hamlin will either kick everyone's butt and score a dominant first Sprint Cup, or fade back in the pack and never get close this year.
- Jeff Gordon With Alan Gustafson running his team now, Gordon might step up in a big way and bag his fifth title 11 years after taking his fourth. Not saying he's too old, but Jeff turns 40 this year, and hears the clock ticking.
- Tony Stewart Like Gordon, Stewart will be 40 this year. The fact that he's gone on a major diet and exercise regimen is testament to just how serious “Smoke” is about adding a third championship title.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.