2011 Nationwide Series Predictions
by Brinton Hester, Special To NASCAR news, fantasy racing advice and statistics On Pit Row
I've been a racing fan for most of my life, and I love writing about it. Follow me on Twitter @TheHestercutionFebruary 14, 2011 7:41 pm UTC 1 Comment
After a long off-season with many changes, we find ourselves ready for the onset of the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series. The look of the car is different, the points structure is different, and the names above a lot of the doors are different, but in my eyes, the biggest difference from past seasons is that drivers must declare which of NASCAR’s top three series they wish to earn points in. This change has been met with plenty of optimism, especially as it relates to the Nationwide Series, primarily due to the fact that the last five Nationwide Championships have been won by drivers competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The competition for the championship is wide open, so who will come out on top? I’ll give my predictions for the top five in points in my 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series preview.
5. Reed Sorenson – Reed Sorenson, driver of the #32 Dollar General Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports, should have plenty of confidence coming into the season. Despite starting only 28 of the 35 races in the 2010 season, he finished 12th in points, beating out several guys who ran every race. He had an impressive 9 top 5 and 21 top 10 finishes, which topped over half of the drivers that finished ahead of him in points.. His team, Turner Motorsports, has stepped up their equipment. They have moved from Toyota to the Chevrolet camp, and will utilize Hendrick engines along with receiving body and aerodynamic support from Kevin Harvick Inc. While he hasn’t won a race since 2007, I see that changing early on this season. Expect to see Sorenson running toward the front on a weekly basis in 2011.
4. Trevor Bayne – Trevor Bayne enters the 2011 with a lot to smile about. After the fall race at Dover International Speedway, he left Diamond-Waltrip Racing to drive for Roush Fenway Racing. He ran the last seven events of the season for Roush Fenway, running a fifth car for the team in all but one of those races. The move to Roush also allowed him to make his Sprint Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway in the famous #21 of the Wood Brothers. Bayne will also run the 21 in the Cup Series for at least 17 races this season with the possibility of more depending on sponsorship. Coming off a top 5 finish at Homestead in the season finale, Bayne has a ton of momentum headed into this year, so look for the #16 Ford Mustang to be at the front of the field and for Bayne to win his first career race.
3. Justin Allgaier – Riverton, IL native Justin Allgaier comes into the new season with something to prove. On the surface that sounds like a preposterous statement, especially considering the fact that he was by far the best of the drivers that didn’t compete in the Sprint Cup Series last season. The high moment of the 2008 ARCA champion’s season was earning his first career Nationwide Series win at Bristol in March. Despite his success, at the end of the season Penske Racing told Allgaier that he was free to look elsewhere due to a lack of sponsorship. While that was quite an unfortunate circumstance for a good guy that was doing everything right, his situation showed that everything happens for a reason. Allgaier finds himself behind the wheel of the #31 Brandt Chevrolet Impala for Turner Motorsports, teaming with Reed Sorenson, Jason Leffler, and several part-time drivers. I see this being a much better fit for Allgaier, and will be surprised if he doesn’t win at least two races this season.
2. Elliott Sadler – To describe the last few years as anything other than a roller-coaster for Elliott Sadler would be a massive understatement. The lack of results during his tenure at Richard Petty Motorsports was frustrating for a driver that knew he could still get it done on the track. Sometimes a boost of confidence is all that it takes. He announced prior to the 2010 season that he would run several Camping World Truck Series races for Kevin Harvick Inc. In those races he was always a contender, despite having problems in a couple of races, but the pinnacle of the year was the Truck Series race in Pocono where he scored his first win in NASCAR since 2004. Another highlight took place at the fall race at Bristol, where in a last minute deal, he finished third driving the #33 for KHI. After that he mentioned several times that he would be interested in running full-time in the Nationwide Series. In November, it was announced that he would run the full schedule behind the wheel of KHI’s #2 OneMain Financial Chevrolet. I look forward to seeing a rejuvenated Elliott Sadler in the series and have no doubt that he will return to victory lane.
1. Aric Almirola – Despite the fact that 2011 will be Aric Almirola’s fifth year in the Nationwide Series, it will be his first full-time season in the series. Due to the fact that he will be driving for JR Motorsports, he will be under one of the biggest microscopes in the series and will be expected to perform. I don’t think that will be a problem at all for the Tampa, FL native. He spent 2010 behind the wheel of the #51 Billy Ballew Motorsports truck in the Camping World Truck Series and finished second in points with two victories. He also managed to earn a top five finish in the Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead driving the #9 for Richard Petty Motorsports. While a top 5 in itself is impressive at the Cup level, it was more impressive considering he did it as a replacement driver for a team whose entire future was in jeopardy. His 2011 situation shows much more stability. He’ll be in the #88 for JRM with sponsorship from Grand Touring Vodka, TaxSlayer, and a myriad of the Unilever brands. Rick Hendrick tabbed him as the relief driver for both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson when their pregnant wives were due, but he wasn’t needed in either situation. Nevertheless, Hendrick choosing him for that role leads me to believe that he has his eye on Almirola, and if he impresses in the 88, you never know what the future holds for him. Winning the Nationwide championship could go a long way in securing Almirola’s future in the sport, and I fully expect him to deliver.
Best of the Rest: While the drivers mentioned above are who I predict will finish in the top 5 in Nationwide points, they aren’t the only ones with something to race for. There are a few other notables who deserve a shout-out.
-Brian Scott will drive full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing this season in his sophomore effort. He showed promise during his rookie season, and now that he’s driving for the team that has dominated Nationwide since 2008, he will be expected to perform. Is he up to the challenge?
-Ricky Stenhouse‘s turnaround in 2010 was nothing short of remarkable. He started off the season tearing up more than his fair share of cars, resulting in 5 DNFs. The low point came at the second Nashville race where he spun out in qualifying and failed to qualify for the race. He was replaced the next week, and after that he was a different person. He didn’t have any DNFs in the second half of the season, and even managed to come from behind to win the Rookie of the Year award. He looked like he had the car to beat at the end of the race at Homestead, but ran out of time. He’ll have something to prove this season driving the #6 for Roush Fenway Racing.
-Steve Wallace is set to begin his fifth full-time season in the series and is still searching for that elusive first victory. He has shown flashes of brilliance at times, but is still working on his consistency. I see this as a make or break year for Wallace, and think that if he wants to be taken seriously by the masses, he needs to get his #66 5 Hour Energy Toyota into Victory Lane.
-Jason Leffler has become a fixture of the Nationwide Series. He’s beginning his 7th season with the team formerly known as Braun Racing which was acquired by Turner Motorsports last season. He will be trying to take the #38 Great Clips Impala to victory lane for the first time since 2007. He will also be looking to finish in the top 10 in points for the fifth consecutive season.