5) Marcos Ambrose | No. 9 Stanley Black & Decker Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports
After his surprising success in 2009, Ambrose struggled in his second full-time season in the Cup Series. He managed just two top-five finishes and five top-10s, compiling a 22.6 average finish. He ended up 26th in points and finished the year with a dismal eight DNFs.
Even though his supposed breakout season turned out to be a bust, there are several reasons for Ambrose to be optimistic about the 2011 season. He will be behind the wheel of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 machine, and despite the organization's financial issues, it will be the best equipment Ambrose has had to work with at the Cup level. Another year of experience will help him, as well.
His move to RPM could be a match made in heaven. Ambrose's biggest weakness in his brief career has been the intermediate ovals. Those just happen to be the tracks that RPM drivers have excelled at the last few years. If the move can improve Ambrose's performance at the 1.5-mile and 2.0-mile tracks, he instantly becomes a top-20 driver once again.
Ambrose is one of the best road racers in the series, and he is quickly becoming a reliable short track option as well. He isn't going to have eight DNFs again, and the bad breaks that plagued him last season are likely to balance out. Simple odds say that his luck will improve, and the talent he showed in 2009 should take care of the rest.
4) Bobby Labonte | No. 17 Little Debbie/Clorox/Kingsford Charcoal/Bush's Baked Beans/Kleenex/Lance Snacks Toyota | JTG Daugherty Racing
It won't take much for Labonte to have a better year in 2011. After all, he compiled a 30.6 average finish and didn't finish in the top 10 once in 2010. He spent the latter part of the year jumping between cars and was even forced to start and park at times. In the end, he finished the year with 11 DNFs and just one finish inside the top 20.
Taking over driving duties for the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing machine should at least allow Labonte to run for wins throughout the year. Marcos Ambrose wasn't exactly a superstar in his time in the No. 47, but Labonte is certainly entering a better situation than he is leaving behind. Whatever talent he still has at this stage in his career, he will have a chance to showcase in 2011.
Looking at his career numbers, Labonte will likely return to his 2005-08 form when he finished between 18th and 24th in the standings and posted an average finish between 22.0 and 22.7. Expecting him to become a top-15 driver once again is a bit of a stretch, but he is better than the driver that has posted 18 DNFs in the last two seasons.
Improvement can be somewhat relative, and considering how bad his last two seasons have been, Labonte will look like a new man in 2011. Just knowing he has decent equipment and a team built to run the entire season will improve his attitude behind the wheel. Since being an afterthought for the last two seasons, Labonte will have legitimate fantasy value for the first time in a while.
3) Kasey Kahne | No. 4 Red Bull Energy Drink Toyota | Red Bull Racing
After making the Chase in 2009, Kahne came unraveled in 2010. He finished 20th in the final standings and failed to win a race after winning two races in 2008 and 2009. Equipment issues and his own mistakes behind the wheel led to an ugly end to his time with Richard Petty Motorsports. Shortly after fighting with one of his crew members, Kahne was released from the organization and allowed to join Red Bull Racing a few races early.
It was a bad breakup, but it offered Kahne a chance to get his feet wet with his 2011 team. Although he ran just five races with the No. 83 team, the experience could prove invaluable. His progress with his new team could already be seen at the end of 2010. After up-and-down performances in the first four races, Kahne sat on the pole and finished sixth in the season finale.
Expect more results like that in 2011, especially at the 1.5-mile tracks he has excelled throughout his career. Both Kahne and the No. 83 team know that this is a one-year deal before Kahne joins Hendrick Motorsports. There is no pressure on driver or crew, and Kahne can cut loose to try to win as many races as possible.
A return to the Chase isn't necessarily going to happen, but Kahne barely even made an impact in 2010. He won't be as quiet this season, and while there may still be some growing pains, there will be more high points and less low points than last season. At least one trip to victory lane is well within reason, and he should easily exceed his 10 top-10 finishes from a year ago.
2) Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Energy Drink Toyota | Red Bull Racing
While the rest of the drivers on this list are trying to bounce back from disappointing years on the track, Vickers is coming back from something much more serious. Potentially life-threatening blood clots forced Vickers to step out of the car just 11 races into the 2010 season. Fortunately, surgery and subsequent treatment have Vickers cleared to return to the Cup Series in 2011.
Fantasy owners shouldn't forget that the last time Vickers ran a full season, he made the Chase. In fact, he was well on his way to establishing himself as a consistent contender for Red Bull Racing. In his final race before being forced to take a medical leave, Vickers started third and finished 10th at Darlington.
It is a bit unfair to expect Vickers to immediately regain his 2009 form out of the gates, but he should be a consistent top-15 driver before the end of the year. His talent at the 1.5-mile and 2.0-mile tracks isn't going to suddenly disappear because of his layoff. Once he gets in a rhythm, he will find his way back on to fantasy rosters.
Although it's still unfortunate that he had to endure an unexpected setback just as he was becoming a star, the outcome could have been a lot worse. There's no doubt that he will never take his career for granted again, and in the long run, the new attitude could make him an even better driver. He will basically clinch Comeback Driver of the Year just by getting in the car of the Daytona 500.
Martin still has what it takes
1) Mark Martin | No. 5 GoDaddy.com/Quaker State Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
A year after nearly winning the title, Martin failed to make the Chase in 2010. His line fell from five wins, 14 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s in 2009 to zero wins, seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10s last year. The dramatic drop-off made him one of the biggest disappointments of last season, but Martin is too good of a driver not to rebound.
The signs of a turnaround were already present at the end of last year. Martin finished 16th or better in the last nine races of the season, scoring the fourth-most points in the series during the stretch. Highlights of the hot streak included leading the most laps at Auto Club Speedway, finishing second at Martinsville and third at Texas.
Martin was clearly hamstrung all season by Hendrick Motorsports' decision to integrate his No. 5 team with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 team. The personnel shift transformed Martin's team from championship caliber to mediocre, and it took him nearly all season to find a rhythm with the new group. Martin underwent another personnel change this offseason, moving into the same garage as Jeff Gordon. Pairing the two veterans seems like a much better recipe for success than the combination of Martin and the struggling Junior.
The veteran is still much closer to the driver that nearly won the title than to the driver that couldn't make the Chase last year. Expect Martin to return to the Chase in 2011 and return to victory lane. He doesn't have many years left, but count on him making the most out of the time he does have.
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