Brad Keselowski | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
While some fantasy owners were probably disappointed with his performance last season, 2010 went pretty much as expected for Keselowski. We have seen with several other drivers that success in the Nationwide Series doesn't guarantee instant success in the Cup Series. That being said, he should only continue to improve in his second full season at the Cup level.
We didn't expect him to need 32 races to notch his first top-10, but he managed two top-10s and a 13th-place finishes in the final five races of last year. The short track and flat tracks events were his strong suit, but he needs to improve on the intermediate ovals this season to reach the next level.
Expect steady progress throughout the 2011 season. He should easily exceed his top-10 total from a year ago and begin to consistently finish in the top 20. Keselowski will still have some rough patches, but he is just scratching the surface of his talent.
The biggest step he can take this year is toning down his aggressive style a bit. While it's not a bad thing that he stands up for himself and drives hard, starting feuds with Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and others only causes unneeded stress. It's hard enough to succeed at the Cup level without worrying about payback. Keselowski will eventually learn this and be a better driver for it.
Regan Smith | No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet | Furniture Row Racing
No driver impressed us more last year than Smith. Driving for the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation, he finished 28th in points. He managed 12 top-20 finishes, and he actually had the best stretch of his season during the Chase. Smith posted a 20.1 average finish in the final 10 events, compared to 24.5 for the season.
Thanks to his solid performance last year, he is locked in the first races of this season. Assuming he improves even a little, Smith is a potential top-25 driver. Working in his favor is the fact that he performed his best at the intermediate tracks. Smith compiled a 21.0 average finish in those 24 events, making him a possible option in two-thirds of the events.
He still needs a lot of work at the other track types, but an offseason for the organization to focus on these weaknesses should benefit Smith. His road course skills are probably not going to improve any time soon, but he can do better than his 30.7 average finish at short tracks and 30.5 average finish at superspeedways.
We're not sure anyone did more with less than Smith last year. His potential is going to be somewhat tempered by the limited resources of the No. 78 team, but he will likely exceed expectations again in 2011. Expect a few more top-20 finishes at the intermediate tracks and maybe even a top-10 or two.
Paul Menard | No. 27 Menard's/Sylvania/Zecol Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
For the first time in his career, Menard faces some expectations entering a season. The bad news is that expectations mean the potential to disappoint. The good news is that he faces those expectations because of his solid performance in 2010 and his move to Richard Childress Racing.
Menard becomes the fourth member of an organization that placed all three drivers in the Chase last season. He is coming off a year when he recorded a career-high six top-10 finishes and compiled a career-best 19.8 average finish. Those numbers should improve based on the RCR equipment alone, making Menard a likely candidate to crack the top 20.
He really left his mark at the 1.5-mile tracks last season. Five of his six top-10 finishes in 2010 came at that track type. Teamed with an organization like RCR, he has the potential to turn some of those top-10s into top-five finishes. Not every move works out as good in reality as it looks on paper, but there is plenty for Menard to be optimistic about.
Don't look for Menard to threaten for a Chase spot any time soon, and even winning a race would a major surprise. Even still, he should only improve on what was the best year of his career. He became a legitimate fantasy option for the first time in 2010, and he has never been in a better position to succeed.
A.J. Allmendinger | No. 43 Best Buy Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports
A.J. on the rise
Allmendinger had to fight and claw for his ride with Richard Petty Motorsports, but he enters 2011 as the organization's No. 1 driver. On top of that, he is coming off the best year of his career. Unless the financial issues facing RPM would force the organization to shut down operations, Allmendinger has all the tools to take a major step toward stardom this season.
He shed his "Wallmendinger" nickname is 2010, notching 26 top-20s and a 17.8 average finish. He also posted a career-high eight top-10s and finished 19th in the final standings. During the final 15 races of the year, he improved his average finish to 15.7. Allmendinger capped the year with a fifth-place finish in the finale.
Allmendinger has talent needed to become a solid all-around performer at the Cup level. He averaged a 15.9 average finish at the 24 intermediate tracks in 2010. His background in road racing has translated to the Cup Series, and he is already a top-10 driver. He averaged a top-20 finish at the short tracks last year, as well, with his only major weakness being the superspeedway tracks.
Even if he just maintains his 2010 performance, Allmendinger will be a useful fantasy option. Considering he will be entering just his third full-time season at the Cup level, chances are that he will improve. If that happens, Allmendinger could become a top-15 driver in 2011.
Joey Logano | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
If his finish to the 2010 season was any indication, Logano won't be a sleeper much longer. The 20-year-old driver made major strides in 2010, and he enters his third year in the Cup Series with his eyes on a spot in the Chase. Driving for a powerful organization like Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano's 2011 season has all the makings of a breakout year.
He finished last season 16th in points, recording a career-high seven top-five finishes and 16 top-10s. The 16 top-10s were the most by any driver not in the Chase. Logano's average finish improved from 20.0 in his rookie year to 16.8 last season. Although he wasn't able to win a race, it was very apparent that he was a better driver in his sophomore campaign.
It's hard not to be high on Logano. He finished the year with five top-seven finishes in the last six events. He compiled a 13.0 average finish in the Chase, scoring the fifth-most points of any driver. In his last five starts, he posted an 11.4 average finish. Logano finished in the top 10 in half of his starts at intermediate tracks and emerged as a surprising short track talent, posting a 12.2 average finish.
If he improves as much between his sophomore year and this year as he did between his rookie year and last year, Logano will definitely be in the mix for a playoff spot. It's not often that a highly touted athlete lives up to the hype, but he has been doing an admirable job. Logano seems primed to be NASCAR's next superstar, and it could happen as soon as this season.
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