By KFFL Staff on February 8, 2011
NASCAR is a sport with many ups and downs. The winner one week could barely finish inside the top 20 the next. Over the course of a single race a driver could be leading laps one moment only to end the day on the hook of a tow truck. With 36 points-paying races that span from February through November, it's doubtful the drivers highlighted below will struggle each and every week. However, there is a question mark or two surrounding them due to key team changes, troublesome trends or simply some doubts about duplicating last year's success.
Overvalued and bust drivers
By all accounts, Harvick had a stellar 2010 by setting career highs with 16 top-fives, 26 top-10s and a series-leading 8.7 average finish, a full three positions ahead of the next driver. Under the old points system, Harvick would have cruised to the championship 285 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. He managed all this despite an average starting position of 21.0, 24th among drivers. Then why, after finishing outside of the top 15 just four times, would owners be weary of Harvick? Simple, a repeat of such remarkable consistency will be very difficult to duplicate for anyone, let alone the brash Harvick. Consider, from 2007-09, Harvick averaged just 5.3 top-fives and 14.3 top-10s per year. While we expect him to have a fine year, his performance will likely settle somewhere closer to his norm - a 10.3 average finish in the points standings.
For the first time since 2005, the elder Busch brother will not be in the famed Blue Deuce paint scheme with accompanying Miller Lite sponsorship. While Busch remains an elite driver on 1.5-mile cookie-cutter tracks, he's a risky boom-or-bust option at most other venues. Last year, Busch had 12 finishes outside of the top 20. Worse yet, four of such results came in the final seven races of the season, when elite drivers should be peaking. In addition to the awful finish, owners should worry about the strategic island where Busch resides. Penske, now a two-car operation, is the lone team running Dodge equipment and Busch's teammate, Brad Keselowski, is headed into just his second full season in the Cup series. With limited feedback available to improve the program, Busch may find getting back to challenging for another championship a difficult task.
Oh, what could have been for Burton in 2010? Last year, several late-race issues cost the team top-five finishes and even some potential wins. By the time the Chase rolled around, Burton's frustration was starting to boil over and performance suffered. In fact, the typically mild-mannered veteran lost his cool on a few occasions. Over the last eight races of the season, Burton recorded only one top-10 and had a 24.7 average finish, in part because of two crashes. With only 11 top-fives, 25 top-10s and no wins over the last two seasons, Burton offers minimal upside when stacked up against the other Chase-caliber drivers.
After an uneven start to 2010, Martin was struggling mightily by midseason. However, the team recovered with an average finish of 9.5 over the last nine races. The turnaround wasn't enough to prevent Hendrick from shaking things up. Lance McGrew, formerly of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s slumping No. 88 team, will move to the top of Martin's pit box. If that wasn't a big enough concern, both Martin and McGrew are likely lame ducks with the organization. In 2012, the pair figures to be replaced by Kasey Kahne, already under contract, and his longtime crew chief, Kenny Francis. In a league where owners are drafting drivers, it's hard to place much faith in Martin, now back at square one, considering he has one foot out the door and an unpopular crew chief that isn't far behind.
Last year, McMurray had a storybook season. He went from nearly being out of Cup series and struggling to find sponsorship to winning the two biggest races on the schedule. In addition to historic victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, McMurray was also a top performer in other NASCAR "majors". He was the runner-up in both the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while finishing third in the Bristol night race. However, McMurray was inconsistent when he wasn't on the big stage with only four other top-five finishes and eight other top-10s. While there's always the possibility McMurray will improve in his second year of reunion with owner Chip Ganassi, it's important that owners look at the entire picture, which is something of a work in progress.