Racing predictions for 2011
With Graham Rahal and others racing, expect an American to win 2011's Indy 500
A new surface at Daytona will encourage a record number of lead changes
Marred in a 93-race drought, Dale Earnhardt Jr. faces an uphill battle in 2011
1. An American will win the Indianapolis 500. Funny, isn't it, how the oldest 500-mile race in America hasn't been won much by Americans -- just twice in the last dozen years, with Buddy Rice ('04) and Sam Hornish Jr. ('06). Expect that to change in 2011. Hornish, struggling to keep sponsorship afloat in stock cars, could re-enter the race with Penske Racing and join well-funded American drivers Graham Rahal (Ganassi), Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport) and Marco Andretti (Andretti) as immediate threats. Then, of course, there's the always-unpredictable Danica Patrick. There are enough options that someone, somewhere will break through to Victory Lane and end the drought.
2. Danica Patrick will win a race ... in IndyCar. Patrick's foray into NASCAR was less than stellar in 2010; she finished no better than 19th in her 13 Nationwide starts. But it was the IndyCar struggles that surprised fans most of all, with road course woes highlighting a slump that left her 10th in points --- her worst result since 2005 --- with only one lap led all year. How will she recover in 2011? Signs are she'll be on an upward swing ... in open-wheel. Andretti as a whole seems primed to bounce back, despite the loss of leader Tony Kanaan. A runner-up finish at Homestead left Patrick with plenty of offseason momentum. Expect a breakthrough at a place like Japan, Texas or even Iowa to keep her feet planted firmly on the IndyCar side for years to come.
3. The Daytona 500 will be a record-setting race. Fifty-nine lead changes. That Daytona 500 mark has stood for 36 years, since Richard Petty eventually romped to victory in the Great American Race back in 1974. But with new pavement and a new plate package descending on the 2.5-mile track, drivers claim the oval now behaves more like its superspeedway little brother, Talladega. What does that mean? With all 43 cars Super Glued together, handling and tire wear will be less of a priority as no one will be able to pull away. So expect plenty of passing to ensue with 60, even 70 lead changes a possibility. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the final number approaches the record 88 at Talladega in April 2010.
4. Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford will be divorced by November. Hamlin and Ford were Jimmie Johnson's best threat yet, the closest to toppling what's become five straight Sprint Cup championships for the No. 48. But this driver/crew chief duo unraveled over the final three weeks of the season as Hamlin's win at Texas was negated by Ford's trash talk toward Hendrick Motorsports that riled up the reigning champs. Add in a Phoenix strategy miscue in which faulty fuel mileage left Hamlin 12th after dominating up front, and it's hard for the driver to avoid pointing toward the pit box over lost opportunities. Should the No. 11 Toyota regress this season, expect the head wrench to get sent packing.
5. The new Nationwide Series car will be a Sprint Cup template for 2013. Six years after the Car of Tomorrow, all indications are that NASCAR is headed toward another radical redesign of its chassis for 2013. For a sneak peek, though, you won't have to do much: Simply turn on the television and catch Saturday afternoon races of NASCAR's Nationwide Series. New, classic car designs based on the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger are giving fans something to crow about, differences easy to spot in a world in which parity has trumped style for years. With pressure on Chevy to follow suit, expect NASCAR to learn its lessons and trumpet a design moving up to Cup where fans can actually root based on cars they see on the street.
6. A Sprint Cup driver won't win the Nationwide title ... finally. NASCAR remains uncommitted on whether it'll let Cup drivers challenge for the Nationwide championship. But even if those full-timers don't get locked out, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski must deal with the money, moxie and potential of Aric Almirola. Driving for JR Motorsports, in Keselowski's old No. 88 ride, Almirola's team is armed with the leftovers of Danica Patrick cash, a wily veteran mechanic in Tony Eury Sr. and a driver who's coming off a runner-up finish in Camping World Trucks. After years of falling short, driver development takes center stage once again as a Nationwide-only participant takes the points trophy for the first time since Martin Truex Jr. in 2005.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will struggle and look elsewhere for employment. It's supposedly an ironclad contract, a five-year deal through 2012, and owner Rick Hendrick was even negotiating an extension in early December. But with the sport's most popular driver dragging a 93-race winless streak into 2011, two straight points finishes outside the top 20 clearly make this a make-or-break season. New crew chief Steve Letarte has been hailed as a fix-all, but he and the former No. 24 chassis won't be up to par for a driver who needs a whip-cracker, not another best friend on the pit box. And if Earnhardt's 18th in points, without a Chase bid and winless by mid-summer ... who's to say he'll sign that extension? Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch come to mind as famous drivers who opted out a year early, and don't be surprised if Richard Childress makes a run at the big bucks and big name that comes with it. After all, that's where Earnhardt's father earned his championships, right?
8. Jeff Gordon will be reborn. While the changes won't work well for Earnhardt, a new crew chief and shop for Hendrick Motorsports' former golden boy is set to work wonders. After four titles from 1995-2001, Gordon has gone nearly a decade without one, earning only one victory in the last three seasons, while teammate Johnson romped to championship after championship. With Gordon living in the same building as Johnson, it got to the point that the former mentor was more like a dignified assistant, causing owner Rick Hendrick to switch him out, move longtime Gordon crew chief Steve Letarte to Earnhardt and bring in the underrated Alan Gustafson for Gordon. In 2009, Gustafson guided 50-year-old Mark Martin (now paired in the same building with Gordon) to five wins and a runner-up finish in points. Think about what he can do for the sport's winningest active driver. Will Gordon win the title? Not quite, but six wins and third in points are distinct possibilities.
9. The IndyCar title goes Down Under. Penske's Ryan Briscoe has been good but not great for most of the last three seasons, padding his résumé with six wins and three top-five points finishes. This season, though, the Aussie is poised to break out ahead of teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Bringing the title back to this open-wheel powerhouse, he'll win on a handful of road courses and ovals, overshadowing resurgent Americans and even Castroneves to bring home the trophy.
10. Jimmie Johnson will win his sixth Sprint Cup title in a row. Probably the least daring of any of these 10 predictions, but one wonders how much longer Johnson can lead a charmed life in the Cup playoffs. Chase changes will likely work against him, set up to ensure this type of dynasty never happens again. But who's going to stop him now? Carl Edwards? Tried in 2008, came up short. Denny Hamlin? Ditto in 2010. Kevin Harvick? The man's team looks ready to rebel against him any second now. Tony Stewart? He gets his engine and chassis from Johnson's organization, Hendrick Motorsports. You really think the supplier would shoot itself in the foot? We could go on ... and on ... and on. The bottom line is, all roads point squarely in the direction of the No. 48's extending his record for consecutive championships.