Logano, Bayne among NASCAR's drivers to watch in 2011 (cont.)
Ricky Carmichael: He's also aligned with Turner and looking for his big break towards Cup. But it's a make-or-break year for the former AMA star, whom I still like but whose nasty habit of wrecking his truck (seven DNFs for crashes in 43 starts) have some calling him the two-wheeled Sam Hornish of NASCAR.
Amber and Angela Cope: Marketing gold. Racing hazards. Shall we move on?
Jeffrey Earnhardt: Meeting the grandson of the Intimidator is really scary: he walks, talks and even acts like the man who died on that fateful crash off turn 4 in 2001. Only problem is, he's yet to drive like that on a big-time stage (five races, one top-25 finish last year in Trucks) and Rick Ware Racing has a history of funding troubles and revolving doors when it comes to drivers. Wouldn't it be a great story, though, if this full-time Truck rookie could beat the odds?
Johanna Long: She won the 43rd annual Snowball Derby, the prestigious late model race in Florida won by Kyle Busch in '09. Just 18, she has high expectations backing a rookie-of-the-year bid in the Truck Series, and talent-wise I like her over the long-term, I really do. I'm just wondering if money -- she has yet to attract a multi-million dollar sponsor -- plus inexperience will handicap her during the 2011 transition to tougher competition.
Miguel Paludo: For those looking for some foreign flavor, this Brazilian has two top-10 finishes in four career Truck Series starts down in "AA." Aligned with a good minor-league development team, Red Horse Racing, the former Porsche GT3 champion could have a solid season.
Travis Pastrana: The "X" Games man extraordinaire showed some surprising skill in a few early spins behind the wheel of a stock car. But seven races on the Nationwide level in 2011, no matter how good the finishes, will leave us with an incomplete assessment. For the record, I think only one of his finishes will be inside the top 15.
Danica Patrick: She finally broke through with her first top-20 finish in NASCAR's Nationwide season finale. She has the eye of RPM's Andrew Murstein, among others, who would fight to the death to get her in a Cup car next year, but is she really ready for it, let alone a top-10 finish in Nationwide when she's still on the verge of wrecking the stock car half the time? A marketing source told me that to his knowledge, the No. 7 car had nearly $10 million in funding last year, which would have made it the best-supported, non-Cup team in NASCAR's AAA-level garage. That should have helped more.
Brian Scott: He probably has the best chance among those in the longshot category. Scott was a mid-level finisher his rookie year in the Nationwide Series, losing the freshmen rookie race but winning the war (signed with Joe Gibbs Racing for 2011). The jury is out on his upward ceiling, but considering the organization he drives for has won 49 of the last 105 races in the series -- an unheard-of 46.6 percent -- every opportunity to succeed will be there. Oh, Danica, we have a male match for you...
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: Made a spirited charge to Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year in 2010, and this cowboy boot-wearing, Southern-style driver charmed me after a wreck-filled first half. But something tells me Roush is enamored with Bayne instead, and if all the veterans re-sign on the Cup level (Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have expiring contracts) there's only so much room at the inn.
Darrell Wallace, Jr.: A two-time winner in K&N Pro Series East competition, another single-A level series, Wallace is just 16. Still, one official who works with the diversity program told me in passing the other day, "Without a doubt, this kid will be the first Tiger Woods-like breakout superstar for us." But I'll believe it once this African-American secures the funding to go beyond the lower levels and starts campaigning against the Big Boys in Trucks, Nationwide, and beyond. With age restrictions, that can't happen until he turns 18 in mid-2012.
Steve Wallace: After toiling in Nationwide for several years, the son of 1989 Cup champ Rusty makes his major league debut in his father's equipment next week at Daytona. But with six times as many DNFs (25) as top-5 finishes (four) in a six-year career in the minors, is this 23-year-old ready to take the next step to Cup?
Cole Whitt: On the heels of 15th- and 17th-place finishes in his first two Nationwide starts for Red Bull Racing, Whitt was recently featured in ESPN the Mag as a "NEXT-level" athlete. There's plenty of potential here for this Californian, especially since the upward-leaning RBR has an automatic Cup opening in 2012 -- Kasey Kahne will leave for Hendrick Motorsports -- and the team has a history of moving up talented youngsters with limited stock car experience (see: Allmendinger, A.J. and Speed, Scott).
But this guy has yet to win a race at the K&N Pro level and his schedule for the year remains a bit uncertain.
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