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Driver to beat in '11: Not many challengers to Johnson

January 14, 2011, , NASCAR.com



Driver to beat in '11: Not many challengers to Johnson
Staff says five-time champ the favorite, with Hamlin, Edwards top challengers

As Daytona inches closer on the calendar, the NASCAR.COM writing staff looks ahead to the 2011 season and offers up some predictions. The focus for Monday is which driver is the one to beat in 2011.

JARROD BREEZE

If you want to get technical about it, Jimmie Johnson is the driver to beat in 2011 since he is the defending champion. But more to the point, he is the driver to beat in 2011 because for the past five years running no one has been able to do so and until it's proven otherwise, how can you go against him?

Johnson does everything well. He wins races and more importantly avoids the bad finishes that have a far greater negative impact on the points than anything positive a victory brings.

"There's something to be said for his focus, his determination, and his absolute willingness to play mind games with those he's competing against."

--JILL ERWIN

Since 2006, Johnson leads all drivers in victories (35, twice as many as the next driver), top-five finishes (81), top-10s (117), average finish (10.8) and laps led (7,655, more than 2,000 better than anyone else). Also during that span Johnson has just 10 DNFs, tied with Matt Kenseth. Of drivers who have raced full time since Johnson's run, only Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick have fewer DNFs.

He's even better in the Chase. Again, Johnson leads all drivers with 19 victories, 40 top-fives, 54 top-10s, an 8.1 average finish and 3,423 laps led. Only nine times in 70 races has he finished worse than 15th, and since his championship run began has but one DNF.

He's won going away. He's won when pushed to the brink. Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have all tried in recent years. No one has succeeded. No one will in 2011, either.

JILL ERWIN

If the question were "Who's going to win the title," that leaves it open to more interpretation. But the driver to beat has been, and will continue to be, Jimmie Johnson until someone proves they can beat him.

Even last season, when he admittedly wasn't as strong as he has been, Johnson had the mental strength to become the first driver to win the Chase when trailing going into the final race. There's something to be said for his focus, his determination, and his absolute willingness to play mind games with those he's competing against -- Hi, Mike Ford!

Am I convinced Johnson will win his sixth consecutive title? No. It's a long season and anything can happen, especially things out of his control. But I'm certainly not going to bet against him until someone proves they can outperform him in a 36-race season.

JOE MENZER

Carl Edwards no doubt will be a popular pick as the 2011 driver to beat in the Sprint Cup Series, based on his strong finish in 2010. Maybe Denny Hamlin, too, based on how close he came to pulling out a championship last season. Or Kyle Busch, simply based on how many races the guy wins every year across the NASCAR national touring series board.

But really, how can anyone in their right mind pick anyone but five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson? Listen, I've picked against the guy in the past. It's always popular to bet against him in these preseason prognostication polls -- and always wrong, too. Now that Johnson has won five titles in a row, why not six? Does anyone really believe that his focus and determination and motivation will be any less now that he's got the record seven championships of legendary drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt squarely in his sights?

"I don't know if it's in reach," Johnson said of matching and perhaps eclipsing the record total of titles. "I know we are going to have chances to win championships, but you just don't know how the year is going to unfold. You don't know what is going to take place."

Um, yes we do. A driver or two will rise up to challenge Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, only to find that they are the best once again.

DAVE RODMAN

There is no possible way that anyone but five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson could be perceived as the "driver to beat" for the 2011 season. Johnson has made his case a very solid one since he entered the series in 2002, and everything he's done since then has only emphasized it.

His average starting position has improved through his drive through five championships, to the point that it's been a single-digit number for each of the past four years. In those five championship seasons his average finish has hovered between a best of 9.7 and a "worst" of 12.2 -- which is still pretty darned sporty.

Johnson's name most consistently appeared near the top of a variety of NASCAR's year-end Loop Data reports. Sure, Johnson appeared to be the most vulnerable in 2010 that he's been since he last failed to win the championship, and his six wins were the fewest since he won five times in his first championship season. But everything else, from his total of top-10 finishes to his percentage of total laps led, establish he and his Hendrick Motorsports squad, once again, as the group the title will have to be ripped away from.

CHRIS STANFIELD

Call me predictable, but as far as I can tell Jimmie Johnson and team will return to Daytona poised and ready to win a sixth Cup championship. And until someone knocks the No. 48 team off of the mountain top, he's not just a driver to beat, he's the only one.

The phrase soon to be heard from every Cup team in the Chase, "We've been here before and know how to win." That carries more weight coming from a team that's won five in a row. Knowledge and confidence go a long way in helping to win titles and no one has more of it behind the wheel or atop the pit box on Sundays than Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson.

Major props to Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin for giving what may be the greatest driver ever a run for his money in 2010, but unless they or this year's challengers can remain calm under pressure and find a way to win, I'll be writing these same three paragraphs again in 2012.

MARK AUMANN

If not for some lousy fuel mileage and poorly timed caution flags at Phoenix, Denny Hamlin very well could have ended Jimmie Johnson's championship streak at four. Instead, he and crew chief Mike Ford were forced to spend the offseason pondering what they could have done differently in the final two races of the season.

But the harsh lessons learned in 2010, coupled with the strength the No. 11 Toyota team showed all season long, should pay major dividends this season. Having come that close, Hamlin and Ford now have first-hand knowledge of what it will take to unseat Johnson in 2011. And if they can come close to repeating a season in which they won eight times, recorded 14 top-five finishes and led 1184 laps, they'll be right in the thick of the championship chase again.

E. Joseph Cossman once said, "Obstacles are things a person sees when he takes his eyes off his goal." Having gone through that adversity last November may only serve to make the team more focused. And when all is said and done 10 months from now, the bitterness felt by Hamlin when he left Homestead could turn into sweet revenge.

BILL KIMM

If you think what Denny Hamlin was able to accomplish in 2010 was a fluke ... think again. Expect more of the same domination from the No. 11 bunch in 2011, and this time -- the championship.

With eight wins last season, Hamlin was able to shake one of the biggest criticisms of his young Cup career -- the ability to close. Sure, Hamlin had been out front many times, but the wins weren't there. That's not the case anymore. Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford have figured out how to win races on a consistent basis, and that's not something that disappears.

But more importantly, in 2010, Hamlin went from being a talented driver to being a championship contender. It's one thing to be able to win, it's another to remain consistent all season long, picking your spots and learning how to rebound out of slumps. Hamlin and Ford nearly perfected that in 2010.

Hamlin has made the Chase his entire career and in 2010 had the championship in his grasp and saw it slip away. That disappointment will only fuel Hamlin's competitive drive, which means trouble for the rest of the field.

DAVID CARAVIELLO

He went 70 races without a victory before snapping his long winless skid late last year. He finished fourth in points, and was never really a factor in the championship hunt. He drove for a team and a manufacturer that each suffered through mighty struggles during the course of the 2010 campaign.

And yet, Carl Edwards seems very much your driver to beat for 2011, sweeping the final two races of this past season to carry momentum into the upcoming one, finally regaining some of that form that made him such a prime contender to Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson in 2008. Denny Hamlin showed this past season that a strong surge to the finish can do wonders for a driver's confidence the next year. The faulty simulation software -- or whatever it was that put Roush Fenway so far behind the competition early in the season -- has clearly been resolved. And Edwards shows every indication of having the team and the equipment behind him to successfully knock off Johnson.

Granted, the five-time champ isn't going anywhere. That No. 48 car will surely be in the mix. But we saw some clear weaknesses last year, potentially opening the door for someone else, and Edwards has all the tools to muscle his way in.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.