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Montoya, Logano favorites to exceed expectations

January 14, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Staff opinions split as Bowyer, Earnhardt among those receiving votes

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 Wednesday is which driver will exceed expectations in 2011.

MARK AUMANN

Joey Logano's had the pressure of living up to some pretty big expectations ever since Mark Martin called him "the real deal" back when Logano was still in his early teens. And after winning a rain-shortened race at New Hampshire and rookie of the year in 2009, big things were expected of him in 2010.

Despite showing flashes of brilliance at times -- back-to-back top-10 finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas, the pole at Bristol, a second at Martinsville -- it seemed like Logano was stuck in a holding pattern for most of the first half of the year. He had miserable luck on restrictor-plate races and was deep in the field at both road courses.

But two things happened to make a huge difference in Logano's season. After a couple of widely-publicized run-ins with veterans, Logano began to believe in himself. And with veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli on the box, Logano began to believe in his equipment. He was as consistent as any driver during the Chase, stringing together five consecutive top-10 finishes.

There's no reason to think Logano won't be able to carry that momentum into 2011.

JARROD BREEZE

Just days after A.J. Allmendinger finished 31st in the night race at Bristol, Richard Petty was asked to assess the performance of the driver in the King's iconic No. 43 car.

"Not too good," was Petty's reply, lamenting the lack of consistent good finishes.

Despite coming off a fourth-place finish two races prior at Watkins Glen, Allmendinger had finished 24th or worse in one-third of the races to that point. In the final 12 races of the season -- despite the uncertainty facing Richard Petty Motorsports -- Allmendinger matched his top-10 output to end the year with a career-high eight, capped by a fifth-place showing at Homestead. In doing so, he also improved from 22nd in points to 19th.

With RPM having been pared to two teams for 2011 and finally freed of the financial burden from the partnership with George Gillett -- coupled with Allmendinger's solid finish to last season -- optimism abounds. Petty is back, and Allmendinger is his guy.

DAVID CARAVIELLO

Oh, New Hampshire. It was the beginning and end of Clint Bowyer's 2010 Chase all rolled into one, a victory on the Magic Mile that propelled him from dark horse to championship contender, and a 150-point penalty for a still-as-yet undefined infraction that left his title hopes in ruins. Credit the Kansas native for regrouping well enough to make the stage at Las Vegas, although he was always left with thoughts of what might have been.

Well, now it's 2011, and everyone starts with a clean slate, and it's time to view Bowyer in a different light. He's long been "the third driver" at Richard Childress Racing behind more established teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Now it's time for him to step out on his own. His Chase results from last year, which included a pair of victories -- the New Hampshire penalty notwithstanding -- unearthed a driver who opens this season as a legitimate championship threat.

Simply put, this is the year for Bowyer to take the next step and establish himself among the elite. Last year was a big jump in terms of recording multiple victories and building more consistency. Now the goal is to avoid being that guy on the Chase bubble, which he's been too many times. There's a real title contender inside Clint Bowyer, and it's time for that driver to emerge.

JILL ERWIN

If we're going to be honest with ourselves, there really aren't expectations for Dale Earnhardt Jr. any more. There are fans' hopes, and Junior's desires, and dreams of sponsors/merchandisers. But enough time has passed to kind of feel out how good Junior is, and he's a top-20 driver.

However, much like his beloved Tar Heels, a change in leadership could make all the difference for Earnhardt's record. North Carolina went 8-20 under Matt Doherty, and three years later won a national title under Roy Williams. All credit to Lance McGrew, who's a nice guy and a good crew chief, but he's not a very forceful personality.

Enter Steve Letarte. When Earnhardt has one thing go wrong, he tends to shut down a little and expect more to go wrong. Letarte is the positive influence Earnhardt needs to keep him out of his own head. When that happens, the guy can wheel a race car. It's not a fluke that he's won 18 Sprint Cup races.

I think Rick Hendrick's decision to pair these two will pay off in the short term, and we'll see a stronger, more competitive Earnhardt in 2011.

BILL KIMM

The 2011 season marks the fifth season for Juan Montoya in the Sprint Cup Series and it's time for him to take off. With four years of experience, it's time for him to show he is one of the best drivers on the planet, and I believe we could see that in 2011.

The 2010 season was a frustrating one on many levels. Montoya didn't live up to his eighth-place points finish from 2009, yet statistically it wasn't horrible. Montoya ended 2010 with a win, six top-fives and 14 top-10s, not too far off from his '09 stats. The big problem for Montoya last season were the DNFs. Eight times last season he failed to finish, most of the time in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's no way that happens again in 2011.

Earnhardt Ganassi showed last year they could compete with the big boys on a regular basis. If Montoya can be consistent like he was in 2009, another Chase berth isn't out of the question. Not only will he be consistent, he will have multiple wins in a season for the first time in his career.

JOE MENZER

If you like statistics, if you believe they tell you something, then it's obvious the one driver who is poised to exceed all expectations in 2011 is the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Juan Montoya, a participant in the 2009 Chase, arguably found himself knocked from the running for a return appearance when tough luck not of his doing led to back-to-back 37th-place finishes in the second and third races of the season.

In five of the first eight races last season, Montoya encountered problem after problem while finishing 26th or worse, including four times when he placed 34th or worse. He never fully recovered, although a later victory on the road course at Watkins Glen led to a string of five consecutive top-10 finishes that showed a flash of his team's true potential.

Even though Montoya eventually had to settle for 17th in the final standings, he was the only non-Chase driver who routinely showed up in the top 10 of the most telling Sprint Cup Series season statistics: sixth in percentage of fastest laps run; sixth in number of laps run in the top 15; seventh in number of quality passes; seventh-fastest on restarts; eighth amongst mile leaders; eighth in average running position; 10th in total laps led. In average running position, he placed one spot ahead of title contender Denny Hamlin and four other Chasers -- hinting at his strong chances of a huge turnaround in 2011.

If Montoya can eliminate even a couple of his really poor finishes and finally win on an oval -- he's way overdue -- he not only will be back in the Chase, but might just end up having a chance to win it.

DAVE RODMAN

Joey Logano will exceed expectations in the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season. That's a pretty tall order considering "expectations" has just about been the kid's middle name since he appeared on the sport's radar screens more than half a decade ago, when he was hardly a mid-teenager. But his performance at the end of the 2010 season indicates he'll do just that.

Logano has stepped up to handle the pressure nicely. He continues to run extremely well in his numerous forays into the Nationwide Series, which aren't expected to decrease despite NASCAR's upcoming rules changes. If the new similarity in the Cup and Nationwide cars bears any benefit, it will continue to help Logano.

Probably the most critical element in Logano's development as a front-running Cup driver is how well he has continued to mesh with former two-time Cup champion crew chief Greg Zipadelli. That and the stability their Joe Gibbs Racing team has enjoyed should combine to make Logano and his crew a serious threat for a top-10 points finish, and a berth in the Chase no matter how that format shakes out.

CHRIS STANFIELD

If you would have asked Jimmie Johnson in 2006 whether or not he could win six championships in a row, I'd be willing to bet the farm he would've called you crazy. Not because he or any other driver wouldn't want to win that many titles, but because the idea of being that great for that amount of time in any sport is simply unheard of ... perhaps until now.

With each passing championship, it's getting harder to defend. But just when you thought he was about to lose it all late during this past season's Chase, Johnson, Knaus and team remained calm and determined under pressure, delivering results when it mattered the most.

It's absurd to think any driver could win six championships in a row, which is why any success Jimmie Johnson has this season will exceed my expectations. If fans wanting to see someone else win the title would just be honest with themselves, they too would have to admit that Five-Time has been exceeding everyone's expectations since he claimed his first championship five years ago. Why should this year be any different?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.