By HEATHER WILLIAMS
5:33 PM CST, February 7, 2011
It's either the shortest off-season in sports, or the longest two months of the year, depending on just how big a NASCAR fan you are. But believe it or not the green flag drops on the 2011 season on Saturday with the running of the Bud Shootout. So it's time to start looking forward to the year. Starting with the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series.
Things are a little different in those series, because the new rules will not let cup drivers run for championships in lower divisions, which means, you are going to see some names you might not normally see in my pre-season top 10. But the two drivers at the top of my ballot in each series are certainly no strangers to those who follow Sprint Cup.
Let's start in the truck series. It's actually a series jam packed with talent. One of the reasons fans and media alike vote the racing here some of the best in NASCAR. And it made it hard for me to pick a top 10. Honestly there are 15 drivers that could end up in the top 10. But here's the 10 I put on my ballot in the pre-season media poll:
10. Johnny Sauter: The former cup driver had his best finish in the Truck series last year, finishing 3rd. And he was a pillar of consistency. Not sure why, but I think this season might be a step back for Sauter. Not because of anything he's done, there's just a lot of good young talent crashing the truck series party.
9. Justin Loftin: The former ARCA champion could be poised for a big season. He finished just out of the top 10 last year (12th) and he certainly races for a team that can win championships, since his teammate was the truck champ in '10.
8. James Bueschler: Another young gun in the series, Bueschler managed to finish 11th last year, despite not running 3 races. He finished second twice in '10, look for him to pick up a win in '11.
7. Matt Crafton: He's finished in the top 10 in points each of the last 4 season and there's no reason to believe 2011 wont produce the same consistency from Crafton. What remains to be seen is if his team can prove it has the elite status to make him a threat for the championship.
6. David Starr: Starr is now one of the grizzled old veterans of the series. But his best finish in the series is just 4th. 9th last year, he looks for more consistency after switching teams in the middle of the season in 2010.
5. Ron Hornaday, Jr.: Hordaday finished first or second in points in 2007, 08, and 09. But 6 DNFs last season, and for time champ dropped to 7th in the series. He's got the talent and the equipment to compete for another title in 2011 for sure.
4. Brendan Gaughn: After two seasons out of the series, Gaughn returns back to the place he seams the most comfortable, the truck series. His best finish in trucks is 4th, but he has two things going for him this time around. One he's a lot older and more patient, which should help cutdown on the DNFs and he's running for one of the top teams in the truck series.
3. Austin Dillon: This kid is the real deal, grandson of Richard Childress or not. He exploded on to the truck scene last year, finishing 5th in the points as a rookie and even winning two races. Expect for things to only get better in his sophomore campaign.
2. Todd Bodine: The defending and two time champ has finished in the top 5 of points each of the last 5 seasons. Always the pillar of consistency, look for Bodine to once again be in the mix for a championship.
1. Travis Kvapil: The full time cup driver probably surprised a lot of people by declaring he will run for a truck title this season. And you dont make a move like that unless you think you can win. He's done it before, and his team finished 3rd two years ago with Mike Skinner behind the wheel. Am I out on a limb a little bit? Maybe a small one. But I love good drivers in good equipment. And the 5 team has both.
Okay, now to Nationwide and we have two lists here. With the new rules it is likely that the drivers points and owners points could look very different. Lets start wit h the top 10 in drivers points:
10. Kenny Wallace: I'm really of the belief that Herm can still drive, if put in good equipment. Wallace is not in the best stuff, but he does have a full time ride and with the cup guys not counting this year, it may be his chance to return to the top 10 in points.
9. Michael Arnett: The young gun has has a smattering of success in ARCA and trucks. He now jumps into a Rusty Wallace car, with a chance to show what he can really do.
8. Brian Scott: He drove for two different teams last year. This year he will drive for arguably the best Nationwide team out there, Joe Gibbs racing. The kid finished 14th in points last season. With better cars, he should really shine.
7. Mike Bliss: Back out on that limb a little ways, considering that Bliss just signed on for his Nationwide ride 8 days ago. But if Bliss is allowed to race and not start and park, he will be a contender.
6. Reed Sorenson: The kid has bounced around a little bit, but he finished 4th in the Nationwide series in 2004 and 12th last season. A little consistency and the chance to compete against just Nationwide guys should work out well for Reed.
5. Jason Lefler: Sorenson's teammate at newly formed Turner Motorsports has been the most consistant non-Cup driver in the series over the last 5 years. With the cup guys out of the way, he has a chance to compete for a championship.
4. Justin Allgaier: The kid can drive. The biggest thing for him will be, how will he adjust to his new ride at Turner Motorsports. Last year he was one one of the biggest causalities from the fact cup guys were driving for titles in the Nationwide series, this year he could be one of the biggest beneficiaries.
3. Trevor Bayne: As could Bayne. He finished 7th in the points despite being dropped midseason by Diamond Waltrip racing because of sponsorship concerns. Jack Roush picked up the kid and ran him with little or no sponsorship. Jack Roush is no dummy. If he is willing to gamble on the kid, so am I.
2. Aric Amirola: This kid has gotten a lot of raw deals along the way. Yet he keeps plugging along, and keeps running up front. Runner up in the truck series last season, he moves over to the JR Motorsports 88 in 2011.
1. Elliott Sadler: I do not care what happened over the past 5 years, Elliott didnt forget how to drive. He is in good equipment, KHI has a proven record in Nationwide. And last season driving for Harvick in trucks and Nationwide, Sadler showed new life. He is a man among boys in this series.
Now to the top 5 in owners points:
5. #2 KHI: This is Sadler's ride. It just show's what a difference the cup guys make in the series. He's the top guy running full time Nationwide, but only #5 when you throw in the big boys.
4. #20 JGR: Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Brad Coleman team up for this one. Joe Gibbs racing is probably the best Nationwide team right now. Logano and Hamlin will probably win a few in the 20, it falls off a little with Coleman behind the wheel.
3. #60 RFR: Carl Edwards is one of the best in the cup series, and he's just as good in the Nationwide. Despite the fact he cant run for the Nationwide drivers championship, he's out to prove a point by running for the owner's title.
2. #22 Penske: Brad Kesolowski won the drivers title last season, and although he cant this year, the car and the driver are still pretty darn good.
1. #18 JGR: Kyle Busch will team up with Michael McDowell to pilot this machine in 2011. And who knows what McDowell will do behind the wheel, Busch will be a threat to win every time he drives. He will carry this team to another championship.
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On Tuesday, I will start previewing the 2011 cup series drivers.
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