Prior to the season, very few would have predicted that Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith would become first-time winners in 2011. Most of us would have projected a driver who had come close to winning in the past. Bayne was not expected to run the full season, and to be fair, the Wood Brothers had not won a race since Bristol in 2001.
Most of us recognized the potential in Smith, but we underestimated Furniture Row Racing. Who would have thought that a one-car team from Denver, Colorado could win at a track as grueling as Darlington. Well, that is why they fire the engines. You never know what is going to happen once the green flag waves. Bayne and Smith won the two biggest races of year. Yes, I am one of the traditionalists who label the Southern 500 as the second biggest race in NASCAR, ahead of the Brickyard 400, Coca Cola 600, the night Bristol race, and the Talladega races.
Now that Smith and Bayne became first-time winner in NASCAR’s highest level, will we see another victory lane newbie in 2011? I believe the potential is there.
1) Marcos Ambrose- Ambrose could very well sweep the two road course races and sneak into the Chase for the Championship. Despite the fact that he has yet to win a Sprint Cup race, he has the potential become as dominant, if not more so, than Jeff Gordon in the late 1990’s on the road courses. Additionally, Ambrose is vastly improved on the ovals, especially the 1.5-milers.
2) David Ragan- Ragan could benefit from the Roush Fenway Racing speedway revival. Roush’s cars are extremely fast on the speedway facilities, which could prove advantageous for Ragan. I believe Ragan has the speed to win some races in 2011.
3) Paul Menard- Like Ragan, Menard has the equipment to succeed. The year began promising for Menard, but a recent run of tough luck at Richmond and Darlington has decelerated the RCR team. Nevertheless, expect Menard to pick up the pace.
4) A.J. Allmendinger- Allmendinger sits 11th in the championship standings, meaning that he has been consistent. I have been impressed over the development of this young driver since his introduction to stock cars five years ago. He has the drive, and is proving that he has the potential.
5) Dave Blaney- Blaney and the Tommy Baldwin Racing group are the Wild Card. I believe that this team can become the next Furniture Row Racing. They have the sponsorship to complete the races. Blaney has the talent to carry a team. I would not be surprise if they contend for the win at Daytona and Talladega.
Also worth mentioning is David Gilliland, who finish third at Daytona and ninth at Talladega.
My prediction is that Ambrose will be our next first-time winner when the series visits the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.