Potential Chase changes top storyline of 2011Rick Hendrick made the bold move to pair Dale Earnhardt Jr. with Steve Letarte in 2011
And repeat … Jimmie Johnson going after yet another championship tops the list of storylines to watch for in 2011. But since we've dissected that one every year since 2007, there's really not much else to say other than, well, he's the favorite and Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards are his biggest challengers.
With that in mind, here are the other top 10 storylines to watch for in 2011:
1. Will there be changes to the Chase?
In November, Brian France all but guaranteed the Chase would get its third makeover since its inception in 2004. And after seeing the TV ratings for this year's "greatest ever" Chase, which were down more than 20 percent for seven of the 10 races, you have to figure that France will be compelled to make some sort of change.
Exactly what those changes will be remains to be seen, though an announcement could come later this month.
Potential changes included expanding the field from 12 to 15 drivers, altering the seeding process and implementing some form of an elimination format.
2. Will the crew-chief shakeup improve things at Hendrick Motorsports?
Outside of Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick wasn't satisfied with the way his team performed in 2010. So just three days after Johnson won his fifth straight title, Hendrick gave Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. new crew chiefs.
It's a bold move, both in scope and potential risk. Still, it's one that had to be done. Gordon went winless for the second time in three years; Martin missed the Chase after finishing second in 2009; Earnhardt finished a lowly 21st in the standings.
But make no mistake. This move wasn't just for those three. It was for Johnson, too.
Hendrick is an organization that pushes itself from within, and without a strong push from three of its four teams, Johnson was left as vulnerable as he's been during his magnificent reign.
Rick Hendrick's No. 1 goal is to keep the championship in his house, and this move was made to ensure he does just that. By strengthening the individual performances he hopes to strengthen the team.
3. Which leads to … will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win a race?
Junior's winless streak stands at 93 races and counting. His last win came on June 15, 2008 at Michigan. While we're on the subject, it must be pointed out that his second-most recent win came in 2006, meaning Earnhardt has won just one time in his last 155 races.
His best shot at a win in 2010 came in the Daytona 500, when he nearly pulled off the comeback of a lifetime when he came up just short of catching Jamie McMurray.
Of course, the expectations will be sky high when Earnhardt rolls into Daytona in February, and not just because of what he did there last year, but because of what happened there 10 years ago. February 18 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death. There will be plenty of tributes, but none would be bigger than a victory by his son.
4. Is Roush Fenway Racing a player again?
Let's be honest – Roush Fenway was terrible for the first seven months of 2010.
The organization had three drivers qualify for the Chase, which illustrates other's inabilities more than RFR's abilities.
But something changed in mid-August. Greg Biffle won at Pocono, and the following few weeks saw Carl Edwards winning two poles. By the time the Chase rolled around, Roush Fenway was challenging for wins on a weekly basis. In fact, no team won more Chase races than Roush Fenway's three, which included Edwards ending the season with back-to-back victories.
Heading into 2011, no team – not Hendrick Motorsports, not Joe Gibbs Racing – has more momentum than RFR, and no one is hotter than Edwards, who looked every bit the driver he was when he nearly unseated Johnson back in 2008.
5. Is Richard Childress Racing for real or a one-year wonder?
There's a good argument to be made that no team was better in 2010 than Richard Childress Racing, what with the organization qualifying all three of its drivers for the Chase and supporting the most consistent driver of the season in Kevin Harvick.
It was a stunning turnaround for RCR after a miserable 2009, a year in which they didn't qualify a single driver for the Chase, didn't win a race and appeared destined to lose Harvick, their franchise driver.
Now the question becomes, which team are they: the 2010 or the 2009 version?
The prediction here is RCR is for real, though it is going to be difficult to match what they accomplished last year when Harvick led the points for 20 of the first 26 races and the team netted five wins.
But even if they do regress a bit, it will still be a marked improvement from where they were two years ago.
6. Is Joey Logano ready to break through?
Before getting caught in a wreck in the season finale, Logano's previous five results were seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and third. Equally as notable is the fact that those results came on big tracks (Talladega), small tracks (Martinsville) and everything in between.
Logano, who showed promise throughout his sophomore campaign, finally started demonstrating the one thing that had been missing – consistency.
Though he's still young – he doesn't turn 21 until May – Logano now has enough experience to, in theory, match his potential. He finished 20th in the standings as a rookie, 16th last year – a result that could have been higher had he not been involved in four crashes. The next step is to win a race or two and qualify for the Chase, both of which will be realistic goals in 2011.
7. Who tops the free agent class of 2011?
Carl Edwards will be the biggest name in a large free-agent market in 2011. Jack Roush will want to re-sign him, but there will be plenty of suitors, with Roger Penske potentially being one of them.
Other potential free agents include Greg Biffle (Roush Fenway), Juan Pablo Montoya (Earnhardt-Ganassi), Mark Martin (won't be back with Hendrick), David Ragan (Roush Fenway), Jeff Burton (Childress), Clint Bowyer (Childress) and Ryan Newman (Stewart Haas).
8. Will Juan Pablo Montoya finally win on an oval?
Outside of "When will Junior win?", is there a question more frequently asked?
Part of the reason for this is that Montoya should have already checked the oval-win thing off his to-do list. It's not that he's not good making left turns, rather he hasn't been able to close the deal in several races that he should have won.
For the second year in a row he was the driver to beat at Indy, only this time he and crew chief Brian Pattie made the wrong call on pit road and wound up getting snookered by their teammate Jamie McMurray. Montoya led 104 laps at Phoenix in April only to come home seventh. And he was the class of the field early on at Fontana in February until his engine expired.
The opportunities to win on an oval have been plenty. They'll be there again in 2011. The question is if Montoya can get the losses out of his head and focus on the winning.
9.Will starting the Chase at Chicagoland have an impact?
What seems like a minor change could have a major impact, because momentum has proven to be crucial in the Chase, especially if you can grab it in the opening race.
Kurt Busch rode his win at New Hampshire in 2004 all the way to the title. Clint Bowyer was among the final qualifiers for the 2008 Chase, won at New Hampshire and wound up finishing a surprising third. And in route to his five straight championships, Jimmie Johnson finished outside of the top 10 only once in the Chase opener at NHMS.
This year, the Chase will kick off at Chicagoland Speedway. And while that may seem to fit right in Johnson's wheelhouse – it's another mile-and-a-half track that Johnson thrives on – it is one of only four tracks on the schedule where he hasn't won.
For the anti-Johnson crowd crowing to see someone new win, it's something. It may not be much, but it's something.
10. Are two races at Kansas one too many?
NASCAR's answer to slumping attendance at Southern California's Auto Club Speedway is to move one of the track's dates to Kansas Speedway. Interestingly, some believe the reason for ACS's struggles to attract fans was the addition of a second Cup date in 2005.
Ohhh, but that won't happen to Kansas Speedway, right?
Well, you can expect the stands to be mostly filled for both races this season, but the real test will be in the years to come. Because if there's one thing we know it's this: fans are not clamoring for more races on intermediate tracks, which Kansas Speedway is.