By Traci Lesley
Special to NNSracing.com
The Nationwide Series is going to be completely different this year. While Sprint Cup drivers will still be in the series, some of them are not be running for the championship (Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski - I'm looking at you!).
Some former Cup drivers, however, chose to pick to run for the Nationwide championship (Elliott Sadler and Aric Almirola, this one's for you).
Who does that leave? A slew of "Nationwide-only" drivers who finally have a real chance at winning the championship they've been going after (if this rule had been in place last year, Justin Allgaier would have been the champion).
With that being said, here are my top 10 picks to win the championship in 2011:
1. Elliot Sadler: Let's just get him out of the way. A long-time Cup driver, Sadler is leaving the NSCS for the NNS to drive full-time for Kevin Harvick Inc. He had success last year with the team in the few starts he made (including a win on the truck side and a pole on the Nationwide side). Sadler's former sponsor, CitiFinancial (now One Main Financial), is on board again and they are all looking at it as a "rebirth." Look for him up front and in victory lane often.
2. Aric Almirola: After barely missing the truck championship in 2010, Almirola's team was bought and he was forced out of his ride. With no open Cup seats, he was picked up by his part-time 2010 NNS team, JR Motorsports, to drive full time with GT Vodka as his sponsor. He's got the equipment, a crew chief he's familiar with, and after coming so close to a trophy in 2010, he's hungry for hardware.
3. Justin Allgaier: For the past few seasons, Allgaier has been a prominent Nationwide-only driver. He was the 2009 Rookie of the Year and in 2010 was the only non-Cup driver to win a race, as well as being the highest-finishing Nationwide-only driver. If that stat were to be true in 2011, he'd be the champion. Although switching to a new team sometimes means a year of adjustments, Turner Motorsports has, essentially, the "dream team," and Allgaier will have a lot of teammates around him. Look for Allgaier to contend for wins and the championship.
4. Trevor Bayne: Sure, Bayne may be running 17 Cup races, but he's declared for the NNS championship. And he can drive. Plain and simple. He's competitive and talented, respected and driven. Look for him to be in victory lane often and possibly hoisting the trophy at the end of the season.
5. Brian Scott: At one point in 2010, Scott was the favorite for the Rookie of the Year until he was pulled from his car. Without a ride, it's kind of hard to take home the honors. Eventually he made it back into a car but he lost to Ricky Stenhouse Jr for the ROTY honors. However, he was picked up by Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 11 for 2011. With the JGR equipment, championship-contending teammates and talent, Scott is definitely one to keep an eye on.
6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Although Stenhouse won the 2010 Rookie of the Year award, there were points in the season where some wondered why he was even in a car. It seemed like week after week, Stenhouse would wreck his car (although he only DNFd five times, it felt like more). After a DNF at Charlotte followed by a DNQ in Nashville, he sat out for a race, and from then on, he was a different driver, earning him the ROTY honors. Back with Roush Fenway Racing again and keeping his momentum from 2010, Stenhouse should be a contender for 2011 championship.
7. Reed Sorenson: Sorenson is leaving his Cup days behind to drive in the NNS full time like a few others. This is a good idea for him, to re-establish himself. In 2010, he ran 28 races, earning 21 top-10s and nine top-fives. Joining the new "super" team of Turner Motorsports but keeping his Dollar General sponsor, he'll have plenty of teammates around him and should be in the front of pack often.
8. Ryan Truex: In seven starts in 2010, Truex had three top-15 finishes. He has major potential to do some great things in 2011.
9. Jason Leffler: Leffler has potential but there's one problem with his 2011 ride: inconsistency. He'll be driving two different cars and sharing those cars with several drivers. This could ruin his year or make it better if he's partnered with the right drivers. Keep an eye on Leffler and his car-swapping to see what happens.
10. The unknown: Literally, if someone is declared in the NNS series and wins one race, or just finishes as the highest NNS-declared driver, they can win the championship. So let's say Danica Patrick comes along, has declared herself for the NNS series, rolls out a few top fives while the others do horrible in the other races, she could win the trophy (bad example, but I'm just trying to prove there will be a lot of factors).
No matter what happens in the NNS in 2011, it sure will be fun to watch!