Greetings race fans, can you believe we are less than two weeks away from the Daytona 500? The month of February is without a doubt the best part of the season; drivers, fans, and the media are refreshed after a nice three month break and all the teams get another opportunity to win the sports biggest race.
Unfortunately, as is the case every year, there are some teams that don’t return to compete for the upcoming season. And guys such as Trevor Bayne and Steven Wallace are perfectly fine with that. With rides like those driven by Sam Hornish Jr. and Elliott Sadler getting shut down, it has given these young drivers an automatic bid into the first five races of the year. Let’s take a look at all who benefited from an owner points swap this offseason.
*Kurt Busch, Penske Racing’s No. 22 Pennzoil Dodge*
_Acquired points from_ – Penske gave Busch the owner points he earned from the previous season. The car he drove for last year, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, finished 11th in both owner and driver points.
_What to expect_ – Busch will be more focused on making the Chase, not the top-35 cutoff. In the unlikely event that the 2004 champ falls out of the top-35 in the first five races, he has a champion’s provisional to fall back on.
*Andy Lally, TRG Motorsports’ Unsponsored No. 71 Chevrolet*
_Acquired points from_ – The No. 98 Richard Petty Motorsports team of Paul Menard. The No. 98 group ended last year 23rd in the final standings. After Menard and his sponsor left RPM in the offseason to join Childress, it left Petty’s organization with no choice but to fold the team.
_What to expect_ – By getting the owner points from Menard’s old team, Lally and the No. 71 bunch have a reserved spot for the first five races. After that there will be some uncertainty, as team owner Kevin Buckler is unsure whether he will be able to run the full season. Buckler has committed to running the first five races in their entirety.
*Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing’s No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge*
_Acquired points from_ – Keselowski will be using the owner points from his No. 12 car last year, which was 26th in the standings.
_What to expect_ – Regarded as one of the sport’s bright young stars, 2010 was a complete disappointment for Keselowski. He won’t have Kurt Busch’s old crew to help him; however, he has a new Cup crew chief in Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski and the No. 22 team to a Nationwide Series championship last season.
*Trevor Bayne, Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford*
_Acquired points from_ – The now defunct No. 19 team Elliot Sadler piloted for the past four seasons. Prior to this acquisition, the Wood Brothers were only 45th in the owner standings, well outside the top-35 cutoff. By taking Sadler’s points, they will start the year 28th in owner points.
_What to expect_ – The team plans to run only 17 races for the season, including the first five. Depending on sponsorship and how they fare in the first few races, the Wood Brothers could opt to run more events.
*Steven Wallace, Rusty Wallace Incorporated’s No. 77 5 Hour Energy Toyota*
_Acquired points from_ – Penske Racing’s No. 77 car driven by Sam Hornish Jr. last year. With the elder Wallace’s history at Penske, this was an easy deal to make for both sides.
_What to expect_ – Not much; Wallace is only scheduled to run the 500 and maybe the other restrictor plate races. Regardless, this will be the only race that he will be locked into.
*Kasey Kahne, Red Bull Racing’s No. 4 Red Bull Toyota*
_Acquired points from_ – This is Scott Speed’s team from last year; just the number and driver have changed.
_What to expect_ – Look for a vast improvement over 2010; after all, this team couldn’t do much worse than they were last year. Even though RBR is “renting” a driver for 2011, it should help the team going forward. With a proven winner in Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis, this duo will put Red Bull back on the map.
*David Gilliland, Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Taco Bell Ford*
_Acquired points from_ – Fellow FRM team car No. 37, driven by a variety of drivers last year. Due to lack of sponsorship, FRM only looks to run that car in select races this season.
_What to expect_ – Obviously they will locked into the first five races, but after that, Gilliland faces a real chance of dropping out. The best thing he has going for him is that there are only about 30 teams committed to running the full season, making a short field possible at many tracks. Even if he does fall out the top-35, Gilliland should be able to get the No. 38 car in each race; he missed only the Brickyard 400 racing entries in for Front Row last season.
*Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 27 Menard’s Chevrolet*
_Acquired points from_ – TRG Motorsports. Buckler’s business partner at TRG, Tom Pumpelly, divested from the No. 71 team and became an equity partner at RCR, an arrangement that brought with it the owner points that the No. 71 accrued last season. As a result, Menard will head into Speedweeks without concerns of being locked into the field, a scenario he knows all too well; last season, due to rainy conditions, his Nationwide team was sent home, forcing Roush Fenway Racing to buy a spot in the field for the No. 98 team.
_What to expect_ – While Menard has never been a spectacular driver, he hasn’t put his team in a position where they are forced to qualify. Look for Menard to improve upon his career season from last year and be safely in the comfort zone after five races.
With qualifying less than a week away, you now have an idea who will be locked in regardless of their qualifying speed. A couple of notables that will have to make the race on speed include Dave Blaney and Michael Waltrip, who is attempting to make his 25th consecutive Daytona 500 on a weekend that also marks the 10th anniversary of Waltrip’s first career win.
As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see the long term future of the top-35 rule evolve. As mentioned with David Gilliland, even if a team should not have a guaranteed start, will it even matter? Certainly for Daytona it will, but in the less prestigious races, it is hard to imagine more than 43 cars even showing up on Friday.
For the time being, there will be plenty of drama come the Gatorade Duels.
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