Looking back on 2011, it’s hard to take in everything that happened this year. From the preseason announcements by NASCAR on the changes to the points system, to the intense battle for the championship we are preparing to witness in Homestead, it goes without saying that this Sprint Cup Series season has been memorable.
One of the many reasons that 2011 has managed to hold our interest from beginning to end is the sheer competitiveness of it. In the first 35 races of the season, 18 different drivers have visited Victory Lane, which is just one shy of the record. As if the stakes in Homestead weren’t high enough!
But who can actually bring that total for the season to 19?
One driver who could really use a victory to close out 2011 is *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* In fact, I fully expected him to have made it happen by now and am surprised he and Steve Letarte haven’t been able to close the deal. He has made some huge strides this season and was able to make the Chase for the first time in three years, which I believe is due in large part to Letarte being named as crew chief. One thing that Earnhardt tends to struggle with is confidence, and Letarte must have been on the cheerleading squad in high school or something because he sure is good at it!
Unfortunately for Earnhardt’s loyal following, though, the win column for the driver of the No. 88 remains a goose egg with only one race left in the season. And not to be the bearer of bad news, but Homestead isn’t exactly the friendliest track when it comes to NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. In 11 starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Earnhardt has never finished any higher than 13th, with seven of those results ending outside the top 20. With an average run of 24th, it’s not looking good that Earnhardt will finally be able to break his long winless streak.
However, there is still a silver lining. Another attribute that has been making appearances in more and more races this season is fuel mileage. Sure, Earnhardt hasn’t exactly had the best luck when it comes to keeping the gas tank full, but what has he got to lose? Gambling on the final mileage run of the race at Homestead can’t make Earnhardt’s season any worse, so don’t count him out of a win. If anything, he needs a victory in the series just to be relevant again, so don’t think for a second that this team won’t take some chances.
For Earnhardt to make his breakthrough, he’ll have to go through fellow winless driver *Greg Biffle* first. I’m not sure how Earnhardt managed to get into the Chase and Biffle didn’t, though a little thing called “inconsistency” might have played a part. Like Earnhardt, I’m surprised we haven’t seen Biffle grab a victory yet but he could easily grab “numero uno” this coming Sunday. From 2004-06, Biffle won three consecutive races at Homestead, but there’s a catch: aside from those three victories, Biffle has only one other top-10 finish which came in the form of a 10th-place run last season.
Biffle has a full-time sponsor next year, so really the only thing he’s gunning for is some redemption for a rather mediocre season. However, Biffle is points leader Carl Edwards’ teammate, and I don’t care if RFR denies it or not – Jack Roush will at the very least “strongly suggest” that Biffle stay out of Edwards’ way and give him the position if they are racing anywhere near each other. It’s not unethical; it’s just business and competition. But it might hinder Biffle’s chances of giving his team something to be proud of during the winter months in the offseason.
Speaking of pride, no winner this weekend would be more sentimental than *Mark Martin*. Since this year is supposed to be his final full-time season and his last race with Hendrick Motorsports (he’s moving to Michael Waltrip Racing on a part-time basis in 2012), Martin would like nothing more than a win to help bring his full-time career to a close … again.
Nevertheless, it’s been a rocky year for the 52-year-old driver. In 35 races this year, Martin has an average finish of 18th and has only 10 top-10 runs. He’s spent most of the season outside of the top 15 in points and has flown under the radar all year long.
His Homestead statistics leave something to be desired, too. One of only five racetracks Martin has never won at, the Arkansas native has an average finish of 12th with five top 10s in 11 starts. Like Earnhardt, though, Martin has nothing to lose and a late-race gamble may be all he needs to ensure he finishes out the season with a bang.
Finally, *A.J. Allmendinger* probably wants this win more than anyone. This year alone, Allmendinger has watched peers Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard, and teammate Marcos Ambrose win their first career races while the best Allmendinger has ever settled for in his entire career was third (2009 Daytona 500).
However, Homestead may be Allmendinger’s best opportunity to pull it off. His average result at the tropical racetrack is 8.7, which is his best average finish across the series. In three races there, he has ended in 11th, 10th, and most recently, fifth. Add to those numbers that Allmendinger is enjoying his most successful season yet (career high 10 top 10s and 16th in points), and it might not be long before that storied No. 43 car is back in Victory Lane.
Though all four of these drivers — and others — have a lot to fight for this weekend, they don’t have to win the race to call this season a classic. Whether or not the record of 19 different winners is reached, it goes without saying that 2011 has been competitive, exciting, and unpredictable. So while you’re watching the season finale this Sunday, be sure to keep an eye on the “winless wonders” and possibly witness a record-breaking … er, tying … season.
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