I have made preseason points predictions for the past several years. Usually their accuracy is less than stellar, but I always enjoy doing them. This year I have divided my predictions into three tiers based on how I expect teams and drivers to perform this year. I will start with the bottom tier today, with my predictions first followed by some discussion.
26. #12 Brad Keselowski
27. #71 Bobby Labonte
28. #34 Travis Kvapil
29. #78 Regan Smith [locked into first 5 races]
30. #77 Sam Hornish Jr.
31. #19 Elliott Sadler
32. #82 Scott Speed
33. #98 Paul Menard
34. #38 David Gilliland [all but 3-5 races] [locked into first 5 races]
35. #36 Mike Bliss
36. #49 / #7 Robby Gordon ?
37. #26 Boris Said [locked into first 5 races]
38. #90 Casey Mears
39. #09 Aric Almirola
40. #37 Kevin Conway [locked into first 5 races]
41. #46 Terry Cook
42. #66 Dave Blaney
43. #87 Joe Nemechek ?
44. #55 Michael McDowell [teammate to Blaney]
26. #12 Brad Keselowski - Keselowski may have Ted Musgrave to thank for his Cup career. He had been struggling in low-budget equipment when he suddenly got a ride in Musgrave's truck a few years ago, after Musgrave was suspended for a race following an on-track altercation. However, many in the garage believe Keselowski's ego has become swollen with all the attention he has been receiving. He is very talented, but I believe that ego, the enemies he has made, and the fact that he is no longer in Hendrick equipment will combine to give him a less-than-stellar season.
27. #71 Bobby Labonte - The sophomore TRG team needs to get some more sponsorship, but they came on strong late in 2009 with Labonte aboard and I look for them to continue to improve this year.
28. #34 Travis Kvapil - Front Row Motorsports did the impossible last year, staying inside the top-35 and ahead of the heavily funded #82 of Scott Speed. I look for them to continue to surpass expectations as they expand into a 3-car team. Travis Kvapil is a very underrated driver and I think he will have a great season. "Great" is relative, since this is still a low-budget operation, but periodic top-15 finishes are certainly within their grasp.
29. #78 Regan Smith - This team will continue using Hendrick engines but has a technical alliance with RCR. That allowed them to pick up the #07 owner points and be guaranteed a spot in the field for the first 5 races. This team had many solid runs in 2009 and is working hard to be even better this year. That guaranteed starting spot will help, but I think they will remain inside the top-35 all year.
30. #77 Sam Hornish Jr. - He showed flashes of talent and speed in 2009, but inconsistency continues to plague him. He could surprise us, but I look for more of the same in 2010.
31. #19 Elliott Sadler - Being a fellow Virginia native, I think a lot of Sadler, but he hasn't done much over the last couple of years and I haven't seen any strong indications that that will change this year.
32. #82 Scott Speed - After finishing 36th out of 36 full-time, well-funded teams in 2009, he can only go up from here! I look for him to steadily improve, especially late in the season, but probably not enough to make huge gains in the point standings just yet.
33. #98 Paul Menard - I believe Menard is a talented race car driver. He's no Tony Stewart and he probably wouldn't still be in Cup if not for sponsorship from his father's company, but he still has talent. However, he did not perform well in 2009 and I look for more of the same this year. In addition, the Menards are reportedly rather unhappy with the new RPM team and may look elsewhere for 2011, which would add another distraction.
34. #38 David Gilliland - The details are still being worked out, but supposedly this team will also be locked into the first 5 races, getting owner points from either the #44 or the #96. This is more of an owner points prediction than a driver points prediction because Gilliland could miss up to 3-5 races during the year, but I think this new 3rd Front Row Motorsports team will have a decent season. Kvapil really pushed hard to get Gilliland in this ride because he remembered how well they worked together at Yates a couple of years ago. Hopefully that chemistry will still be there!
35. #36 Mike Bliss - I believe this team can finish this high if they find enough sponsorship and do not have to start-and-park. Bliss is underrated and very talented, especially when faced with the underdog role. Remember last year in Nationwide, he finished top-5 in points driving for several different teams. I think Tommy Baldwin made the best driver choice he could have made for his team.
36. #49 / #7 Robby Gordon ? - There are many uncertainties revolving around these two teams and their new alliance. Supposedly they will try to run at least one car in every race. But who will drive and which number will be primarily used is not yet known.
37. #26 Boris Said - This team was given the owner points from last year's #26 Roush team which was forced to shut down under NASCAR's four-team limit, so they are locked into the first five races. Beyond that, the future is very uncertain, and more sponsorship needs to be found.
38. #90 Casey Mears - It's astounding that Casey Mears has fallen this far, but this year he will drive the new #90 team, which I'm pretty sure is related to the #40 in the Nationwide Series. I hope Mears can have a (relatively) good season and try to land a better ride for 2011.
39. #09 Aric Almirola - This team could finish higher if they do not do any start-and-parking. They had a mixture in 2009, running full races some (and even winning that one with Keselowski) and parking early in others. They usually have strong cars at the plate races and also, for reasons I've never understood, at Richmond, and could contend for wins or top-10 finishes at those tracks.
40. #37 Kevin Conway - This team is locked into the top-35 through an agreement with either the #44 or the #96. However, Conway is a rookie with limited Nationwide experience in poor equipment. I do not expect much from this team this season.
41. #46 Terry Cook - A lot of question marks surround this new team. Can they find more sponsorship? Will they try to run to the finish or start-and-park? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining where they finish in the points.
42. #66 Dave Blaney - Supposedly this team plans to run complete races this year. I'll believe it when I see it, after they never even tried to in 2009 with one or two exceptions. If they do, though, they could finish higher in the points. Blaney is another highly underrated driver and this team did show some signs of speed last year.
43. #87 Joe Nemechek ? - Nemechek has yet to confirm his plans for 2010, but I would imagine they will be similar to 2009--starting and parking when necessary and running to the finish when he gets a sponsor.
44. #55 Michael McDowell - Supposedly McDowell will run as a teammate to Blaney. If that is the case, I feel all but certain that this will be a start-and-park effort to support the #66.
That's a look at the bottom tier of drivers based on my predictions for 2010!
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