Top Ten 2011 Nationwide Championship Contenders

ELKHART LAKE, WI - JUNE 19: Flags wave in the infield during the Nationwide Series Bucyrus 200 at Road America on June 19, 2010 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Everybody loves top 10 lists right?  I sure hope so. 

We are still waiting to hear if guys like Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards will be able to even run for a Championship.  A rumored plan is to only allow a driver to race for one of three Championships - Driver Championships that is. 

Edwards and Keselowski will still try to win the Owner's Championship for Roush and Penske.

With that taken into consideration here is my list of The Top Ten Non-Cup Nationwide Championship Contenders. 

I know that's putting an awful lot of qualifiers on it, but sadly that's the way the 2011 Nationwide Champion will be treated.  NASCAR is trying to go back to the old ways, where drivers would make that next step and never look back -  or at least, only look back once or twice a year. 

There are a great number of Cup drivers who do just that. 

Past Cup Champions Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon haven't run a full Nationwide Schedule since before they were Cup rookies while on the other hand drivers such as Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart only run once and a while, if ever. 

It's guys like Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Carl Edwards that can't seem to let go.  Now that may be due to who they drive for, and Keselowski and Logano get a pass since they are still up and comers.  Kevin Harvick really doesn't have an excuse other then he is trying to build a successful team of his own and Kyle Busch is venturing into that area as well. 

We all know that sponsorship money is hard to come by and sponsors are much more willing to pony up the cash if Carl Edwards is in the deal, not so much if Trevor Bayne is there. 

Yet, for every team that doesn't have full sponsorship that resorts to a Cup driver, there are just as many teams that run fully funded programs using Nationwide Drivers. 

 Rusty Wallace Inc. had Steve Wallace and Brendan Gaughan with full sponsorship (although Gaughan brought some of his own), while Michael Annett has Pilot Travel Centers, Eric McClure has Hefty, Justin Allgaier had Verizon and will now have Brandt. 

This year is going to be a big year for Nationwide as they are trying to set themselves apart from big brother Sprint Cup.  Nationwide has the better looking (IMO) car, and is trying to move away from NASCAR's equivalent of the D-League and instead is trying to become NASCAR's WNBA (minus 97% of the women).  They want to be a Sprint Cup alternative, much like IRL or Rally Car, while still being a stepping stone to Cup - but I'm getting off topic here.  This is supposed to just be a top ten list.  So here we go.

Number 10:

#62- Michael Annett, Pilot Travel Centers Toyota for Rusty Wallace Inc.

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RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: Michael Annett, driver of the #15 Germain.com Toyota, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Nationwide Series Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2010 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Annett moves over from a very underfunded Germain Racing to RWI.  Wallace Inc. is an up and coming team that has made large strides forward in the past two years.  Annett is coming off a down year after a very successful rookie campaign in 2009.  Annett had pretty consistent numbers in his two years in the league, but went from four top tens to two last year.  Annetthas yet to break into the top five, but with superior equipment he should have no problem accomplishing that feat in 2011.  Michael Annett already has the consistency, he just needs the higher finishes that have kept him from being a household name in the Nationwide Series.

Number 9:

#11-Brian Scott, Unsponsored Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing

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DOVER, DE - MAY 15: Brian Scott, driver of the #11 Braun Racing Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Heluva Good 200 at Dover International Speedway on May 15, 2010 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

This one is a bit interesting.  Gibbs seems to know something we don't - he could have been content to have the #18 and #20 Toyota's run for Owner's Championship, but he decided to start up a third team.  Brian Scott, who was released from Turner Motorsports after they purchased BraunRacing, finished the year with RAB Racing.  RAB will have Kenny Wallace behind the wheel in 2011.  Gibbs signed Brian Scott to his already stacked field of drivers.  Seems Joe Gibbs is looking for a Driver's Championship as well.  On a side note, how big of a trophy room do you think Joe Gibbs Racing has?  Do you think it's like an entire wing of their headquarters?  They pretty much get weekly deliveries during the season.  Back to Brian Scott.  I would have Scott ranked higher since this is Joe Gibbs Racing, but no sponsor has been named for the #11 Toyota as of yet.  That could spell trouble as the season goes on. Iwas a bit surprised that a rookie with one top five and five top tens would command such respect that Gibbs would create a new team for him.  Gibbs has two drivers, Matt DiBenedetto and Brad Coleman, who are waiting in the wings.  Bothexpected to be full timers with Logano and Busch in Cup, but they've been relegated to fill in duty for when neither wants to make the flight to another track.  If Scott can follow up on his better then average Rookie Campaign, he could be a threat to win.

Number 8:

#38/30- Jason Leffler, Great Clips Chevy for Turner Motorsports

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LEBANON, TN - JUNE 05: Jason Leffler, driver of the #38 Great Clips Toyota stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 5, 2010 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jason Leffler.  The guy just gets so little respect, even from me. In my top ten list he is eighth, well behind guys with half his experience.  Leffler is a great driver, but something just isn't there.  Jason has had many opportunities to make the next level, but all have fallen flat.  Leffler is a former Gibbs developmental driver who actually was the original driver for the #11 car currently driven by Denny Hamlin.  Lefflerhad only 21 races to prove he belonged with the likes of Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte.  Bobby's brother Terry actually replaced Jason in the #11 ride before Denny Hamlin took over and never looked back.  Time and time again Leffler has shown he is a loyal guy. Hedrove for Gene Haas for years before landing with Braun Racing.  During that time he picked up his first career win.  2005 was the first year Leffler drove for Todd Braun.  Since then, Leffler has just one win, 2007 at IRP, but has finished in the top ten each of the last four years.  After Turner Motorsports took over, Leffler's job was in question.  Turner Motorpsports announced that Leffler would stick around at least for this year. Hewill split time with Kasey Kahne, just as he did in 2010.  When Leffler is not driving the #38, he will be in the newly renumbered #30 Chevy.  The owner points from the #10 Toyota will be used.  I have Leffler down this far due to another year of him jumping between two very different teams.  Jason has never shown that he can be a consistent threat for the Championship. Hefollowed up a Third place finish in the standings in 2007 witha Ninth place finish, then jumped up to Fourthbefore falling again to Ninth last year. 

Number 7:

#6- Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Unsponsored Ford for Roush Fenway Racing

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LOUDON, NH - JUNE 26: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. , driver of the #6 CitiFinancial Ford, sits on pit wall prior to the start of the NASCAR Nationwide Series New England 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on June 26, 2010 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Stenhouse is coming off a Rookie of the Year winning season, but yet again has sponsorship issues.  Stenhouse came back from a string of bad finishes, a DNQ and a two race benching to take the Nationwide Division by storm.  Stenhouse really brought it together in the second half of the year.  He recorded three top fives as well as eight top tens in an underfunded Ford for Roush. With a year under his belt Stenhouse should be able to build on that and find his way to victory lane. Theonly issue I see with his 2011 campaign will be sponsorship.  That dreaded word that is calling a lot of teams status into question.  Citi Bank will move to Elliott Sadler, meaning that Stenhouse only has Angus Beef as a sponsorship in just a handful of races.

Number 6:

#66- Steve Wallace, 5 Hour Energy Toyota for Rusty Wallace Inc.

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ATLANTA - MARCH 06: Steve Wallace, driver of the #15 Red Top Collector Car Auction Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCARCamping World Truck Series E-Z-GO 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 6, 2010 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

That's right, both RWI drivers are in my top ten.  That's how much I think RWI has come in the past few years.  Wallace is a driver poised to make a run at a Cup career, but first he has to prove he can be a consistent Nationwide Driver.  Wallace made a huge statement last year, collecting 13 top ten finishes.  The only problem was that Steve only had one top five.  Wallace also doesn't lead that many laps.  He only lead three laps last year, all of them in the first Daytona race of the year.  Steve has the luxury of a full time sponsor, and a team that is on the uptick, but time is running short.  Wallace will probably never come close to what his father did in the Cup Series, but that doesn't mean he should go the way of Justin Labonte and Jason Jarrett.

Number 5:

#88- Aric Almirola, Suave/Ragu Chevy for JR Motorsports

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FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Aric Almirola, driver of the #88 GT Vodka Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series O'ReillyAuto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

I think a lot of people thought that Almirola would go down as the guy who won a Nationwide race, but didn't.  Almirola jumped into the #20 car for Joe Gibbs racing after Denny Hamlin was unable to make it to the race on time.  Hamlin arrived at Milwaukee and Joe Gibbs called Almirola (who had won the pole) into the pits at lap 60. Almirola was pulled from the car and Hamlin got in.  To this day, I have no clue why.  I can understand if Almirola wasn't running well, Gibbs was trying to win a Owner's Championship, but he was running in the top 10.  Hamlin went a lap down while jumping into the car, but was able to make his way back onto the lead lap.  Hamlin won the race, but the points, and the record went to Almirola.  To this day, if you look up that race it will say Almirola won it, but he wasn't in the car that crossed the finish line first.  That was years ago, but I'm sure it's what helped Almirola's decision to leave Joe Gibbs Driver Program.  Almirolatook a ride with GinnRacing, splitting time with Mark Martin the next year.  After GinnRacing was purchased by Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then merged with Ganassi Racing, Almirola was released from the team.  Not due to Ownership issues, but due to lack of sponsorship.  Almirola landed on his feet last year.  He turned a part time Truck Ride into a full time gig for Billy Ballew Motorsports and came very close to winning the Championship.  He also took home two wins in the Camping World Series.  Now Almirola will join a fully funded JR Motorsports and try to take the team that Brad Keselowski helped build two years ago and make it reach it's potential. 

Number 4:

 #32- Reed Sorenson, Dollar General Chevy for Turner Motorsports

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FONTANA, CA - OCTOBER 09: Reed Sorenson, driver of the #83 Red Bull Toyota, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi Max 400 on October 9, 2010 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Reed Sorenson's story is one we've heard time and time again.  In fact, you could say that he and his teammate Jason Leffler have taken similar career paths.  Sorenson, who I watched race and win in the ARCA series at Michigan, moved up fast.  Too fast you could say.  Sorenson had a great rookie year in Nationwide, winning two races but losing out on Rookie of the Year thanks to Carl Edwards.  Edwards won five races and finished third in points, Sorenson was fourth.  So it comes as no surprise that Chip Ganassi thought he had what Roush had.  A future star.  Reed made the leap to Cup the next year, and did okay.  Not great.  It also didn't help that Carl Edwards won Rookie of the Year in Nationwide while also running the Cup series.  Edwards won four races that year but had run 13 races the year before, robbing him of a chance at winning two Rookie of the Year titles in the same year.  Sorenson never seemed to catch fire, and after Chip Ganassimerged with DEI, Sorenson's team was dissolved. Reedmanaged to find a ride with the struggling Richard Petty Motorsports and become yet another driver of the famed #43.  But 2009 was a disappointment for RPM and Sorenson.  He was released from the ride and replaced by AJ Allmendinger.  Sorenson failed to find a full time ride in 2010, racing a handful of races for the #32 team in Nationwide before Brian Vickerswas sidelined with blood clots.  Sorenson took over for Vickers in both the Cup and Nationwide Series.  While Sorenson failed to impress at Red Bull Racing, he did wonders in the Nationwide Series, and has earned himself his first full time ride in Nationwide since his rookie year.  Sorenson had nine top fives, and twenty one top tens.  If he had been in the Dollar General Toyota for the entire year, he may have cracked the top five in points.  This year looks to be different.  Sorenson has full sponsorship, a new manufacturer, and a new found confidence.  Reed is one to look out for.

Number 3:

#2- Elliott Sadler, Citi Bank Chevy for Kevin Harvick Inc.

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MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 26: Elliott Sadler, driver of the #19 Stanley Ford in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 26, 2010 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Elliott Sadler has decided to move on to the next chapter of his life, but that doesn't mean he has given up on his dream of winning a Championship.  Sadler was released from Richard Petty Motorsports thanks to RPM downsizing to two teams, but it didn't take long for Kevin Harvick to help his friend out.  Sadler will run select races in the Truck Series, and will probably end up there in two years.  But before that happens, Sadler intends on giving Kevin Harvick Inc. it's first championship.  Sadler will drive a second KHIChevy, teaming with Harvick and his RCR teammates who will pilot the #33 Chevy.  Sadler is a guy who has seen it all.  He has won at every level, yet he is still considered to be a bust.  Why?  Sadler had just one top ten finish in the Cup points.  A 2004 trip to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Sadler won two races that year for Robert Yates Racing.  Those were Sadler's last two wins.  Elliott does have one other win, in 2001 Sadler became the last driver to take the Wood Brothers #21 Ford to victory lane.  Elliott has five career Nationwide wins, all coming in '97 and '98, the only two years Sadler was a full time Nationwide Driver.  That bodes very well for 2011.  Last year Sadler returned to Victory Lane for the first time since 2004.  This time in the Truck Series.  We know KHI is a team to watch out for.  Adding a veteran like Sadler to try and teach these young guns a lesson may just prove to be a very smart move for Kevin Harvick.

Number 2:

#16- Trevor Bayne, Unsponsored Ford for Roush Fenway Racing

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RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: Trevor Bayne, driver of the #99 Out! Pet Care Toyota, waits during pre race for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2010 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Trevor Bayne followed a one win Fourth place finish in the ARCAseries in 2008 with a deal to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing.  That Bayne did this at age 17 makes Trevor a brightly shining start.  Bayne raced just 15 times in 2009, and picked up his first career pole.  Last season saw Bayne, now 19, score his first top five.  Bayne had three straight poles, and looked primed to visit victory lane but sponsorship was becoming a problem and after Dover Michael Waltrip released Bayne. Thismove still hasn't sat right with me.  Bayne is a guy you could have moved up to Cup this year (they had the #47 ride, or could have worked out a deal where JTG moved the #47 points over to MWR and used Bobby Labonte's past champions provisional if needed) or at least tried to hang on to him.  Roush Fenway saw Bayne for what he appears to be, a future Cup star.  They put Bayne in an unsponsored Ford the rest of the season and will have Trevor take over for Colin Braun in 2011.  Sponsorship is still lacking.  Con-Way Freight will return for half a year, and Roush claims they are close to securing sponsorship for the rest of the season. Even with that, Roush vowed to run Bayne for the entire season.  Smart move.  As far as Baynenot having a win yet, you could blame lack of funding with Waltrip Racing, or you could blame the fact that Bayne cannot legally drink alcohol in America yet.  2011 should be Trevor Bayne's time to shine.

Number 1:

#31- Justin Allgaier, Brandt Chevy for Turner Motorsports 

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FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Justin Allgaier, driver of the #12 Verizon Wireless Dodge, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series O'ReillyAuto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Allgaier is my pick to win the 2011 Nationwide Championship.  Allgaierfollowed up a Rookie of the Year title in 2009 with an amazing 2010.  Allgaier finally found victory lane at Bristol, beating partner and future champion Brad Keselowski to do it.  Allgaier had eight top fives, twenty top 10s, and two poles.  He finished 4th in the standings and was the only "Nationwide only" regular to win in 2010 (Boris Said doesn't count).  Allgaier looked primed to join Penske's Cup Series team, either taking over for Sam Hornish or expanding to a fourth team.  But sponsorship could not be found for Hornish, or for Allgaier.  The #12 Dodge will most likely close down before the start of the season unless Penske puts Sam Hornish in the car.  Allgaier was forced to leave, and I feel he did this at the right time.  Penske will still put together a team for Keselowski, but without sponsorship Allgaier would never have felt his job was safe.  In comes Turner Motorsports.  Turner is trying to become the premier Nationwide-only team.  They have Leffler, Sorenson, Kahne, Carmichael, and Buescher.  And now they have Justin Allgaier.  Allgaier also has a full time sponsor: Brandt is a newcomer to the Nationwide series and will adorn the red #31 chevy in all 35 races.  That's good news for Allgaier.  Turner Motorsports is a team that seems to have a lot of stability, and Allgaier can focus on winning a Championship instead of wondering if he's going to be called up to the Cup Series.  That ride will come, Justin is just 24 years old, and teams are always looking for some young blood.

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