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2011 season preview: Can anyone dethrone Johnson this time?

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Daytona Beach, FL (Sports Network) - High-five to Jimmie Johnson for continuing his streak of Sprint Cup Series championships in 2010. The "six pack" is currently on ice, as Johnson begins his bid for another title this month at Daytona. But is this the year that someone finally chases him down and thwarts his bid for a record-extending sixth straight championship?

Who has a shot and who doesn't to take the title away from Johnson will be the biggest question throughout the season. However, NASCAR's newer and simpler points system and its revised eligibility format for the Chase will stir up debate as well this year.

Is this the revival year for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and does Danica Patrick show improvement during her sophomore season in NASCAR? These will be other intriguing questions.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

Jimmie Johnson begins his bid for another title this month at Daytona.
In 2010, Johnson proved he was the best in NASCAR's top-tier series when he overcame a points deficit in the season-finale at Homestead and successfully completed his "drive for five" titles campaign.

While champagne sprayed into the air and confetti floated down onto the championship stage at Homestead, it was time for Johnson and his No.48 Hendrick Motorsports team to start thinking about the six pack.

"We like beer, so it works," Johnson quipped after clinching his fifth straight Sprint Cup championship with a second-place finish at Homestead last November.

But nobody from the 48 team spent much time pulling the brewski out from the refrigerator to celebrate during the off-season.

"This race team and I have worked very hard during the off-season to be better than we were last year, and we can't wait to show everybody what we've got," Johnson said.

Johnson is now two titles away from tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the record. He surpassed his Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon, who has four Cup trophies on his mantle.

Much like the heydays of Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon, Johnson has been on top in NASCAR for quite sometime, which perhaps has been a downfall for the sport and a turnoff for its fans.

Nevertheless, Johnson is quite content with going about his daily business.

"I'm in that situation of being that guy," he said. "I've experienced it with Earnhardt and watched it with Gordon first hand, because that was right when I came on board. I'm excited to be in this position; it's great. I certainly never thought that I would have this kind of success, so I'll take the good and bad that comes with it."

WHO HAS A SHOT AT CATCHING JOHNSON?

Last year, Denny Hamlin was selected as the driver most likely to beat Johnson for the title. He almost did it, finishing 39 points behind Johnson. Hamlin came to Homestead with a slim 15-point lead, but his 14th-place finish there prevented him from pulling off one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR.

However, it didn't take long for Hamlin to get over the disappointment of not winning the championship.

"I'm ready to go," Hamlin said. "I feel as confident as I've ever been. Every year, we've steadily made a progression towards the top and obviously had a career year last year. We know we can do it, and we can win at all different kinds of race tracks. For me, I think we have everything in place."

Hamlin notched a Sprint Cup season-high eight wins in 2010. Expect him to be a strong contender again this year.

After winning the final two races of the season last November, Carl Edwards will be a huge factor in this year's title campaign. Edwards snapped a lengthy 70-race winless streak at Phoenix, and then his momentum carried over to Homestead.

"The way we finished the 2010 season is the way we'd like to run all the time, and I feel the way our team is structured right now, we're set to have one of our best seasons for Roush [Fenway Racing]," Edwards said.

Many have speculated during the off-season that Edwards could be the one who ends Johnson's title streak.

Kevin Harvick had his best run at the championship last year, finishing 41 points behind Johnson in third place. Harvick has even higher expectations, as he enters 11th season of Sprint Cup competition.

"As we go into the year, we want to be as good as we were last year," Harvick said. "We want that trophy, and that's what we're out to get."

Harvick entered the Cup level 10 years ago when he replaced Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt's fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

WHO MIGHT HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY?

Team owner Rick Hendrick is hopeful his drivers Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will rebound after Hendrick made a crew chief swap for all three drivers just days after the 2010 season concluded.

Steve Letarte moved from Gordon's No.24 team and replaced Lance McGrew at Earnhardt Jr.'s No.88 team. McGrew paired with Martin at the No.5, while Alan Gustafson ended his crew chief tenure with Martin and now serves in the role for Gordon.

"It just made a lot of sense to move the guys where we moved them," Hendrick said. "The proof will be after we run about 10 races, but so far it looks like it's working out really well."

The pairing of Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. has been a much talked about subject during the off-season.

"Our first goal is to make the 88 car relevant," Letarte said. "We want to be fast, and we want people to see that we're fast. We want to lead laps, and we want to become relevant in these races, and I think the best way to do that is to have good race cars. I think if we do that, then we can win races. We feel like we need to make the Chase. That's our goal."

Earnhardt Jr. once again endured a disappointing season last year, finishing 21st in points. He failed to make the Chase for the second straight year, and his last Cup win came in June 2008 at Michigan (93 races ago).

"I'm looking forward to a new beginning for myself and with Steve [Letarte] and this team," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm glad to be a part of that group, and hopefully I can be an asset to those guys. I'm going to work really hard and try to give them the best I can all year long."

It's vital that Earnhardt Jr. quickly restores happiness in his loyal fan base "Junior Nation."

Gordon and Martin were winless last year, but both drivers are hoping that isn't the case this season. Gordon qualified for the 2010 Chase but finished ninth. Martin, who finished second in points and won five races in 2009, ended last season 13th in the standings.

Other drivers figured to be in the thick of things for this year's title hunt include: Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, assuming he doesn't get hit with another huge points loss for an illegal car, Jeff Burton, and quite possibly Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano.

"For us to have a better season, it would be about not only making the Chase but contending for the championship down to the last four or five races," McMurray said. "If we can do that, that would be a solid season."

McMurray finished 14th in points last year, despite winning three races, including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

NEW POINTS SYSTEM AND WILD CARD SPOTS FOR THE CHASE

Last month, NASCAR formally announced a revised but easier to understand points structure for all three of its national touring series. The system has seemed to settle in well with competitors.

"You don't know how the points structure is going to work out, but like [NASCAR] said, it's simple and easy to understand," Stewart said. "I think in this era of sports, we're competing with a lot of other professional entities. The easier you can make it for everybody to understand and the more you can get them to directly engage in what we're doing, the more appealing it is to keep these people watching NASCAR every week."

How well the system actually works will be interesting to follow throughout the season, especially when it comes Chase time.

Speaking of the Chase, NASCAR's new eligibility requirements for the playoffs should heat things up in August and early September.

The top-10 drivers in points after the 26th and final race of the regular season -- the September 10 event at Richmond -- will qualify for the Chase. However, the 11th and 12th seeds are "wild cards," starting this year. These spots will go to non-top-10-ranked drivers with the most wins, as long as they are ranked in the top-20 in points.

So expect the night races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond to be hot and steamy affairs.

WHAT ABOUT DANICA?

The highly popular and hugely marketable Danica Patrick enters her second year of NASCAR competition. So far, Patrick has confirmed she will run the first four Nationwide Series races this season: Daytona (February 19), Phoenix (Feb. 26), Las Vegas (March 5) and Bristol (Mar. 19). The IZOD IndyCar Series kicks off its season at St. Petersburg, FL the week after the Nationwide spring event at Bristol.

An announcement of more Nationwide races on Patrick's schedule next year may be forthcoming.

After a somewhat disappointing Nationwide rookie year, Patrick hopes her sophomore season will be a more positive experience. She finished no better than 19th in her 13-race schedule in Nationwide last year.

Will a Sprint Cup attempt be in her cards sometime this year? Let's just see how she does this month and next.

BOYS, HAVE AT IT ON DAYTONA'S NEW SURFACE

SpeedWeeks 2011 at Daytona kicks off this Saturday night with the pre-season, non-points Budweiser Shootout. With a field of 24 drivers, the Budweiser shootout will be NASCAR's first race on Daytona's newly-repaved track. It should be a wild SpeedWeeks, particularly with the February 20 Daytona 500.

After a Goodyear tire test in December and last month's pre-season testing, many drivers think this year's Daytona 500 could be the best one ever in the 53-year history of the prestigious race.

We shall see.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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