Top 20 Countdown: No. 11 Juan Pablo Montoya

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2011 season. The order was determined by a survey, which asked five NASCAR journalists – Jay Busbee and Jay Hart (Yahoo! Sports), Jenna Fryer (Associated Press), Dustin Long (Landmark Newspapers) and Nate Ryan (USA Today) – to predict the final standings for the 2011 season. The countdown will conclude on Feb. 11 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

(Getty Images)

2010 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
17 3 1 6 14
The countdown
No. 20: David Reutimann   |   Career stats
No. 19: Kasey Kahne   |   Career stats
No. 18: Mark Martin   |   Career stats
No. 17: Ryan Newman   |   Career stats
No. 14 (tie): Joey Logano   |   Career stats
No. 14 (tie): Jeff Burton   |   Career stats
No. 13: Jamie McMurray   |   Career stats
No. 12: Kurt Busch   |   Career stats
No. 10: Revealed Jan. 31

2010 finish: 17th

Our 2011 predictions:
• Jay Busbee: 14th
• Jay Hart: 17th
• Jenna Fryer: 7th
• Dustin Long: 7th
• Nate Ryan: 10th

Outlook for 2011: You could make a case that, lap for lap, Juan Pablo Montoya is the most talented driver in NASCAR. Unlike his stock-car brethren, he’s won many of the world’s biggest races in the open-wheel format. And unlike his open-wheel brethren, he’s steadily improved in NASCAR – to the point that he’s a legitimate threat to win at many of the series’ tracks. The problem for Montoya isn’t in his cars; it’s is in that six inches between the ears. If he’s in a race, he’s in the hunt. But all too often, he ends up in the hauler or on his plane home, well before the race is over. Some of that’s just bad luck, but some of it is because of questionable decision making and an inability to right the ship when it starts to lean too far.

Check the stats. Montoya can be an exceptional qualifier – over the second half of the season, he had a stretch where he qualified eighth or better in 15 of 18 races. And when he finishes a race, Montoya is a top-10 competitor. But he also had eight DNFs in 2010, three of them coming in the space of four weeks in midsummer. And that, as they say, was that for his Chase hopes.

Montoya’s in-race radio is pure id, an untrammeled look into a mind that seems to be just one bad lap from breaking loose. If he and crew chief Brian Pattie can rein in that fire and point it forward, instead of in every direction but the right one, he can absolutely be a force at the top of the standings. Success breeds success, and strong early runs which will help Montoya weather the inevitable downturn are essential.

What you need to know: Montoya has two wins in his career, both at road courses, including last year’s victory at Watkins Glen. He’s been so close to wins on ovals – a speeding penalty on pit road probably cost him the win at Indy in 2009 ‐ and this should be the year he breaks through. He took the pole at Loudon, Indianapolis and Talladega; now it’s just a matter of hanging around to see the flag at the other end of the race.