Top 20 countdown: No. 15 Tony Stewart

(AP Photo/Old Spice, Stuart Ramson)

2008 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
9 0 1 10 16
The countdown
No. 20: Martin Truex Jr.
No. 19: Juan Pablo Montoya
No. 18: Kurt Busch
No. 17: Kasey Kahne
No. 16: Brian Vickers
No. 15: Tony Stewart
No. 14: Revealed Sunday

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the Top 20 drivers going into the 2009 season. The order was determined by a survey, which asked six NASCAR journalists – Ricky Craven, Jay Busbee and Jay Hart (Yahoo! Sports); Jenna Fryer (Associated Press); David Poole (Charlotte Observer); and Nate Ryan (USA Today) – to predict the final standings for the 2009 season. The countdown will conclude on Feb. 6 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

2008 finish: 9th

2009 outlook: Nobody comes into 2009 with fewer expectations but more of a burden on their shoulders than Tony Stewart.

This year marks the inaugural season for Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart’s brand-new team with Ryan Newman. And no one is seriously expecting immediate success – or even a Chase berth, judging by his placement on this list.

On the other hand, Stewart isn’t the kind of driver to bask in the charitable expectations of others. He wants to win, and he expects to do so immediately. Whether he’ll be able to do so without the backing of Joe Gibbs Racing will be one of the early season’s biggest questions.

A secondary concern for Stewart is how well he’ll be able to rein in his famously mercurial personality. As an owner, he’ll be expected to present a more diplomatic face than he has in the past; mouthing off about whatever NASCAR policy or operation gets under his skin won’t be as easy.

Still, Stewart has both sponsorship and manufacturer backing, as well as one of the highest profiles in NASCAR. Anything he does is newsworthy, and he’s certain to provide plenty of memorable moments in 2009 – hopefully, for his sake, for the right reasons.

What you need to know: Owner/drivers are a rare breed in NASCAR, and with good reason. The demands for both occupations are constant and insistent; combining the two is a challenge few drivers undertake.

Robby Gordon and Michael Waltrip are the only other driver-owners currently running in the Sprint Cup, and both struggle week in and week out. Neither has won a single race as a driver-owner. In fact, no owner/driver has won a championship since Alan Kulwicki squeaked one out in 1992, and no owner/driver has even won a race since Ricky Rudd in 1998 at Martinsville.