Top 20 Countdown: No. 5 Tony Stewart

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

Tony Stewart photo
(Getty Images)

2011 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
1 1 5 9 19
The countdown
No. 20: Marcos Ambrose   |   Career stats
No. 19: Kurt Busch   |   Career stats
No. 16: Jeff Burton   |   Career stats
No. 15: Clint Bowyer   |   Career stats
No. 13: Ryan Newman   |   Career stats
No. 11: Greg Biffle   |   Career stats
No. 10: Denny Hamlin   |   Career stats   |   Slideshow
No. 9: Brad Keselowski   |   Career stats   |   Slideshow
No. 8: Jeff Gordon   |   Career stats   |   Slideshow
No. 7: Kasey Kahne   |   Career stats |   Slideshow
No. 6: Kyle Busch   |   Career stats |   Slideshow
No. 5: Tony Stewart   |   Career stats |   Slideshow
No. 4: Revealed Tuesday, Feb. 14

2011 finish: 1st

Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 4th
• Jay Busbee: 7th
• Nick Bromberg: 5th
• Geoffrey Miller: 4th

Crew chief: Steve Addington

Offseason action: Replaced Darian Grubb as crew chief with Steve Addington; added his old crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, as competition director of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Outlook for 2012: Not even afterthought-to-winner Brad Keselowski had a more schizophrenic season than Tony Stewart. With his place in the Chase in doubt right up until the final weekend, Stewart didn’t even think he belonged in NASCAR’s postseason. But like the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball and the New York Giants in football, he proceeded to shock the sport by winning the championship.

As for how that victory will affect Stewart come 2012: Who knows? First, Stewart took the strange, perhaps unprecedented move of firing his crew chief right after a season championship win, replacing Darian Grubb with Steve Addington. Stewart also brought Greg Zipadelli into the Stewart-Haas fold, further bolstering his brain trust. And with the arrival of Danica Patrick and, more importantly, the Danica dollars, Stewart-Haas is now positioning itself as a potentially game-changing team. (Yes, yes, Patrick is technically a Tommy Baldwin Racing driver. Anyone really believe that?)

Anyway, Stewart has two knocks against him when it comes to keeping his momentum going. First is logistical: He will have to get used to Addington on the box, and that can be a tricky process, especially with a driver as touchy as Stewart. (Then again, Addington is a veteran of both Busch brothers; crewing Stewart could, in fact, count as the necessary third miracle for sainthood.) While Stewart and Grubb made the Chase all three years they were together, it wasn’t until this year that they were a serious factor.

The other potential hiccup is more historical. Stewart traditionally doesn’t heat up until the weather does, and that means it could be May before he starts driving to his ability. Of course, everybody, including Stewart himself, counted the No. 14 out of the 2011 Chase … and we saw how that turned out.

Point of interest: For all the accolades in his career, Stewart is yet to win the Daytona 500. Don’t think that’s not on his mind now, at a time when literally any driver in the field has a chance to win. Keep an eye on Smoke during Daytona.

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