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.
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2010 finish: 21st
Our 2011 predictions:
• Jay Busbee: 19th
• Jay Hart: 18th
• Jenna Fryer: 12th
• Dustin Long: 20th
• Nate Ryan: 9th
2011 outlook: If the season's first race were the Daytona 500½, we'd be having a whole different conversation about Dale Earnhardt Jr. right now. But he wasn't able to run down Jamie McMurray last year for the win in the year's biggest race. As it turned out, that failure would prove to be the high point of his season. Junior would scatter just two more top fives throughout the season, as poor qualifying (he averaged a 19.0 start) and scarcely better finishing (average 18.6) led to yet another disappointing season for NASCAR's most popular driver.
What's wrong with Junior? Who knows? Perhaps he just hasn't found the right mix of equipment and personnel. Perhaps the Car of Tomorrow just doesn't fit his driving style. Perhaps the sport has passed him by. And perhaps he's just not as talented as he seemed to be early in his career. Make no mistake, he's still one of the best drivers on the planet, but when you're the face of an entire industry, low-teens finishes just don't cut it.
Earnhardt is now on his third crew chief in the last two years, and the grand Hendrick team swap appears expressly designed to give him the best possible chance to win – pairing him with the championship 48 team and aligning him with Steve Letarte, who did help Jeff Gordon to one of the best seasons of his career in 2007.
Yes, this latest change has all the feel of a Hail Mary pass, and if Junior drops this one, there's not much else to be done. No pressure.
What you need to know: 93. That's where Earnhardt's winless streak stands right now. In the 93 races since his last win (at Michigan in 2008), only Martin Truex Jr., Bobby Labonte and Robby Gordon, among Cup regulars, have failed to win a race. That puts Texas Motor Speedway right in the spotlight as the potential 100th straight winless race for Junior. Expect that to get a little press as the time draws near.