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: 7th
Our 2011 predictions:
• Jay Busbee: 7th
• Jay Hart: 11th
• Jenna Fryer: 9th
• Dustin Long: 10th
• Nate Ryan: 8th
2011 outlook: Predictably, Tony Stewart's 2010 season rose and fell just as the thermometer did. He was cold February through April, warmed up in May, sizzled in June, July and August, then cooled off in September, October and November.
This pattern has long been Smoke's M.O. and is a big reason why he's finished sixth or seventh in the standings six times in his 12-year career. Aside from his two championship seasons (2002 and 2005), Stewart has experienced some sort of lull every year of his career and, as a result, tends to finish the season in good – but not great – standing.
For sure, Stewart will win a few races and likely make the Chase (though how easily will depend on how he fares in the first two months of the season). But once the Chase begins, it's anyone's guess. He could light it up and cruise to the title without much challenge at all, or he could linger in the middle of the pack, hardly ever getting any notice.
The prediction here is it will be the latter. Because while Stewart has proven most of his critics wrong by finding early success in his first two years as an owner/driver, his track record shows that usually he's not at his best when it matters most.
What you need to know: Stewart has won at least one race every season of his 12-year career. The 12-year streak is the longest among active drivers.
- Tony Stewart