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Top 20 Countdown: T-No. 3 Denny Hamlin

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

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 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
2 2 8 14 18
The countdown
No. 14 (tie): Joey Logano | Career stats
No. 14 (tie): Jeff Burton | Career stats
No. 3 (tie): Denny Hamlin | Career stats
No. 3: (tie) Revealed Feb. 9

2010 finish: 2nd

Our 2011 predictions:
• Jay Busbee: 4th
• Jay Hart: 3rd
• Jenna Fryer: 2nd
• Dustin Long: 1st
• Nate Ryan: 7th

2011 outlook: Coming off a season in which he won a season-high eight races and held the points lead right up until the closing laps of the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, one has to wonder – can Denny Hamlin do any better?

The smart money – and recent history – says no.

Jeff Gordon wasn't able to maintain a winning pace coming off his six-win season in 2007. Neither was Carl Edwards after he won nine races in 2008, nor Mark Martin after he won five in 2009. In fact, all three went winless in the season following their head-to-head battles with Jimmie Johnson.

This isn't to say history will dictate what Hamlin does in 2011. But it does show how going toe-to-toe with Johnson can wear on you. Once can be classified as an aberration, twice a coincidence, but three times begins to look like a trend. If Hamlin goes winless in 2011, well, it will be time to formulate a hypothesis.

As long as Martinsville remains on the schedule twice a season, Hamlin's likely to find his way to victory lane at least once a year. However, it's the mile-and-a-half tracks, where Hamlin buttered his bread in 2010, that will determine how viable of a contender he will be in 2011. Five of his eight wins last season came on intermediate tracks.

If Hamlin can maintain that same pace and his crew chief Mike Ford can focus more on making the right pit call and less on trying to win a war of words with Johnson and Chad Knaus, then it's possible that Hamlin can do better.

But note, we say "possible," not probable.

What you need to know: After taking a step backward following his breakout rookie season, Hamlin has improved his finishing spot in the standings every year of his career. He finished 12th in 2007, eighth in 2008, fifth in 2009 and second last season.

"Obviously there's only one more spot to go," Hamlin said.