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.
No. 9: Revealed Feb. 1
2010 finish: 10th
Our 2011 predictions:
• Jay Busbee: 8th
• Jay Hart: 13th
• Jenna Fryer: 10th
• Dustin Long: 11th
• Nate Ryan: 11th
Outlook for 2011: For a brief moment, Clint Bowyer was smack dab in the middle of the 2010 championship hunt. Though he was the second-to-last qualifier for the Chase, his win in the playoff's first race vaulted him from 11th to second, and had him sitting behind only Denny Hamlin. All looked bright for the man from Emporia, Kan.
And then the hammer of NASCAR came down. Violations discovered in Bowyer's car led NASCAR to levy a 150-point penalty against the No. 33 team, effectively dooming his hopes for any kind of title run. Bowyer protested his innocence – and the fact that he went on to win later in the Chase seemed to bolster his case – but the ruling held.
It was an ugly stain on what was unquestionably Bowyer's best season of his five-year Sprint Cup career – two wins, seven top-five finishes, 18 top-10s. And while Bowyer had his problems qualifying – he failed to capture a pole and averaged a starting position of only 14.9 – he nonetheless ran better the longer the year went on. Over a stretch of 11 races that ran from Bristol in August to Texas in November, he posted seven finishes in the top seven. And no one, other than Carl Edwards, won as many races in the Chase as Bowyer.
Like Edwards, Bowyer seems poised for a breakout season. He has exactly the kind of personality that could make him a NASCAR superstar: He's at ease in front of the cameras while still able to retain some measure of humanity. The 2011 season could very well be the year that Bowyer steps up to NASCAR's top echelon.
What you need to know: Bowyer has had issues with his crews before, but after undergoing a complete crew switch (in the middle of the Chase) with teammate Kevin Harvick, Bowyer nonetheless won at Talladega the following week. (Harvick, meanwhile, ran well but didn't win any races in the Chase.)
Flexibility under duress is a necessary attribute for a championship driver, as is the ability to coordinate every element of your crew, and Bowyer showed late in the year that he could do both. Everything's in place for a fine 2011 … as long as Bowyer makes sure to play by the rules.