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2011 NASCAR Sleepers & Busts: Drivers to Target and Avoid

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This is our annual look at the trending drivers in NASCAR. If you're not treading water, you're either sinking or swimming. That's what our sleepers and busts article is all about. After all, this is the part of the game that separates the winners from the losers in most fantasy racing formats. Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray and A.J. Allmendinger likely helped many win their leagues last season. While drivers like Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin most likely ended fantasy championship hopes by mid-season. Identifying those drivers who will break out and have career seasons, and those who are headed in the other direction, is key in fantasy racing success. Let's look at some of the drivers in 2011 you should make every effort to get, and those to avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

1. Carl Edwards
No. 99
Roush Fenway Racing
Ford
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 9 1 19 27 2nd
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 7 14 11th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 2 3 9 19 4th
Three Year Totals 108 11 4 35 60


It's hard to call a driver who finished fourth in the last season's standings a "sleeper" but that is indeed what Edwards is entering the new season. Were it not for victories in the last two races of 2010, the Roush Fenway Racing star would be entering 2011 on a 72-race winless streak. Edwards has largely frustrated fantasy racing players for most of the last two seasons. Signs that this is starting to change came with his victories at Phoenix and Homestead to end last season. All the Roush teams appear poised for a surge in the upcoming season and Edwards will lead the charge. The No. 99 Ford team showed what they were capable of with a nine-win season in 2008, so the bar is set pretty high for Edwards. He should climb back to elite driver status in the coming campaign.

2. Joey Logano
No. 20
Joe Gibbs Racing
Toyota
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 3 0 0 0 0 64th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 1 0 3 7 20th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 1 7 16 16th
Three Year Totals 75 1 1 10 23


The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy really made some strides last season, especially late in the year. Logano ripped off six Top 10's in the Chase for the Cup and was one of the most consistent drivers during the last third of the 2010 season. Now that he's seen all the tracks on the circuit a few times, Logano is starting to find his groove in the Sprint Cup car. He and crew chief Greg Zipadelli have also found a common ground or chemistry that is starting to bear fruits on the race track. Logano has loads of talent and is poised for NASCAR stardom. The upcoming 2011 season should see him take the next steps in his progression and a first career appearance in the Chase for the Cup. Victories and many Top 10's should be in the offing for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team.

3. Brad Keselowski
No. 2
Penske Racing
Dodge
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 2 0 0 0 0 57th
2009 Sprint Cup 15 1 0 1 4 38th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 1 0 2 25th
Three Year Totals 53 1 1 1 6


To say that Keselowski's first full season in the Sprint Cup Series was a roller coaster affair would be an understatement. His ongoing feud with Carl Edwards and many other run-ins on the race track with various drivers dominated the news and overshadowed anything he accomplished as a driver. The two Top 10's and 25th-place finish in the standings in 2010 fell well short of team owner Roger Penske's expectations for Keselowski. Still, he gets new sponsorship and moves to the historic and prodigious No. 2 team in 2011, so Penske has great confidence in the young driver. Keselowski won the Nationwide Series championship going away last season, so there's not doubt he can race the wheels off anything. It won't be long before these obvious talents begin to show in the Sprint Cup Series.

4. David Ragan
No. 6
Roush Fenway Racing
Ford
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 6 14 13th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 0 2 27th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 0 3 24th
Three Year Totals 108 0 0 6 19


Ragan has been mired in a two-year funk, and part of that has been that Roush Fenway Racing hasn't been the sharpest multi-car team in the Sprint Cup Series garage area. The driver of the No. 6 Ford showed us his potential in 2008 with 14 Top-10 finishes and a respectable 13th-place finish in the points. That talent is still present, and it has caused many to have high expectations for Ragan. We saw signs of that talent at the close of 2010 when Ragan grabbed two Top 10's and five Top 20's during the Chase for the Cup. With the Roush Fenway stable on the upswing, Ragan should come along for the ride in 2011. We don't expect a Chase berth in the upcoming season, but a return close to his 2008 form would not come as a surprise.

5. Brian Vickers
No. 83
Red Bull Racing
Toyota
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 1 3 6 19th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 1 6 4 13 12th
2010 Sprint Cup 11 0 0 0 3 40th
Three Year Totals 83 1 7 7 22


After making the Chase for the first time in 2009, Vickers encore performance fell way short of expectations. The Red Bull Racing driver struggled through the first third of last season before a blood clot condition sidelined him for the rest of the 2010 campaign. With his medical problems resolved, Vickers will saddle up in the No. 83 Toyota and attempt to regain the form that saw him post 13 Top 10's and win six poles two seasons ago. While these goals will be ambitious, they are completely attainable for this talented driver and veteran team. Vickers could return to victory lane in 2011 and should march right back into the Top 15 of the championship standings.

6. Martin Truex Jr.
No. 56
Michael Waltrip Racing
Toyota
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 3 11 15th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 3 1 6 23rd
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 1 1 7 22nd
Three Year Totals 108 0 4 5 24


Truex's first season with Michael Waltrip Racing didn't go quite as well as expected last season. The pairing with venerable crew chief Pat Tryson had expectations set very high. The No. 56 team did shine at times, but never found the consistency to become a Top 15 team. Truex got to know his new chief last season, and developed some chemistry with the team. With virtually all the cast members returning, Truex should build on last season with an even better 2011 campaign. After leading 62 laps and finishing 11th at Homestead to end last season, we can guarantee that the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran will not finish outside the Top 20 in the standings this season.

BUSTS

1. Jeff Burton
No. 31
Richard Childress Racing
Chevrolet
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 2 0 7 18 6th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 5 10 17th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 6 15 12th
Three Year Totals 108 2 0 18 43


Despite leading well over 500 laps for the season in 2010, Burton was held out of victory lane for the second straight season. At this point we're starting to get the sense that the veteran driver may have finally fallen off the edge of his prime. The Chase for the Cup was a complete disaster with Burton collecting two Top 10's, two DNF's and one shoving match of frustration with Jeff Gordon. He slipped all the way to the bottom of the Chase 12 and never recovered. This could become the norm for Burton since he's been underachieving basically the same equipment that Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer have used to win races and challenge for championships. Burton will still have his streaks of consistency in 2011, but don't expect him to be able to put a complete season together for we believe those days are over.

2. Mark Martin
No. 5
Rick Hendrick Motorsports
Chevrolet
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 24 0 0 4 11 28th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 5 7 14 21 2nd
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 1 7 11 13th
Three Year Totals 96 5 8 25 43


At the close of last season we were eagerly anticipating Martin's last season in the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in 2011. However, that's when irony struck. Team owner Rick Hendrick decided to shuffle the crew chiefs among three of his four teams for the upcoming season in an attempt to shake up and improve the performance of the various camps. We feel this was primarily directed at Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he as well as Martin and Jeff Gordon had their struggles at times in 2010. As a result, we've had to dial down our expectations for Martin in the upcoming season. The pairing with crew chief Lance McGrew and departure of Alan Gustafson to the No. 24 team leaves us with a very pessimistic outlook for Martin's swan song with Hendrick Motorsports.

3. Paul Menard
No. 27
Richard Childress Racing
Chevrolet
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 1 1 1 26th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 0 0 31st
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 1 6 23rd
Three Year Totals 108 0 1 2 7


Richard Childress Racing is going "all in" again on the effort to start (and maintain) a fourth Sprint Cup Series team. This time it will be Menard's turn to pilot the expansion team for this respected racing stable. The last time RCR attempted four teams it ended in disaster with Casey Mears and the departure of some highly respected sponsors. Menard is by no means a better driver than Mears, in fact the racing resumes of both drivers point to a more experienced driver in Mears. So in summary we have a hard time believing that this experiment will yield better results than the last time RCR expanded to four teams. The big thing Menard has going in his favor is that he's coming off a career-best season in 2010, but one we have a hard time seeing him equal in 2011.

4. Juan Pablo Montoya
No. 42
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Chevrolet
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 2 3 25th
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 2 7 18 8th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 1 3 6 14 17th
Three Year Totals 108 1 5 15 35


This will be a pivotal season in Montoya's future in NASCAR. After making the Chase for the Cup in 2009 and setting expectations sky-high, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver fell apart and had a disastrous 2010 campaign. Despite winning a race and forging 14 Top 10's, Montoya was wildly inconsistent and battled DNF's with eight on the season. While we expect a moderate rebound in the upcoming season, Montoya didn't show the signs down the stretch that he will hit the ground running in 2011. The No. 42 team will get it together in the new season, but it could take some time. As a result Montoya will likely be on the outside looking in when Chase time rolls around next season.

5. Bobby Labonte
No. 47
JTG/Daugherty Racing
Toyota
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 0 2 21st
2009 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 1 2 30th
2010 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 0 0 31st
Three Year Totals 108 0 0 1 4


Labonte has hit rock bottom in his Sprint Cup Series career. After winning the championship to start this past decade in 2000, the veteran driver has slowly dwindled to the lower 30's in the driver standings each of the last two seasons. Most of this is a result of the teams he's now racing for and not so much to do with an erosion of his driving talents. Labonte still has what it takes to be a competitive NASCAR driver at age 46, but his new race team at JTG/Daugherty Racing is only marginally better than what's he's raced for each of the last two years. Labonte will make every race in 2011 and stay in the Top 35 in points, but don't expect to see him forge any Top-10 finishes this season.

6. Robby Gordon
No. 7
Robby Gordon Motorsports
Chevrolet
RacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2008 Sprint Cup 36 0 0 0 3 33rd
2009 Sprint Cup 35 0 0 1 1 34th
2010 Sprint Cup 27 0 0 1 1 34th
Three Year Totals 98 0 0 2 5


The owner/driver has hit hard times in his NASCAR career. Last season lack of funding caught up to the veteran driver, and he had to race a reduced schedule as a result. The 2011 season holds promise for better days ahead, but we still can't convince ourselves that the ailing economy is going to make things any easier for this small race team. Gordon is facing the prospects of racing a reduced schedule again in the upcoming season, and possibly putting another (sponsored) driver in his team's No. 7 for a handful of races. Gordon has fallen along way from his race-winning form of eight years ago. It seems he's not even as competitive on the road courses any more, and mostly due to this team's equipment/personnel deficiencies.
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