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2012 Sleepers & Busts : Hamlin is Undervalued

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.

Of the articles that make up the NASCAR Draft Kit, this is probably the most important, and also most speculative. Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons. We all know what Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards can do, so there's little risk associated with those drivers, but it is the drivers that come out of nowhere to have huge seasons can take you to fantasy racing glory. Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne likely helped many to win their leagues last season. While drivers like Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton most likely ended your fantasy racing championship hopes by midseason. Identifying those drivers who will break out and have career seasons, and those who are headed in the other direction, is the key in fantasy racing success. Let's look at some of the drivers in 2012 whom you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

1. Denny Hamlin
Car:
No. 11
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009364115205th
2010368214182nd
201136105149th
TOTAL1081333452

For a driver that's won as many races as Hamlin, and is just one year removed from finishing runner-up in the Sprint Cup driver standings it's hard to look on the driver of the No. 11 Toyota as a sleeper. Maybe rebound driver is a better description. Still, there will be a lot of people that won't see what's coming from the Joe Gibbs Racing star in 2012. After muddling through a one-win, 14 Top 10 season in 2011, Hamlin will refocus for the upcoming season. The addition of championship crew chief Darien Grubb should have a major impact on things turning positive in the No. 11 camp. Considering this past season was one of Hamlin's worst campaigns in his brief Sprint Cup Series career, we expect major things for this driver in the upcoming season.

2. Kasey Kahne
Car:
No. 5
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009362071410th
2010360471020th
2011361281514th
TOTAL108362239

The newest addition to the Hendrick Motorsports' lineup is Kahne and his right hand man, crew chief Kenny Francis. The duo spent last season in a transition year with Red Bull Racing, and what a “transition year” it was. Kahne only went on to win one race, collect 15 Top 10's and threaten to make the Chase with that limited racing operation. In the final third of the season, Kahne and Co. were one of the hottest teams in the series aside from Tony Stewart. We've always contended that if this veteran driver were to get in the right team situation he could compete with the elite of the series. That could happen in 2012. The No. 5 team of Hendrick is just two seasons removed from a Mark Martin near-championship run in 2009. Keeping Francis and Kahne together is a great move, and team owner Rick Hendrick knows how to win races and championships. Big things await in 2012.

3. Brad Keselowski
Car:
No. 2
Owner: Penske Racing
Manufacturer: Dodge

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
200915101438th
201036010225th
2011363110145th
TOTAL87421120

After a season that saw Keselowski finish fifth in the final driver standings and pick up three victories along the way, it may be hard to label Keselowski as a sleeper. But we believe the best is yet to come from the driver of the No. 2 Dodge. Clearly Keselowski is ready to join the elite of the sport and compete for championships at this level. From that standpoint he reminds us very much of a young Rusty Wallace. It's taken a couple seasons for Keselowski to hit his stride, but now that he's there he'll be there for a long time to come. Many race wins and Chase appearances await. Now that Kurt Busch is gone from Penske Racing, Keselowski is the centerpiece of this respected NASCAR stable. Don't be the fantasy racing player that writes his 2011 season off as a one-and-done or flash in the pan. Keselowski is here to stay.

4. A.J. Allmendinger
Car:
No. 22
Owner: Penske Racing
Manufacturer: Dodge

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
200936001624th
201036012819th
2011360011015th
TOTAL10801424

This past season saw an amazing five first-time winners in the Sprint Cup Series, but Allmendinger was not among them. He now is probably the most talented and capable driver in the series that still has yet to win a race. That could easily change in 2012. Allmendinger has put together two really good seasons and is now showing the consistency that it takes to start talking about a possible Chase berth. Allmendinger does need to get that winless monkey off his back, and that could happen in the upcoming season. The surprise December move from Richard Petty Motorsports to the No. 22 Dodge of Penske Racing is likely the boost that will allow his NASCAR career to take off. Allmendinger will be paired with crew chief Todd Gordon and major corporate sponsor Shell/Pennzoil in 2012. This is by far the best team situation Allmendinger has had, and the results should start to follow.

5. Jeff Burton
Car:
No. 31
Owner: Richard Childress Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009360051017th
2010360061512th
201136002520th
TOTAL108001330

Burton has only made the Chase for the Cup once in the last three seasons. Has his abilities trailed off? Has he passed his prime? We believe the answer to both of these questions are yes, but don't sell the Richard Childress Racing driver short. He's far better than the 20th-place ranking he received in last year's final driver standings, and Burton's way more capable than the scant five Top 10's in picked up in 2011. With all that being said, know your place for Burton in the fantasy racing lineup. Don't expect to see a return to the 2008 form that saw him win two races and finish sixth in the final standings. By the same token, we expect far better from the veteran driver in 2012, and a return to numbers comparable to his 2010 season where Burton picked up a respectable 15 Top-10 finishes. If the final five races of last season's Chase are any indication, the No. 31 Chevy team will be just fine in the upcoming season.

6. Marcos Ambrose
Car:
No. 9
Owner: Petty Motorsports
Manufacturer: Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
200936004718th
201036002526th
2011361051219th
TOTAL108101124

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver performed a nice rebound campaign after his disappointing 2010 outing. Ambrose was able to pick up his first career win with a thrilling and emotional victory at the Watkins Glen road course. That victory was sweet redemption for Ambrose and the No. 9 team, but it was also a precursor of what's to come from this talented Australian. Ambrose should significant improvement on the 1.5-mile ovals that litter the Sprint Cup Series schedule. Five of his 12 Top-10 finishes came on these intermediate ovals and really showed the progress that Ambrose has made in his brief, four-year NASCAR career. We expect more progress for this driver and team in 2012, and maybe another road course victory to boot.

BUSTS

1. Juan Pablo Montoya
Car:
No. 42
Owner: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
200936027188th
2010361361417th
201136022821st
TOTAL108171540

Now two seasons removed from making the Chase for the Cup, the urgency is starting to reach a very anxious level at the No. 42 Chevrolet team. A crew chief change, some shakeups, but nothing really materialized down the stretch run in 2011 for Montoya. He posted only one Top-10 finish in the final 10 races of last season, so prospects for a turnaround in 2012 look bleak. The entire stable of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing seems to be in a personnel and confidence crisis right now, so Montoya could be in for another long season. It's clear that this star driver has the goods, but current state of this driver and team are less than encouraging.

2. Mark Martin
Car:
No. 55
Owner: Michael Waltrip Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009365714212nd
2010360171113th
2011360221022nd
TOTAL1085102342

After three seasons of racing for owner Rick Hendrick, Martin now seems satisfied to move on and resume his part-time racing semi-retirement years. He moves to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 and will share a Toyota with owner Michael Waltrip. Martin will saddle up for 25 races in this team. His last two seasons in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick were less than impressive. Martin failed to make the Chase for two straight seasons after flirting with the championship in 2009. The pressure to perform at MWR will be less, and that could be a good thing for the veteran driver. Still, the drop off in equipment and personnel is dramatic, so we don't expect Martin to do too much more than tread water and post the occasional Top 10 with this team. That's a far cry from his 21 Top-10 finish campaign of just two years ago.

3. Clint Bowyer
Car:
No. 15
Owner: Michael Waltrip Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009360041615th
2010362071810th
2011361041613th
TOTAL108301550

Things were just beginning to turn stellar for the budding NASCAR star. However, Bowyer felt that his future wasn't with Richard Childress Racing so he made the jump to MWR and a new race team in 2012. He will pilot the No. 15 Toyota and pair with crew chief Brian Pattie for his first season in this Toyota camp. No matter the Chase appearances and victories that Bowyer logged with RCR, we have a hard time seeing this start-up team being much better than Martin Truex Jr.'s inaugural season with MWR in 2010. Truex posted only seven Top 10's and finished a lowly 22nd in the final driver standings that first year under star crew chief Pat Tryson. We could be in for a very similar performance from Bowyer and Pattie in 2012.

4. Kurt Busch
Car:
No. 51
Owner: Phoenix Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009362010214th
2010362291711th
2011362381611th
TOTAL108652754

One of the biggest stories of the off-season is Busch's meltdown at Homestead, tirade aimed at Dr. Jerry Punch, and subsequent abrupt departure from Penske Racing in early December. By Christmas, Busch hatched a deal with NASCAR owner James Finch and his Phoenix Racing team. While we have a great deal of respect for this small race team, and satellite Hendrick Motorsports stable, it will decidedly be a downgrade over the Penske Racing No. 22 Dodge. The only question now is how much of a downgrade. The No. 51 team finished 30th in the final point standings last season under the guidance of rookie Landon Cassill. Busch's elite level of talent and the equipment of this team would seem to indicate about a 10-position improvement in the standings in 2012. We all know that's a far cry from where Busch has been historically over his career.

5. Jamie McMurray
Car:
No. 1
Owner: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
200936101522nd
2010363491214th
201136012427th
TOTAL108451221

Much like his EGR teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, McMurray too took a big tumble in 2011. His four Top-10 finishes and 27th-place finish in the final driver standings is easily his worst campaign in his nine-year career. While we might see some improvement from the No. 1 Chevrolet team in 2012, it will likely be marginal at best. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is suffering through a real shortage of brains in the shop and equipment on the haulers right now. That fact was underscored by McMurray's failure to register a single Top 10 in the final 10 races of 2011. Prospects for a big rebound in the upcoming season look very unlikely.

6. Brian Vickers
Car:
No. TBD
Owner: TBD
Manufacturer: TBD

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRank
2009361641312th
201011000340th
201136003725th
TOTAL8316723

Two seasons removed from Vickers' only Chase appearance, the long-time Red Bull Racing driver enters 2012 as a driver without a team. Red Bull closed for good at the end of last season and that closure has left Vickers, a veteran of 255 Sprint Cup Series starts, looking for work. He didn't end the final season with the No. 83 team in the best fashion. Vickers was the center of attention in the final 5 races of the season and for all the wrong reasons. He was involved in many on-track incidents with Matt Kenseth and was all the talk of the garage area, outside of the Tony Stewart hysteria. Prospects for Vickers to rebound his lagging career are slim entering the new season. Available rides are few, and opportunities are scarce.

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