The NASCAR Sprint Cup season has already produced 11 different winners so far this year. Sure, certain teams and drivers are up front as expected, but the schedule hasn't been without its share of surprises, either. With the new generation car, racing at some tracks that used to be processional has now become a festival of passing with teams working hard to adjust settings throughout the race. All of the action from the first half of the year bodes well for more drama as the 2013 season heads to its crescendo.
Two drivers are clearly enjoying more success in 2013 than the rest of the field, though. Both Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have four wins to their credit. While Johnson leads the points, Kenseth might be most impressive. His first season with Joe Gibbs Racing was expected to produce some success, but tying for most outright victories might not have been in the plans. Both teams have been able to develop their cars through a race distance, and both have proven that the winners in this new car are the ones who save their car's fastest performance for the final segment of the given race.
With what we've seen so far, who can we count on to continue paying fantasy dividends, and who should be considered being put on ice?
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth and his new team are partnering as if they'd been together his entire career. Right out of the gate Kenseth was able to take the high standards of JGR car preparation and turn it into results on the track. He won in the third race of the season, the KOBALT Tools 400, and then picked up three more in fairly fast succession. Rarely has Kenseth not been competitive at a track this season, but there have been times he hasn't scored the top result that would put him in the points lead. This team will almost certainly be in the Chase for the Championship, and with another half of the season to learn to work together, this team could be the one challenging the No. 48 for superiority.
Jimmie Johnson - Hardly ever does a season go by where Johnson isn't considered a favorite. He leads the point standings 19 races into the season, and has four wins to his credit so far. Success is an expectation from this team, and perseverance under pressure is a hallmark of its ability to dominate. The No. 48 started last in the Camping World RV Sales 301 two weeks ago, but steadily worked forward to finish with a top-10 and extremely valuable points. Some teams would have buckled under that pressure, but this one consistently rises to the occasion. Almost any week fantasy owners can rely on a solid result if they play Johnson; the only drawback is the format where he can't be played every week.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick's trademark is being nowhere in the early stages of a race, but then right in the thick of the fight for the win as the laps wind down. That mode has become a habit for the Californian, and this new car may be suiting that talent even more today. As we have seen, drivers can be slow in the early miles of any race, but adjustments and an ability to improve grip and speed throughout a race distance can be the differentiator, even more so than with past cars. With Harvick's natural tendency to operate in that fashion, the car has also assisted his ability to finish well. He sits fourth in points with two wins to his credit. That is exceptional considering he is a lame-duck driver, heading to a new team next season.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer's teammates have received much of the spotlight so far this season, but the No. 15 quietly sits second in points. Bowyer hasn't made a splash with victory yet this year, but the team's consistency has been unparalleled. The only driver with more top-10 finishes from the first 19 races this season is Jimmie Johnson. Couple that with the continued improvement of Michael Waltrip Racing, and you have a dark horse who could make a credible challenge for the championship in 2013. Last week MWR proved that it could win races even with its part-time drivers, as Brian Vickers cashed in, so that bodes well for the continued success of the veteran garages of the team, and Bowyer continues to carry that flag.
Furniture Row Racing - This small team has made waves since signing Kurt Busch to drive. Busch's outspoken nature got the world talking about the team, but the team has made waves by moving up the standings as well. This team has put Busch in competitive cars almost every week and has only missed visits to Victory Lane due to bad luck. Michael Waltrip Racing is one organization that has successfully climbed the ladder of Sprint Cup success, but Furniture Row looks likely to follow that path as well. Busch is 14th in points but held a Chase position for some time. His four top-5s and eight top-10s look likely to grow, and it would be a surprise if this team doesn't notch a victory by the time the curtain draws closed.
Stewart-Haas Racing - One of the most disappointing seasons to date belongs to the entire Stewart-Haas Racing team. Granted, Tony Stewart did get himself into Victory Lane and has shown potential many weeks, but the team as a whole is lacking the results that would set it apart. Danica Patrick has been the biggest underperformer with just one top-10 finish. Ryan Newman has yet to score a victory, and although he had the car to win on more than a few occasions, Stewart only crossed the stripe first once. This team started the season with the possibility of solidly placing at least two cars in the Chase, and promise for Patrick who sat on pole at Daytona International Speedway. The results haven't lived up to the hype yet. While Newman and Stewart can be played at certain tracks the rest of this season, Patrick should be a complete write-off.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is another driver that looked certain to claim a spot in the Chase, and possibly even challenge for the championship. Instead, a feud with Joey Logano put him out of action and behind the rest of the pack. Unlike the last time Hamlin returned from injury, he hasn't returned to the form he showed prior. Hamlin has only scored one top-10 finish in the last seven races, and any chance he previously had of narrowly making the Chase is now gone. Hamlin could still be a valuable fantasy tool despite missing the Chase, but his bad luck makes him a gamble at the best of times. Sure, things could change for the better, but any work this year will be solely for wins and in preparation for 2014. The risks that will be taken by a driver and team in that position aren't always the best thing for a fantasy roster.
Paul Menard - After starting the season so brightly, Menard's star has faded as the season rolled on. He scored an impressive four top-10 finishes in the first eight races of the season but has barely had a sniff of a top finish since. Menard was a driver who fantasy owners were looking toward more and more often, only to begin disappointing. Richard Childress Racing, aside from Kevin Harvick, has seemed to pale the past few seasons, but 2013 could have been different. Jeff Burton continues to show some signs of struggle, and that seems to be wearing off on Menard now. As a fourth driver in fantasy lineups, Menard would have some value. Unfortunately, his ability to become a more attractive selection than other drivers further up the rankings on any given week fades.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - Driving for Roush Fenway Racing, taking over the seat of Matt Kenseth, one would have expected a bit more performance from Stenhouse. Granted, he is a rookie in a very competitive series, but this team knows how to put together top-10 and even top-15 performances. Stenhouse, though, has not scored a single top-10 yet and claims just six top-15s to date. Stenhouse is 21st in points and needs some better finishes if he wants to make any kind of impression in his rookie season. For fantasy players, Stenhouse has offered virtually no upside. His best finish of 11th came in July's Daytona race, but he has remained mainly anonymous much of the year, except when crashing with his girlfriend, Danica Patrick.
Juan Pablo Montoya - It is beginning to look like Montoya can only be a trusty fantasy option when the series visits a road course. The elusive win on an oval that he seeks seems further away today than it ever has in his NASCAR career. Gone are the days when he was a stout restrictor-plate racer, and even the few ovals he has shown competitiveness on this season, something has thrown away what should have been a win. It is no secret that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has struggled the last few years, but teammate Jamie McMurray sits within spitting distance of a spot in the Chase. It wasn't long ago that Montoya was a Chase contender himself. With just three top-10s so far this year, time is running out for the No. 42 to get the job done in 2013.