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2014 Sleepers & Busts: Undervalued and Overvalued

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 all the articles in the NASCAR Daft Kit, this is probably the most important. Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons. We all know what Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth 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. Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray likely helped many to win their leagues last season. While drivers like Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin most likely ended your fantasy racing 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 for whatever reason is the key in fantasy racing success. Let's take a look at some of the drivers in 2014 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

1. Brad Keselowski
Car:
2
Owners: Penske Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

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It's difficult to think of Keselowski as a pure "sleeper", considering he won the Sprint Cup Series championship in 2012. However, the turn down in performance last season was glaringly significant. Keselowski fell to one win after averaging four the two prior seasons, and he missed the Chase for the Cup in his championship-defense campaign. The Penske decision to change from Dodge to Ford in 2013 may have had more of an impact, and negatively, than first thought. The good news is that Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe began to make some headway late last season. The driver of the No. 2 Ford accumulated the eighth-most points during the Chase and he claimed one win and five Top-10s in the final 10 races of last season. Keselowski should carry those gains into 2014, so don't be discouraged or hesitant to grab this talented driver during your league's draft.

2. Denny Hamlin
Car:
11
Owners: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

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Hamlin is another star of the Sprint Cup Series poised to rebound in 2014. The early-season wreck and back injury at Fontana ruined the entire campaign for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in 2013. As Hamlin's back healed and he felt better, the results were easy to see on the race track. He finished last season on a tear that included a victory in the season finale at Homestead. Hamlin led 104 laps and claimed four Top-10s in the final six races of last season. With some rest and recuperation during the short off-season, he should be at 100 percent once the engines fire up at Daytona in February. Hamlin's back will always be a concern, but his health "ledger" should be pretty clean to start 2014. As the JGR star showed us in 2009 and 2010, he's capable of winning several races and challenging for the championship. Hamlin should be treated as such on draft day.

3. Brian Vickers
Car:
55
Owners: Michael Waltrip Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

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The journeyman driver will return to full-time racing in the upcoming season. Vickers has made the most of his part-time gig at Michael Waltrip Racing the last two years. With one win, five Top-5s and 11 Top-10s in just 25 starts, the veteran driver has proved his potential is very high. Vickers will take over the No. 55 Toyota that he shared with Mark Martin in those two seasons. He will be paired with Scott Miller at crew chief. The two finished last season together and began building some chemistry heading into the off-season. Vickers is particularly skilled on the short tracks, as his big victory at New Hampshire last season attests. He should be a borderline challenger to make the Chase, and at the very least a strong weekly play on the short track circuit.

4. Austin Dillon
Car:
3
Owners: Richard Childress Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

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The legacy of Richard Childress Racing will take to the track in 2014. The No. 3 Chevrolet will proudly race again with the grandson of the owner, Richard Childress, behind the wheel. Aside from the historical significance and stirring emotions of this, there will be a tremendous effort behind this two-time champion to make a big splash in NASCAR's top division. The focus at RCR will shift from the just-departed Kevin Harvick to Dillon and the legacy and tradition of winning that the No. 3 team represents. The handful of starts that this young driver has made over the last three seasons will prove invaluable experience and preparation for the 36-race rookie schedule that stands before him. Dillon is poised to be one of the most successful and accomplished rookie drivers in the Sprint Cup Series in the past decade.

5. A.J. Allmendinger
Car:
47
Owners: JTG Daugherty Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

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Allmendinger performed a magic act in 2013 and resurrected his damaged reputation and career in NASCAR. The journeyman driver won two Nationwide Series races in a part-time schedule with the Penske Racing team that he was released from at the Cup level. Combined with his 18-race effort in the top division, Allmendinger accomplished way more than keeping a presence in the sport and his face in front of the teams of the garage area. He showed that he can still perform at a high level and get the most out of his ride. JTG Daugherty Racing took notice and put him in the team's No. 47 Toyota at the end of the 2013 season. In those seven starts Allmendinger claimed one Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes. The arrangement worked so well that the team decided to sign him to a full-time deal for the upcoming season. We expect JTG Daugherty Racing to reach new heights in 2014 and for Allmendinger to continue rebuilding his Cup career.

6. Ryan Newman
Car:
31
Owners: Richard Childress Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

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Newman makes the jump to Richard Childress Racing after five seasons at Stewart Haas Racing. The change of scenery should do the veteran driver some good. Newman was consistently a borderline Chase driver during his tenure at SHR, with only two seasons of just-missing the playoff format. He averaged about 1 victory and 15 Top-10s per season during his stint in the No. 39 Chevrolet. Those are respectable numbers, but what will it take to return Newman to the glory of his early career at Penske Racing? The move into the No. 31 Chevy could be a good start. While we don't expect him to become a contender for the championship in 2014, Newman could return to multi-win form and push the 20 Top-10 finish mark. Luke Lambert will retain his role as crew chief for the team and be a steadying presence for Newman in his first season at RCR.

BUSTS

1. Martin Truex Jr.
Car:
78
Owners: Furniture Row Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

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Last season Truex was in line to make the Chase for the Cup, but the Clint Bowyer spin and caution that cast a cloud of manipulation on Michael Waltrip Racing brought down the wrath of NASCAR on both the organization and Truex's No. 56 team. When all the smoke cleared and the penalties were enforced, the veteran driver found himself the most-damaged of the three MWR drivers and on the outside looking in on the Chase. Not only that but the loss of primary sponsor NAPA due to the events at Richmond also cost Truex his ride at MWR. He'll look to start anew in 2014 with the up-and-coming No. 78 team of Furniture Row Racing. While a fresh start is likely what the doctor ordered for this driver, it will be hard to recreate the magic that Kurt Bush brought to the FRR team with their historic run into the Chase in 2013. Truth is it may take some time for Truex to clear his head from the events of last season and to begin forming some chemistry with his new crew chief and team.

2. Carl Edwards
Car:
99
Owners: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

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The last few seasons have seen a very unsettled No. 99 team and a frustrated star driver. Roush Fenway Racing has undergone some changes and struggles the last couple years. The loss of Matt Kenseth for the 2013 season affected this team probably more than we'll ever know. Edwards carries the crown and is the leader of this three-driver stable. While a good part of last season held success for the veteran driver, Edwards cooled going into the final third of the season and had another disappointing performance in the Chase. In fact, he was one of the coldest drivers in the 13-driver field and wound up dead last in that group of the standings. The future at Roush is uncertain and they need a serious rebound in the shop and at the track in 2014 for Edwards to excel. This team has a lot of question marks in the upcoming season so Edwards presents the biggest risk of the upper tier drivers in the series.

3. Tony Stewart
Car:
14
Owners: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

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With all that Stewart went through in 2013, he'll just be happy to be back in a race car in the upcoming season let alone performing at a high level. The Sprint Car accident that broke his lower right leg in August of last year has caused the star driver months of pain and frustration. The rehabilitation alone will be an excruciating episode of his long recovery. Stewart is supposed to be ready for Speedweeks in Daytona in February and to kick off the new season. With a few weeks to go that remains to be seen, but if he is ready to go his level of health and level of performance after being out of a stock car for so long will both be in question. The healed tibia and fibula bones will be the question on everyone's mind at the green flag of the Daytona 500. Smoke is traditionally a slow-starter each season, only to heat up during the summer months. Rebounding from this severe injury could turn 2014 into a season of rehabilitation racing instead of racing for the championship.

4. Aric Almirola
Car:
43
Owners: Richard Petty Motorsports
Manufacturer: Ford

2010 Sprint Cup
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The RPM driver made some strides last season, but it was still a very up-and-down campaign for the No. 43 Ford team. Almirola limped into the season finale with only two Top-15 finishes during the Chase for the Cup's final 10 events. Crew chief, Todd Parrott's departure from the team in early October threw things into a bit of disarray and Almriola didn't complete the season on a strong note. He will attempt to form chemistry with new chief, Trent Owens, as quickly as possible over the short off-season. This usually can take some time and only actual races are the best at building this vital communication between driver and crew chief. We can see a slow start to 2014 for Almirola and the No. 43 team due to this situation. In the long run the change could pay dividends, but a slow start that will likely result will dampen Almirola's total season performance.

5. Danica Patrick
Car:
10
Owners: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

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Patrick's highlight for 2013 was almost totally her pole position and Top-10 finish in the season opening Daytona 500. The hopes of some memorable performances throughout the 36-race schedule soon faded once Patrick fell to 30th in the series standings by the Las Vegas race. The season only held four Top-15 finishes for the No. 10 Chevrolet team. The team and equipment are simply too good to justify these numbers. Patrick will be under great scrutiny and pressure in the upcoming season to pick up the pace. We're not so sure she has the temperament and ability to handle it. When she's had trouble during her brief Sprint Cup Series career, Patrick often makes mental mistakes. The kinds of errors that is typical of a driver inexperienced in stock cars. We're afraid the learning curve will be quite flat for Patrick in 2014, and there will be many more struggles ahead.

6. Marcos Ambrose
Car:
9
Owners: Richard Petty Motorsports
Manufacturer: Ford

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2013 was a throw away season for the No. 9 Ford team. Ambrose wasn't even his excellent self on the road courses last year and that's very uncharacteristic for the road racing expert. The six Top-10 finishes were his lowest season total since his second full season in the Sprint Cup Series. No changes are planned for the RPM team. Ambrose will still be paired with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and the two will try to figure out what went wrong and fix it in 2014. Unfortunately, they showed no signs of life during the Chase for the Cup, which is typically the time when drivers improve in preparation for a fast start the next season. Ambrose had only two Top-15 finishes in those final 10 races while he had four finishes outside the Top 20. Not a good sign for this season.