NASCAR Draft Kit: 2022 Sleepers & Busts

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2022 Sleepers & Busts

This article is part of our NASCAR Draft Kit series.

Of all the articles that make up the NASCAR draft kit, this is probably the most important of all.  Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons.  We all know what Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin 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. Christopher Bell, William Byron and Tyler Reddick likely helped many to win their leagues last season.  While drivers like Ryan Newman, Cole Custer and Aric Almirola 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, for whatever reason, is the key in fantasy racing success.  Let's look at some of the drivers in 2022 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

Sleepers

1. Christopher Bell           
Car: 20                  
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing                    
Manufacturer: Toyota

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36002720th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series361071612th
Three-Year Totals7210923 

The second-year Joe Gibbs Racing youngster took a big step last year in performance.  Bell grabbed his first-career Cup Series victory with a stunner on

Of all the articles that make up the NASCAR draft kit, this is probably the most important of all.  Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons.  We all know what Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin 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. Christopher Bell, William Byron and Tyler Reddick likely helped many to win their leagues last season.  While drivers like Ryan Newman, Cole Custer and Aric Almirola 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, for whatever reason, is the key in fantasy racing success.  Let's look at some of the drivers in 2022 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

Sleepers

1. Christopher Bell           
Car: 20                  
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing                    
Manufacturer: Toyota

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36002720th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series361071612th
Three-Year Totals7210923 

The second-year Joe Gibbs Racing youngster took a big step last year in performance.  Bell grabbed his first-career Cup Series victory with a stunner on the Daytona road course.  He then went onto register a total of 16 Top-10 finishes and wind up a respectable 12th-place in the final point standings.  Bell shaved nearly 4.5 spots off his average finish from the year prior, his rookie season.  We believe this is just a taste of what's to come from Bell and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team.  Short tracks and intermediate ovals were his facilities of most success, while Bell teased some major potential in road course racing.  He and crew chief Adam Stevens will remain paired this season and will continue to build on the chemistry and momentum they've developed.  Bell could be a multi-race winner and break the 20 Top-10 plateau in 2022.

2. Kevin Harvick              
Car: 4                    
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing              
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series364615263rd
2020 NASCAR Cup Series369020275th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series360010245th
Three-Year Totals1081364577 

After posting 6.5 wins and 26.5 Top-10 finishes each of the previous two seasons, 2021 must have seemed like a lost season to Harvick and his No. 4 Ford team.  The lack of practice and qualifying seemed to finally catch up to the enigmatic Harvick.  Some semblance of consistency was present with the No. 4 Ford team, but the veteran driver lacked the punch to breakthrough and win.  It was Harvick's first winless campaign since 2009.  His lowest Top-5 total since 2013 was an indication that he wasn't in the running to win nearly as much as normal.  With the move to the Next-Gen car and the return of practice and qualifying in 2022, we are hopeful for a Harvick rebound.  Still, there are some unknowns with the new car and how quickly some drivers will adapt to it.  We believe the return of practice will be a huge boost for a driver like Harvick.  While he may not make it all the way back to his recent averages, we expect him to win more than once in 2022 and post loftier Top-5 and Top-10 totals. 

3. Chase Briscoe            
Car: 14                  
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing               
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2021 NASCAR Cup Series36000323rd
Three-Year Totals360003 

Briscoe got the usual baptism by fire in his rookie season of 2021.  For large parts of last season, the Stewart Haas Racing youngster looked a bit clueless.  Still, he would grow as the season wore on and even picked up the pace down the stretch run of last year.  The three Top-10 finishes all came after May last year, and his excellence was mostly concentrated on the road circuits.  Still, Briscoe showed some improvement in the final quarter of the season on the ovals as well.  The youngster grabbed four Top-15 finishes in the last eight events of 2021.  Briscoe will now put into practice what he learned last season.  While a big step like Christopher Bell took between seasons one and two is not likely in the cards, we should still see some quite noticeable improvement in the No. 14 team in 2022. 

4. Austin Cindric              
Car: 2                    
Owner: Team Penske                           
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2021 NASCAR Cup Series70001N/A
Three-Year Totals70001 

The top rookie of the 2022 class makes the sleepers list based on his talent and his team situation.  Cindric steps right into the historic No. 2 Ford of Penske Racing this season.  It's a huge honor and responsibility to take on in a rookie campaign.  He'll be paired with veteran crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, for year one.  Cindric has over 130 starts in the Xfinity Series with 13 wins, one championship and 89 Top-10 finishes.  For a 23-year-old driver, he is very seasoned behind the wheel of a stock car.  Cindric got a handful of starts last season in Cup, and that will be valuable experience as he makes the full-time transition this season.  Among the highlights were a respectable Top-15 finish in the Daytona 500 and stunning Top-10 finish at the Indianapolis road circuit.  Cindric won't be a world-beater in season one, but he'll register better performance with this team than your typical rookie driver. 

5. Cole Custer                 
Car: 41                  
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing               
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series30000N/A
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36102716th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series36000226th
Three-Year Totals751029 

Stewart Haas Racing was down across the board in 2021, so it was no surprise to see Custer have a lost season in year two.  After a strong rookie campaign in 2020, the young driver of the No. 41 Ford was almost invisible at times last season.  Custer fell 10 spots in the driver standings and his average finish ballooned by two spots over his rookie year.  This young driver is simply too talented to stay at this level.  Custer was a nine-time winner in the Xfinity Series and he finished runner-up in the championship chase two seasons in-a-row in that division of NASCAR.  Custer will remain paired with crew chief Mike Shiplett this season and they'll rediscover some of the chemistry they had in 2020.  A return to Custer's rookie level of performance is expected, and maybe even a bit better in some respects.    

6. Aric Almirola                
Car: 10                  
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing               
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series360131214th
2020 NASCAR Cup Series360061815th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series36112515th
Three-Year Totals108121135 

We're staying with the Stewart Haas Racing theme of the sleepers list this year and picking Almirola to have a rebound campaign in 2022.  While getting back to 2020 levels may be a bit too ambitious, there's no way this veteran driver is as inconsistent in 2022 as he was last season.  Despite a stunning victory at Loudon, Almirola looked lost for much of last season.  His five Top-10 finishes were his lowest total since 2016 and by far his worst performance since moving to SHR in 2018.  Almirola's average finish last year was up over 6.5 spots from his 2020 campaign.  He'll get to hit the reset button in 2022.  Almirola will benefit from the new Next-Gen car and a return to practice and qualifying.  Those added laps each weekend will help this veteran driver to better fine-tune his car and exploit the tracks where he performs best.  We expect a return to a dozen or so Top-10 finishes for Almirola this season. 

Busts

1. Brad Keselowski           
Car: 6                    
Owner: Roush Fenway Keselowski       
Manufacturer:  Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series363313198th
2020 NASCAR Cup Series364013242nd
2021 NASCAR Cup Series361010176th
Three-Year Totals108833660 

The 37-year-old star was the biggest of the Silly Season news this past year.  Keselowski announced he was leaving Team Penske and headed for Roush Fenway Racing for 2022, with an ownership stake to boot.  The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion had one of his least productive years in recent memory last season.  Could it have been due to all the distraction of this big change happening in the background?  Quite possibly so.  Still, he brings star power to a team that hasn't had star power in the driver's seat in quite some time.  Keselowski will be the needed boost that Roush has needed, but at the same time we have to be practical with our expectations.  Challenging for the championship and multi-win seasons are out of the question.  Keselowski will have to rebuild this team from the ground up.  We could see numbers similar to last season or even lesser as the developmental curve takes time to gather.  Of NASCAR's top tier drivers, Keselowski comes with the most risk due to this radical change of teams. 

2. Ross Chastain              
Car: 1                    
Owner: Trackhouse Racing                  
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series350001N/A
2020 NASCAR Cup Series80000N/A
2021 NASCAR Cup Series36003820th
Three-Year Totals790039 

With the closure of Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of last season, Chastain was left without a ride.  Then came the news that fresh new team Trackhouse would be expanding to two cars in 2022 and Chastain had been tabbed to drive the new entry.  So now the journeyman driver takes on his fourth new team in as many seasons this year.  Trackhouse Racing made some waves last year in their inaugural effort with driver Daniel Suarez.  Still, they're growing from one to two cars very quickly.  Chastain brings 115 Cup Series starts of experience and his crew chief of last season, Phil Surgen, which will help.  However, we don't expect the likeable Floridian to press his 2021 performance.  Last season Chastain posted career-best numbers in the No. 42 CGR Chevrolet.  With the move and new team, this skilled driver will be taking some steps back this season.

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.     
Car: 47                  
Owner: JTG Daugherty Racing            
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series36001323rd
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36013424th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series36001222nd
Three-Year Totals1080159 

Stenhouse's career seems to be stuck in neutral at this point.  He never has come close to his career-best campaign of 2017 where he grabbed two victories and posted nine Top-10 finishes.  After his departure from Roush Fenway Racing, Stenhouse seemingly landed on his feet at JTG Daugherty Racing.  However, the level of performance and finishes have flat-lined ever since.  With just two Top-10 finishes in 2021, Stenhouse set a mark he's never faced since becoming a full-time driver in NASCAR's top division.  The team is reducing from two to one team in 2022, leaving Stenhouse without a teammate.  Unfortunately, this may be a harbinger of things to come for this team.  Performance is slipping, the team is contracting and it's not the sign of a growing or flourishing situation.  We're very pessimistic on Stenhouse's trajectory as younger and hungrier drivers continue to enter this division of the sport.      

4. Alex Bowman              
Car: 48                  
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports              
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series361071212th
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36106156th
2021 NASCAR Cup Series364181614th
Three-Year Totals108612143 

Coming off a career-best season of four wins and 16 Top-10 finishes, we have to ask has Bowman hit his ceiling?  The four victories were a nice surprise in 2021, but week-to-week inconsistency still plagued the No. 48 Chevrolet team.  After big wins, Bowman was prone to disappear for stretches at a time.  Follow-up wins and the momentum they can build never materialized.  Despite the multi-win season, Bowman posted his worst average finish of the last three seasons with a 15.1 average.  That speaks to the inconsistency he suffered through.  With just five DNF's it wasn't the crash or mechanical bug-a-boo that plagued this driver and team.  It was just plain mediocrity and some shockingly bad performances.  Breaking with his history, short tracks were his sweet spot last season while his traditional strength of intermediate ovals suffered.  Of all the drivers in the upper tier, we believe Bowman is the highest risk.  While he may not completely tank in 2022, we do expect some regression. 

5. Harrison Burton            
Car: 21                  
Owner: Wood Brothers Racing             
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series90015N/A
2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series334015228th
2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series330010228th
Three-Year Totals75402649 

While talented rookies can sometimes be a fantasy racing gold mine, they too can suffer through inconsistent seasons and produce little results.  Burton has spent the last six seasons competing in the lower divisions of NASCAR to groom his ascent to the top level of the sport.  If we're being honest, his resume isn't jaw-dropping like many who make this jump.  Recent rookies like Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick were world-beaters in the lower divisions of the sport, but Burton doesn't have that same history.  Instead, he's suffered through his own consistency issues in both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series.  In 2020 he put together one remarkable campaign, but that seems to be the outlier.  With just one start in a Cup Series car to his credit, Burton hasn't been eased into his Cup Series rookie campaign.  It will be the proverbial sink-or-swim in 2022.  As the talented Chase Briscoe showed us last season, rookie success is far from a given. 

6. Michael McDowell       
Car: 34                  
Owner: Front Row Motorsports             
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5sTop 10sRank
2019 NASCAR Cup Series36002227th
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36000423rd
2021 NASCAR Cup Series36102516th
Three-Year Totals10840411 

It was a tale of two seasons for the Front Row Motorsports veteran.  McDowell shockingly won the season-opening Daytona 500 last year and then promptly went on a tear.  He would post Top-10 finishes in his first three races of last season and get off to a great start.  Eventually, McDowell would cool off but still race very competitively in the first-half of the season.  Somewhere about mid-Summer the wheels would fall off the wagon.  McDowell would look clueless and struggle to some shockingly bad finishes.  The worst was a four-race stretch between August and September where he would DNF in three of the four starts.  McDowell would seemingly never recover.  The 2021 campaign still resulted in the best stats of his career and highest points finish of his career.  But the look that McDowell left to end last season is not a good one heading into 2022.            

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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