NASCAR Draft Kit: 2015 Sleepers & Busts

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2015 Sleepers & Busts

This article is part of our NASCAR Draft Kit series.

This is probably the most important article in the NASCAR Draft Kit. Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons. We all know what Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski 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. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson likely helped many to win their leagues last season. While drivers like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. 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 2015 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

1. Carl Edwards
Car: 19
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup360131315th
2013 Sprint Cup362291613th
2014 Sprint Cup36207149th
Total108431943

One has to wonder if Edwards feels he squandered his last three seasons at Roush Fenway Racing. That's possibly the biggest motivating factor for the move to Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards was three
This is probably the most important article in the NASCAR Draft Kit. Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons. We all know what Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski 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. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson likely helped many to win their leagues last season. While drivers like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. 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 2015 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

1. Carl Edwards
Car:
19
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup360131315th
2013 Sprint Cup362291613th
2014 Sprint Cup36207149th
Total108431943

One has to wonder if Edwards feels he squandered his last three seasons at Roush Fenway Racing. That's possibly the biggest motivating factor for the move to Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards was three seasons removed from a 19 Top-5 and 26 Top-10 finish campaign that saw him challenge for the championship and fall just short of Tony Stewart in 2011. Now the unrealized potential of this dynamic driver could be about to explode. The move to JGR's new No. 19 team could have the same explosive potential that we witnessed with Matt Kenseth two seasons ago and his seven-win first year at Gibbs. Needless to say, the recent trend of super stars jumping ship to new teams has given us the 2013 Kenseth and 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick as examples. Once that sinks in, go grab Edwards in your fantasy drafts with all urgency.

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup365314176th
2013 Sprint Cup32154823rd
2014 Sprint Cup35137183rd
Total1037112543

If you thought Hamlin had a breakout/rebound season in 2014, you haven't seen anything yet. It's hard to remember that in 2012 and prior he was a multi-race winner and championship contender each season. His third-place finish in the standings last season was largely a product of the new Chase and its elimination format, and didn't really reflect the inconsistent season he had in 2014. With some of his back and neck problems now squarely in the rearview mirror, we hope to see a full 36-race campaign for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota in the upcoming season. Additionally, he ended last season on a torrid streak grabbing seven Top-10 finishes during the Chase and four-straight to close out the season. Hamlin should hit the ground running at Daytona in February and not stop until he's competing for the championship again at Homestead in November.

3. Austin Dillon
Car:
3
Owner: Richard Childress Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup1000065th
2013 Sprint Cup11000054th
2014 Sprint Cup36011420th
Total480114

While Dillon was largely overshadowed by fellow rookie Kyle Larson last season, it by no means diminishes what this RCR youngster achieved. Dillon scratched for four Top-10s and an impressive pole position in the season-opening Daytona 500. When not finishing inside the Top 10, he was generally not far out. Dillon racked up 15 Top-15 finishes and showed some great consistency at a diverse lineup of tracks. The No. 3 team returns complete and undisturbed from last season and with Gil Martin still calling the shots. That bodes well for the young driver in season two. The lessons learned and team chemistry will still be in place when the engines fire up at Daytona. We expect Dillon to double his Top-10 production in the coming year, possibly challenge for that first Sprint Cup victory and to make his first appearance in the Chase for the Cup field.

4. Clint Bowyer
Car:
15
Owner: Michael Waltrip Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup363010232nd
2013 Sprint Cup360010197th
2014 Sprint Cup360051519th
Total108302557

The demons of 2013 came to full maturity for Michael Waltrip Racing last year. With the points shaving scandal at Richmond and Martin Truex's departure (as well as several sponsors) the team experienced a big setback in 2014. Bowyer had been a perennial Chase participant in recent history, but not last season. His Top-5 and Top-10 totals dropped and the team looked slow on tracks where they normally excelled. Bowyer's performance in the final 10 races of last season was absolutely horrible. If anyone needed the off-season break it was this team and driver. The old cliché of "you can't keep a good man down" should be in order for 2015. Bowyer is way too talented to be held down for long. He and crew chief Brian Pattie looked pretty flawless for a long time and they should get back there. It won't come in leaps and bounds, but gradually over the coming season.

5. Kasey Kahne
Car:
5
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup362412194th
2013 Sprint Cup3620111412th
2014 Sprint Cup361031115th
Total108542644

The dynamic duo of Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis finally burned out in 2014. The two had accomplished a lot in their years together, but it seemingly ran out of steam last season. This didn't shake owner Rick Hendrick's confidence in Kahne. On the contrary, he was signed to a three-year extension at the end of last season and paired with new, hot crew chief Keith Rodden. This vote of confidence and new leadership should have the desired effect on the No. 5 Chevrolet team. Kahne is just three seasons removed from multiple wins and contending for the championship. With the new format of the Chase, Kahne can return to that prowess. The one thing that has been missing from this driver and team the last two years is consistency. Kahne and Rodden should rediscover it in 2015.

6. Sam Hornish Jr.
Car:
9
Owner: Richard Petty Motorsports
Manufacturer: Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup20001159th
2013 Sprint Cup1000072nd
2014 Sprint Cup1000058th
Total220011

After a two-year cup of coffee in the former Nationwide Series, Hornish returns to full-time competition in NASCAR's top division. He'll take over the No. 9 Ford that Marcos Ambrose vacated at the end of 2014. Hornish posted some great numbers the last two years in that lower division of NASCAR. He claimed two wins, six pole positions and 29 Top-10 finishes. Hornish came painfully close to winning the 2013 Nationwide Series championship for past boss Roger Penske. There's little doubt about the skills that this journeyman driver possesses. He'll get the opportunity to show what he can do with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2015. Hornish should eclipse the seven Top-10s and 23rd-place finish in the driver standings that Ambrose posted last year. Those marks would be career-bests for Hornish.

BUSTS

1. Tony Stewart
Car:
14
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup363112169th
2013 Sprint Cup21105829th
2014 Sprint Cup33013725th
Total90422031

The last two seasons have provided nothing but turmoil for the owner/driver of the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet. 2013 was largely a wash due to a broken leg sustained in a sprint car crash, and 2014 saw a less-than-average Stewart for the first half of the season. Then later in the summer, the dirt track events that led to the death of Kevin Ward Jr. in New York. Smoke would miss three races in the wake of that tragedy and then languish through a criminal investigation that drew no charges from a Grand Jury. The result was a second-straight year of Stewart not racing up to his three-time champion abilities. What does 2015 hold for the veteran driver? Well, it's hard to say given all that he's been through the last couple seasons. Stewart is a notoriously slow starter to the typical season even when times are good. The bottom line is that he could spend much of 2015 trying to clear his head and get comfortable behind the wheel of a stock car again. It's certainly not the most ideal situation.

2. Martin Truex Jr.
Car:
78
Owner: Furniture Row Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup360171911th
2013 Sprint Cup361071516th
2014 Sprint Cup36001524th
Total108121539

The events that led to his unfortunate departure from Michael Waltrip Racing at the close of the 2013 season may have signaled a downturn for Truex for the remainder of his career. It will be difficult for the veteran to get back to the level he was performing at in the No. 56 Toyota. Truex was a Chase contender and double-digit Top-10 driver under MWR guidance, but his first season at Furniture Row Racing didn't go so smoothly. He dropped back to rookie level statistics and finished well outside the Top 20 in the driver standings. Rebuilding his career with this small race team could be problematic. There is hope, as Kurt Busch showed us with the No. 78 team in 2013, but that was almost a perfect storm of circumstances that put Busch and Furniture Row Racing in the Chase. Truex could be confronted with another largely unproductive season of racing in 2015.

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Car:
17
Owner: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup4000061st
2013 Sprint Cup36011319th
2014 Sprint Cup35001527th
Total750128

Two years into Stenhouse's Sprint Cup career and we believe the young driver has reached a crossroads. The two-time Nationwide Series champion isn't finding success nearly as easy in NASCAR's top division. Rather, he's languished through two unproductive campaigns and didn't show much, if any, improvement in his sophomore season as opposed to his slow rookie campaign. With both Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards now gone from the Roush stable, it's time for the young drivers to step up and earn their Sprint Cup Series stripes. The question is, can Stenhouse up his game? Given the general downturn in performance seen in the stable the last couple seasons, questions and doubts linger. Again, there's a good reason why super stars Kenseth and Edwards left.

4. Trevor Bayne
Car:
6
Owner: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup16000260th
2013 Sprint Cup12000056th
2014 Sprint Cup12000059th
Total400002

The same struggles that have beset Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could be the future for Bayne as well. He fell short of the Nationwide Series championship in 2014 and generally didn't round out his career in that division of NASCAR very well. Now he comes to the Sprint Cup Series and takes on his first full-time schedule. Certainly, the last five seasons of part-time racing in NASCAR's top division will help with this transition, but we have to face the possibility that Bayne is simply not going to live up to expectations. Whether it's the recent downturn in performance at Roush or whether it's more an issue of Bayne's own level of talent, that's up for debate. The fact of the matter is that the much more decorated Stenhouse has found the going very tough in his first two seasons with this racing camp, and Bayne doesn't appear to possess the same level of talent as Stenhouse. The pressure to fill the shoes of departed stars Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth will only add to a less-than-ideal situation.

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup10000062nd
2013 Sprint Cup36010127th
2014 Sprint Cup36000328th
Total820104

We saw some improvement in Patrick last year, but it could only be measured in inches and not feet. A handful of impressive performances seemed to indicate a corner turned or a breakout, but she would revert to the back of the field the following week. The frustrations led to a change of crew chiefs and newcomer Daniel Knost took the position over veteran Tony Gibson at Texas last fall. The hopes are that the two will develop some better communication skills and chemistry which will lead to that anticipated breakout. Given the results in the Chase last year, it could take some time for Patrick to form a bond with this new crew chief. The reality is that more improvement is likely in the No. 10 SHR team, but again it will be measured in inches rather than feet in 2015. That will lead to Patrick being buried deep in the driver standings once again.

6. Brian Vickers
Car:
55
Owner: Michael Waltrip Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2012 Sprint Cup8003535th
2013 Sprint Cup17102678th
2014 Sprint Cup36013922nd
Total6111820

Call us crazy, but we liked the part-time Vickers better than the full-time Vickers. After posting results in 2012 and 2013 that were tantalizing potential when projected over a full season, the journeyman driver failed to impress with a full 36-race slate last season. It was indicative of the downturn in general at Michael Waltrip Racing. The two things that did show well for the No. 55 team were the new qualifying format and super speedway racing. Outside of those, Vickers struggled on the short tracks and other ovals where he was expected to do more. Complicating matters for a potential rebound this season, is the reoccurring health problems that have plagued this driver the past few seasons. In mid-December Vickers had surgery to repair a hole in his heart and he will miss the Daytona 500 and a handful of early-season starts, thus limiting his impact in 2015.

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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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