NASCAR Draft Kit: 2016 Sleepers & Busts

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2016 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. Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola likely helped many win their leagues last season. While drivers like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle 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 2016 who you should make every effort to get, and those you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup362291613th
2014 Sprint Cup36207149th
2015 Sprint Cup36237155th
Total108652345

While Edwards first season at Joe Gibbs Racing was far from disappointing, it still fell short of expectations on several fronts. When compared to his last season at Roush Fenway Racing in 2014 there are lots
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. Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola likely helped many win their leagues last season. While drivers like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle 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 2016 who you should make every effort to get, and those you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup362291613th
2014 Sprint Cup36207149th
2015 Sprint Cup36237155th
Total108652345

While Edwards first season at Joe Gibbs Racing was far from disappointing, it still fell short of expectations on several fronts. When compared to his last season at Roush Fenway Racing in 2014 there are lots of similarities and the numbers look much the same. The veteran driver slumped the first third of last season only to turn it on later in the year and grab most of his better finishes and performances. Edwards' six top-10 finishes in the Chase for the Cup ranked him among the top performers over the final 10 races of last season. Dave Rogers moves into the crew chief role for 2016 as he comes over from Denny Hamlin's No. 11 team to replace the departed Darian Grubb. Edwards and Grubb never really seemed to click that well, so the hope is Rogers will take this driver and the No. 19 team to the next level. Considering how Joe Gibbs Racing won the championship and their drivers combined to win 14 races last season, big things could come from Edwards in '16.

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup3620111412th
2014 Sprint Cup361031115th
2015 Sprint Cup360131018th
Total108542644

Kahne was expected to rebound in 2015, however, he did just the opposite. He failed to win a race for the first time since 2010 and he failed to make the Chase for the Cup field. Last season ranks as one of Kahne's worst in recent memory. After all this we still believe there's a lot of good racing left in this 35-year-old driver. Gone from Hendrick Motorsports is legendary driver Jeff Gordon, and thus more attention and effort will be directed towards Kahne's No. 5 team. With a corporate sponsorship lineup backing this team that any driver in NASCAR's top division would envy, the pressure to perform and get results will be very high within the organization. Keith Rodden returns as crew chief, and he and Kahne will get to work on building the chemistry that started to develop during last season's Chase for the Cup. Kahne collected four of his 10 top-10s during those final 10 races, so things were already starting to improve heading into the off-season.

3. Kyle Larson
Car:
42
Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup40000N/A
2014 Sprint Cup360181717th
2015 Sprint Cup350021019th
Total75011027

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver missed the sixth race of last season with a minor health issue, but it was a precursor of what was to come in 2015. In a sophomore campaign that failed to measure up to the stellar rookie season that Larson had in 2014, the young driver would battle consistency issues all season long and fail to make the Chase for the Cup. We have good reason to believe a rebound to the rookie numbers is in store this season. Chad Johnston comes over from Tony Stewart's No. 14 team and he'll take over the crew chief duties for the departed Chris Heroy. Both Johnston and Larson are looking for fresh starts in 2016, so it's a good situation for a hungry team to succeed. While we don't see Larson picking up that first-career win in the upcoming season, we do see improvement across the board with higher top-10 totals and much more consistency in performance week-to-week.

4. Chase Elliott
Car:
24
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2015 Sprint Cup50000N/A
Total50000

It's almost always a dicey situation to place big expectations on a rookie driver, but in this instance we don't believe that's the case. Elliott comes from a racing pedigree and background that any NASCAR driver would envy. In two seasons in the Xfinity Series the 19-year-old grabbed one championship, four victories and 53 top-10 finishes. That didn't happen by accident as he was weekly racing against Sprint Cup Series stars in that lower division of NASCAR. His five-race introduction to the Sprint Cup Series last season was unspectacular in terms of results with only three top-20 finishes in those starts. However, it was great experience in the Cup car and will benefit Elliott greatly this season as he takes the wheel of the legendary No. 24 Chevrolet. Leadership will come from Jeff Gordon's former crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and it will be that rock-steady experience and knowledge that will guide Elliott in his rookie season. We expect a Chase berth and what only could be described as a surprising top-10 total in 2016.

5. Ryan Blaney
Car:
21
Owner: Wood Brothers Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2014 Sprint Cup20000N/A
2015 Sprint Cup160012N/A
Total180012

This year's deep rookie class offers another driver that could surprise in 2016. Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing are going full-time racing this season. It will be Blaney's first full season on the Sprint Cup Series tour and the first full-time season for Wood Brothers in nine years. While there are sure to be some bumps in the road along the way, this scenario is set up for some surprising success. Blaney showed in last year's part-time effort that he can mix it up and race inside the Top 10 with the best names in the sport. He grabbed one top-10 and three top-20 finishes in just his last five starts alone. Given what he's done part-time, it's a tantalizing thought to consider what he might do with a full 36-race plate in the upcoming season. Seven-to-eight top-10 and 20 top-20 finishes are well within Blaney and this team's capabilities.

6. Jamie McMurray
Car:
1
Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup36114915th
2014 Sprint Cup360271318th
2015 Sprint Cup360041013th
Total108131532

Lurking just below the surface is that McMurray that won three races and collected nine Top 5s in the 2010 season. While we've been waiting for that version of McMurray to reemerge, the performances in recent seasons have shown that it could be just around the corner. While winning races may be out of reach, collecting more Top 5s and double digit Top 10s is well within reach. Crew chief Matt McCall and McMurray seemed to hit their stride down the stretch run of last season. The veteran driver chalked up finishes of second-, 10th-, 15th- and 13th-place over the last four events of 2015. The No. 1 team looked very competitive closing out last season. If McMurray can get off to a good start at Daytona in February, he could be poised for a very big season and another berth in the Chase for the Cup.

BUSTS

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup21105829th
2014 Sprint Cup33013725th
2015 Sprint Cup36000328th
Total9011818

For the first time in Stewart's career he's posted back-to-back winless seasons. The downturn in performance has been so dramatic for the 44-year-old driver that he announced late last season that the 2016 campaign would be his last. Smoke has battled demons on and off the track for much of the last three years. Whether it was the major leg injuries he received in his 2013 Sprint Car accident or the events that led to Kevin Ward Jr.'s death in a Sprint Car accident Stewart was involved in during 2014, the turmoil of the last three years has taken a toll on his racing performance. Stewart will be paired with new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz for his farewell tour. While the three-time champion needs a fresh start for his final trip around the Sprint Cup Series circuit, starting off from scratch with a new crew chief is probably not the most ideal scenario for a struggling driver and team.

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup361071516th
2014 Sprint Cup36001524th
2015 Sprint Cup36108224th
Total108201642

While the 2015 season was stellar and surprising on many fronts for Truex and Furniture Row Racing, we have to put it in context. It was a career-best campaign and high water mark for the 35-year-old driver. All the right things came together and the same time for Truex. He claimed top-10 finishes in the first seven races of last season and the rest was all downhill thereafter. While he cooled during last year's Chase, Truex was still able to make it to the final round and race for the crown at Homestead. The team changes from Chevrolet to Toyota in the upcoming season, and while the equipment and support comes from Joe Gibbs Racing, a change at this point could impact performance. Regardless, we don't see Truex going seamlessly from 2015 into 2016. A bit of a learning curve and a lack of consistency could follow what was an incredible season last year.

3. Greg Biffle
Car:
16
Owner: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup36104139th
2014 Sprint Cup360031114th
2015 Sprint Cup36003420th
Total108101028

The downturn from 2012 to 2013 at Roush Fenway Racing was pretty abrupt and has no end in sight the last three years. Both Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards fled Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing, much like rats deserting a sinking ship. Now only Biffle remains of what was once a pretty dominant four-car team. Last season though was rock bottom for this 13-year veteran. Biffle posted the worst numbers of his entire career in 2015. Where does the No. 16 team go from here? It's difficult to say for sure. One would like to think it's only up from here, but we're not so sure. New crew chief Brian Pattie will be tabbed to help Biffle make that ascent this season. He comes over from the now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing and looking for a fresh start. A tall task stands in front of Pattie with the Biffle re-vamp program.

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup36011319th
2014 Sprint Cup35001527th
2015 Sprint Cup36001325th
Total10701311

Unfortunately for the two-time Xfinity Series champion, his arrival at the Sprint Cup Series level coincided with the performance downturn at Roush Fenway Racing. The same problems that have plagued Greg Biffle have been limiting Stenhouse's success as well. Nick Sandler will once again crew chief the team in 2016 and hope for better results. At this point it's going to take a major reversal of luck and performance at Roush Fenway Racing to finally launch this young driver into a successful season of Sprint Cup Series racing. Prospects for that happening in the upcoming season a very slim. At this point Stenhouse could be racing for his future at Roush Fenway Racing. It's hard to believe but this 27-year-old driver enters his last season under contract at Roush and his future is uncertain at this point.

5. Clint Bowyer
Car:
51
Owner: HScott Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup360010197th
2014 Sprint Cup360051519th
2015 Sprint Cup360021216th
Total108001746

The closure of Michael Waltrip Racing ushers in a new era in Bowyer's NASCAR career. He will eventually take over the No. 14 Chevrolet, but not until Tony Stewart retires at the end of the 2016 season. Bowyer will take on a one-season effort for HScott Motorsports in the No. 51 Chevrolet this season. This is the same team that Justin Allgaier piloted the last two seasons to 29th- and 30th-place finishes in the driver standings. Bowyer's experience is an upgrade over the younger Allgaier, but there's only so much potential with this small team. We're used to seeing veteran Bowyer racing to make the Chase for the Cup and posting 15-20 top-10 finishes. We won't see that in 2016. This very workman like effort will keep Bowyer's skills up to speed, but won't bring much in the way of performance. He could be poised for his worst statistical season since his 2006 rookie year.

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

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5TOP 10RANK
2013 Sprint Cup36010127th
2014 Sprint Cup36000328th
2015 Sprint Cup36000224th
Total1080106

Four years into the Patrick/NASCAR experiment and she seems to have hit the wall in terms of performance. With only six top-10 finishes in 118 starts the very popular driver just hasn't taken the next steps in her stock car racing development. While finishes have been the major sticking point, it's not all that's wrong. Patrick's average starting position has remained relatively flat at 30.1, 22.3 and 22.4 each of the last three seasons. Ultimately, that's the biggest problem and why she struggles to find the Top 10 each week. Once again SHR will play musical chairs at crew chief for Patrick in 2016. Gone is Daniel Knost, and now Billy Scott gets a turn atop the team's war wagon. Patrick will start over again developing new chemistry with her new crew chief. While we'd like to be optimistic, a clear and undeniable pattern has developed here.

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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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