NASCAR Draft Kit: 2018 Driver Rankings

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2018 Driver Rankings

This article is part of our NASCAR Draft Kit series.

1. Martin Truex Jr. - If the last three seasons have shown us anything, it's that there has been a changing of the guard at the top of the rankings. Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team have gradually improved during that time and have gone from a second-tier team to the top of the heap. The veteran driver snatched eight victories and 26 Top-10 finishes, both career marks, last season and ran away with his first Monster Energy Cup Series championship. With the recent retirement of several veteran drivers and the ebbing of Jimmie Johnson's dominance, Truex now stands as the driver to beat going into the 2018 campaign. Toyota has risen to the top of the manufacturer battle, crew chief Cole Pearn has become the hottest chief in the garage area, and Truex has elevated his game to a level not seen before in his 14 seasons of racing at NASCAR's top level.

2. Kyle Busch - The Joe Gibbs Racing star pulled out all the stops to win a second championship last season. Busch grabbed five wins and 22 Top-10 finishes en route to a runner-up finish in the final driver standings. He led a career-best 2,023 laps last season, so he was up front a lot. With last season's efforts, Busch has finished first, second and third in the standings each of the last three years. At 32-years-old he's in the prime of his career, and with the average age of the Monster Energy Cup Series

1. Martin Truex Jr. - If the last three seasons have shown us anything, it's that there has been a changing of the guard at the top of the rankings. Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team have gradually improved during that time and have gone from a second-tier team to the top of the heap. The veteran driver snatched eight victories and 26 Top-10 finishes, both career marks, last season and ran away with his first Monster Energy Cup Series championship. With the recent retirement of several veteran drivers and the ebbing of Jimmie Johnson's dominance, Truex now stands as the driver to beat going into the 2018 campaign. Toyota has risen to the top of the manufacturer battle, crew chief Cole Pearn has become the hottest chief in the garage area, and Truex has elevated his game to a level not seen before in his 14 seasons of racing at NASCAR's top level.

2. Kyle Busch - The Joe Gibbs Racing star pulled out all the stops to win a second championship last season. Busch grabbed five wins and 22 Top-10 finishes en route to a runner-up finish in the final driver standings. He led a career-best 2,023 laps last season, so he was up front a lot. With last season's efforts, Busch has finished first, second and third in the standings each of the last three years. At 32-years-old he's in the prime of his career, and with the average age of the Monster Energy Cup Series getting younger, he should be set up for dominance for years to come. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota will win a second championship at some point, that's almost a foregone conclusion. This season could be it. Certainly his excellence and consistency each of the last three seasons have established Busch as one of the most dominant drivers in the sport.

3. Kevin Harvick - Harvick didn't have a letdown season in 2017, but his lack of victories was very noticeable. His two wins were a season low since the 2012 campaign, and his 850 laps led were also a season low since 2013. Still, the Stewart Haas Racing star managed 23 Top-10 finishes and once again advanced to the final round of the championship at Homestead. The dominant speed just wasn't there for the No. 4 Ford team, but Harvick still made the best of it with a solid and consistent campaign. We expect a bit of a rebound for Harvick this season. He should increase his win totals more in the three-to-four range, and he should be good for three or four more Top 10s. Harvick is now 42-years-old and still races at a very high level, but his window of opportunity to win a second championship is closing. You can expect to see that urgency in his racing this season.

4. Kyle Larson - Everyone thought Larson had his breakout season in 2016, but it was actually last year that he made the big splash. Four victories and 20 Top-10 finishes later, most fans have a higher respect for the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Larson dominated the first half of last season and was well on his way to challenging for the championship, until a meltdown late in the Chase for the Cup put the young driver out of the playoffs. Larson will use that as motivation for next season. He demonstrated that fire and desire in the season finale at Homestead by leading 145 laps and finishing third in the final race of last season. Larson should carry that momentum forward into 2018. He and crew chief Chad Johnston are hitting on all cylinders and expectations to win are now on the No. 42 team.

5. Brad Keselowski - Keselowski posted his typical campaign last year with three wins and 21 Top-10 finishes. He did have a couple rough patches during the season, but this has been typical of the Penske Racing star the last few years. Unlike the four prior seasons, Keselowski actually made it into the championship round at Homestead in 2017, although he was the long-odds shot at winning the title. He still finished a very impressive fourth in the final driver standings for his best mark since winning the championship in 2012. Keselowski has set a pretty distinct pattern for his level of performance since winning that championship. Fantasy racing players know what to expect from this veteran driver and team on draft day. He's currently the most dominant driver in the series on superspeedways and larger ovals, and we don't see that changing in 2018.

6. Joey Logano - After averaging nearly five victories per season over the previous three years, 2017 must have felt like a train wreck to Logano and the No. 22 team. They managed only one win, and it was encumbered by a rules violation. The result was that Logano missed the Chase for the Cup for the first time in five years. He'll look to erase those concerns with a strong 2018 campaign. For all his inconsistencies the Penske Racing star still managed 17 Top-10 finishes, which were a five-season low. He's poised to rebound in a major way this season. Todd Gordon returns atop the tool box to call the shots and get Logano back into championship contending form. We should look at last season as more of a blip on the radar screen, and possibly a draft day devaluation in fantasy leagues this year. That means most could get Logano "on the cheap" and reap the rewards.

7. Chase Elliott - The lack of victories is all that keeps Elliott from being higher in the pre-season driver rankings. However, he showed tremendous progress towards that first win and climbing into the top tier of drivers during the final races of 2017. Half of his 12 Top-5 finishes, including four runner-up finishes came during the 10-race Chase for the Cup. Despite being winless, the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished a stellar fifth in the final driver standings. There is tremendous upside with the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet, and the fact that Elliott has not won in his first 77 starts in the Monster Energy Cup Series could devalue him on fantasy draft day. If you're looking for a driver in 2018 to make a quantum leap like Kyle Larson did last year, Elliott would be that guy. The breakthrough potential here is very sizeable.

8. Denny Hamlin - The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off a typical season for the No. 11 Toyota team. Hamlin racked up two victories and 22 Top-10 finishes en route to finishing sixth in the driver standings for the second-straight year. That's been the pattern and the mark for this driver and team for the last three season. Crew chief Mike Wheeler and Hamlin have found a good level of consistency and the ability to win races, but they're just shy of the serious championship contender level. Although Hamlin came painfully close to making the Championship 4 at Homestead, but came up just short. With the retirement of Matt Kenseth, we expect more focus at Joe Gibbs Racing to fall on Hamlin and his race team. He and Kyle Busch are the faces of the franchise now, and championship contention is the ultimate measure of success. We expect to see Hamlin race with some real urgency in 2018.

9. Jimmie Johnson - While the seven-time champion is only one season removed from hoisting the cup, there were many warts that surfaced in 2016 and carried right over into 2017. Johnson managed three wins, but they all came early in the campaign last year. The season in large part was a real struggle. The Hendrick Motorsports star netted only 11 Top-10 finishes, which were a career-low, and he took a premature exit from the Chase. That led to a lowly 10th-place finish in the final driver standings. More importantly, average start and average finish marks of 16.9 and 16.8 were both career worsts, and numbers well above his career averages of 11.5 and 12.4. It could be that after 17 seasons of racing at NASCAR's top level, Father Time has finally caught up to the best driver in NASCAR's modern history. He still carries tons of respect on the track and among his peers, but it's time for fantasy racing players to start looking at Jonson as a second tier driver instead of a first tier star.

10. Kurt Busch - Busch resigned with Stewart Haas Racing last December. He'll return to the No. 41 Ford team along with primary sponsor Monster Energy. The veteran driver made a big splash to start last season by winning the 2017 Daytona 500, but everything after that was pretty shaky. Busch struggled with consistency issues, and only posted 15 Top-10 finishes. He wound up a lowly 14th in the final driver standings. Busch will look to hit the reset button in 2018 with new crew chief Billy Scott. The 39-year-old driver should get back to 20 or more Top-10 finishes this season, and a points finish inside the Top 10. The team has a lot of work to do, and Ford has some catching up to do in terms of speed, but Busch has the experience to guide this team back into the Top 10.

11. Ryan Blaney - Probably one of the most watched drivers this season will be Blaney and his new No. 12 Penske Racing team. The young driver makes the jump from Wood Brothers Racing to Penske. Blaney accomplished a lot of great things in his short time with the No. 21 Ford team. He even took the Wood Brothers back to victory lane last year with a big win at Pocono Raceway. Blaney's one win, 14 Top-10 finish campaign of last year should be viewed as just the tip of his potential. With the full resources of Penske Racing, great lineup of sponsors and Jeremy Bullins calling the shots from atop the tool box there's great potential in this driver and team. Blaney is one of the rising stars of NASCAR and he should post an incredible breakout season in 2018.

12. Clint Bowyer - So the Stewart Haas Racing debut in the No. 14 Ford didn't go quite as planned last year. Bowyer's uneven season had its bright spots and highlights to be sure, but the 13 Top-10 finishes and no victories fell short of expectations. The veteran driver failed to make the Chase for the Cup and would finish 18th in the final driver standings. While those were pretty good strides to take over his prior two years of racing, Bowyer was left feeling a bit empty after his first season at SHR. Mike Bugarewicz returns as crew chief for this driver and team, and the Bowyer will hope to continue improving and working his way back towards the top of the sport. We expect he'll do just that as his talent is unquestionable, and the resources of Stewart Haas Racing dictate that Bowyer and this team can achieve even better success.

13. Erik Jones - Last season's rookie of the year makes a step into a new race team in 2018. Jones will take over the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that Matt Kenseth spent the last several seasons racing. The 21-year-old driver made a big splash last year with five Top-5 and 14 Top-10 finishes. Jones flirted with victory on a couple occasions with strong outings at Bristol, Michigan and Pocono. He showed that he could not only hold his own with the best in the series, but he could lead lots of laps and challenge for wins. With the move to the No. 20 Toyota team even more resources will be at Jones disposal. He'll continue to be paired with crew chief Chris Gayle, and that continuity will be key to his success. Jones has a tremendous opportunity to outperform anyone's expectations this season.

14. Daniel Suarez - With the sudden retirement of Carl Edwards last January, Suarez was thrust into the spotlight. He took over the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota and he performed extremely well given his brief period of racing in the Xfinity Series. Suarez notched 12 Top-10 finishes and waged a spirited battle with Erik Jones for last season's rookie of the year. The young Mexican hit a bit of a rough patch to close out last season, but he learned a tremendous amount in his first full season of racing at NASCAR's top level. The entire No. 19 team returns intact for the new season, so Suarez will have the same cast and support as last year. We expect to see him grow and continue to improve in 2018. Suarez missed the Chase for the Cup in season one, but he should have no trouble making the playoff field in season two.

15. Jamie McMurray - The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran had a renaissance in 2017. McMurray raced to three Top-5 and 17 Top-10 finishes last season. Those were his best totals since 2004, and it led to his best standings finish (12th) since 2005. With the growing youth movement in the Monster Energy Cup Series, it may be difficult for McMurray to hold onto those gains. By no means are we expecting him to make a reversal. Chip Ganassi Racing gave him great cars last season and that should continue into the new year. However, we don't expect him to post quite the same marks again in 2018. A bit of a pullback should be expected, however we don't expect him to fall far from that strong 14.6 average finish he posted last season. McMurray qualified the best of his career last year, and that is much of the reason for his improvement.

16. Alex Bowman - With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. it will be a new day at Hendrick Motorsports. In the void of the iconic driver a new face will be in the popular No. 88 Chevrolet this season. Bowman steps up from Hendrick's test driver role and into real racing and competition. He spent much of last year testing, but did manage a couple Xfinity Series starts with a surprising victory at Charlotte. Bowman impressed in his relief starts for Earnhardt in 2016. He bagged three Top-10 finishes in just 10 starts and showed good utility and talent racing in relief. Now that the No. 88 car belongs to him, he'll be paired with crew chief Greg Ives. The same dynamite sponsorship package that Earnhardt enjoyed will return and support Bowman. It's a situation set up for success. His 81 starts of experience will begin to pay dividends, and we would not be surprised to see Bowman break the 12 Top-10 finish plateau.

17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - Last year was a career season for the driver of the No. 17 Ford. Stenhouse nabbed a couple victories on the superspeedway circuit and posted nine total Top-10 finishes. It all led to a career-best 13th-place mark in the final driver standings. The entire No. 17 team and crew chief Brian Pattie return in 2018. It's taken five seasons to turn around this floundering race team, but Roush and Stenhouse have finally started to make some headway. We don't expect any quantum leaps for this driver and team, but another campaign of steady improvements and consistency. Another berth in the Chase for the Cup would be dependent on winning a race. Stenhouse has proven to be a dangerous driver on the superspeedways, so we wouldn't rule out a playoff seeding win.

18. Ryan Newman - The 17-season veteran has become one of the most predictable and consistent performers in NASCAR's top touring division. Newman broke a three-season winless streak with his surprising victory at Phoenix last year. He added to that with 13 Top-10 finishes. That's been about the norm for the Richard Childress Racing veteran. Newman would end up 16th in the final driver standings, and that's pretty close to what he's averaged over the last three seasons. He returns to the same No. 31 team in 2018 with crew chief Luke Lambert in tow. RCR has even bolstered his sponsorship lineup, which shows a real vote of confidence from the boss. Newman will be consistent yet again this season, but we don't expect to see any surprise wins this year. A middle teens Top-10 total and middle teens points finish would seem pretty safe expectations.

19. Aric Almirola - One of the biggest free agent moves of the off-season was Almirola. The veteran driver jumped from Richard Petty Motorsports and the iconic No. 43 Ford and into the No. 10 Ford of Stewart Haas Racing. Almirola takes over the ride that Danica Patrick vacated at SHR. It's a huge opportunity for the South Florida native to make a big jump in performance. This will be by far the most capable and talented team Almirola has raced for in his 10 seasons of competition at NASCAR's top level. He could challenge his career-best marks of seven Top 10s and a 16th-place points finish. In fact, we expect Almirola and his new team to challenge for a Chase playoff berth. John Klausmeier will team with him as crew chief and give guidance in season one at SHR. It's a situation set up for success.

20. William Byron - After winning the 2017 Xfinity Series championship, Byron makes the jump into NASCAR's top division. Byron is fresh off a four-win, 22 Top-10 finish campaign that led to the title in the Xfinity Series. The 20-year-old driver will now take over the No. 24 Chevrolet in Hendrick Motorsports' camp and pair with crew chief Darian Grubb. While there will be some lessons learned and some bumps along the way, but it's a great situation for Byron. He will be in a team that can help him win Rookie of the Year. Despite only 57-combined starts of experience between the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, he has 11 victories in those starts. The level of talent is obvious, and Byron's ability to adapt to greater competition is clear. He'll have every chance to win the ROTY and to exceed expectations in 2018.

21. Austin Dillon - While Dillon grabbed his first-career victory (Charlotte) in 2017, and he made the Chase for the Cup field, it still wasn't the campaign the No. 3 team quite expected. With just four Top-10 finishes, Dillon somehow managed to finish 11th in the final driver standings. That was due in large part to the Chase format and how it rewards wins. From a consistency standpoint, last season failed to measure up in many respects. Dillon will look to hit the reset button this season. He'll once again be paired with Justin Alexander as crew chief and the team will look to find more consistency and more Top-10 finishes this season. With the series becoming younger and even more competitive, it will be difficult for Dillon to recover the level of performance that he had in 2016.

22. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. - Wallace will finally get his crack at the top level of NASCAR in 2018. He takes over the No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty Motorsports and fills the seat that Aric Almirola vacated. Wallace comes over from Roush Fenway Racing's Xfinity Series team where in five seasons he managed 35 Top-10 finishes and grabbed a top standings finish of seventh-place in 2015. He made four relief appearances for Almirola last season in the No. 43 Ford during his back injury hiatus. The 24-year-old driver performed impressively in those outings collecting two Top-15 and three Top-20 finishes. The relief duty served as an audition for Richard Petty Motorsports, and they saw all they needed to see to give Wallace the ride for 2018. RPM will shift from Ford to Chevrolet this season, so Wallace and this team have lots of upside.

23. Trevor Bayne - The driver of the No. 6 Ford posted almost identical marks for the second straight season. Bayne nabbed two Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes en route to finishing 22nd in the final driver standings. Once again his best tracks were superspeedways, followed closely by short tracks. The Roush Fenway Racing driver made great strides on the circuit's bull rings. The team returns completely intact for this season, including crew chief Matt Puccia. Bayne will be challenged to elevate his game above recent levels. Although Roush Fenway Racing has been improving and giving their drivers better cars, it's still an uphill battle in this ultra-competitive racing series. Bayne will turn 27-years-old early this season, so he's still a young driver. However, his 166 starts of experience over the past eight years are valuable experience.

24. A.J. Allmendinger - Last season was a bit of a down campaign for Allmendinger and his JTG Daugherty Racing team. The veteran driver only nabbed five Top-10 finishes and finished a four-season low of 27th in the final driver standings. Part of those struggles could be attributed to JTG growing into a second team (Chris Buescher), so a rebound of sorts should be in store for 2018. Allmendinger enters his 12th season of competition this season and he's crossed the 300-plus starts plateau. The No. 47 team returns completely unchanged with the same sponsorship lineup. Crew chief Tristan Smith should help Allmendinger climb back to better performance levels this season. He's capable of nearly doubling last season's Top 10 totals and lowering his average finish by almost four or five spots. The potential to improve is unquestionable.

25. Paul Menard - Menard landed at Wood Brothers Racing during the off-season. He moves from Richard Childress Racing and the No. 27 Chevrolet and into the No. 21 Ford at Wood Brothers. Ryan Blaney elevated this small race team from part-time to full-time competition over the last two seasons. Menard will now be tasked with maintaining those gains and keeping this single-car team competitive. He brings his family sponsorship of Menards which will help tremendously to fund the team. Blaney grabbed a win and 14 Top 10s with this team last year, and those would be lofty goals for Menard. However, that potential is present and should be a motivator for the 37-year-old driver. Menard is a bit past his prime as a NASCAR driver, but he should enjoy a minor rebound this season as this team carries a lot of momentum into 2018.

26. Chris Buescher - Season one at JTG Daugherty Racing had its ups and downs, but the talented youngster posted a career-best four Top-10 finishes last season with his new race team and achieved a respectable 21.4 average finish for the campaign. Buescher signed a multi-year deal with JTG and crew chief Trent Owens returns to guide the 25-year-old Texan. It's a situation set up to grow and succeed. It remains to be seen how much Buescher can improve this season given the team's limits on resources, but Buescher's ability has a high ceiling. Of the drivers in the lower tier, he has some of the best growth potential and best upside. His 78 starts of experience in NASCAR's top level gives Buescher an edge on the other younger drivers in the series.

27. Kasey Kahne - After six seasons of racing in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne found himself heading into the free agent driver pool at the end of last season. Steady performance erosion over the last few seasons has seen the veteran driver go from winning races and earning Chase berths, to struggling to be competitive on a weekly basis. Although Kahne pulled out a "Hail Mary" victory at the Brickyard last season, he struggled to post a career-low six Top-10 finishes. His average finish for the campaign ballooned to a 10-season low of 19.4, and his average qualifying position of 17.9 was a career worst mark. He will now pilot the No. 95 Chevrolet of Leavine Family Racing. This small single-car team has worked hard with prior driver, Michael McDowell, to go from part-time to full-time competition in NASCAR's top division. While Kahne is an upgrade over McDowell, his ability to earn Top 10s with this team will be severely challenged. The veteran driver is entering the declining stages of his NASCAR career, and that should be remembered on fantasy racing draft day.

28. Ty Dillon - The rookie campaign had many ups-and-downs. Dillon started last season hot with Top-15 finishes at Bristol, Talladega, Kansas and Dover in the spring. He climbed to as high as 21st in the driver standings by May, but that would be the peak. Dillon would finish outside the Top 20 most weeks during the summer, before heating up again a bit in the fall. It all added up to a campaign with no Top-10 finishes and a 24th-place ranking in the final driver standings. Gone is crew chief Bootie Barker, and in is new crew chief Matt Borland. The No. 13 Germain Racing team signed Dillon to a multi-year extension, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon. Dillon should take some steps this season, but we don't expect a quantum leap of any kind. It should lead to more consistent racing and hopefully more Top-15 finishes in 2018.

29. Matt Kenseth - At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Kenseth raced his last lap in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Although it was a somewhat disappointing season (one win and 18 Top-10 finishes) he still finished a respectable seventh in the final driver standings, due in large part to the Chase format. The veteran driver did not renew his contract with Gibbs and is currently a free agent driver. Kenseth insists that he still wants to race, but he wants to race for a good team and at a highly competitive level. All indications from his past few seasons of performance are that he can still win races and challenge for championships. However, those opportunities with high quality teams are few. It would seem that Kenseth is looking at the prospect of sitting out the 2018 season, and hopefully finding a ride for 2019. We would place those odds as very slim, and we may have very well seen the last NASCAR laps of Kenseth's career this past November at Homestead.

30. Michael McDowell - The journeyman driver makes the switch from Leavine Family Racing to Front Row Motorsports in 2018. McDowell posted good numbers with the No. 95 team last season. The veteran driver nabbed one Top-10 finish at Daytona in July, and collected a total of five Top-15 finishes throughout the season. It led to a career-best points finish of 26th-place and a career-best average finish of 22.2 for the season. The move from LFR to FRM is more of a lateral move at best in terms of personnel and equipment, so the talent should be able to fetch similar results this season. McDowell and his new No. 34 Ford team will be one of the more interesting outcomes/pairings of the new season. At the time of this writing his crew chief has still not been named, and that news could impact his potential more than any other variable.

31. David Ragan - Ragan resigned with Front Row Motorsports through the 2018 season. He'll once again pilot the team's No. 38 Ford this season. Last season's three Top-10 finishes and 30th-place finish in the driver standings were good enough to earn Ragan another season with this race team. Although FRM is a multi-car race team, they have been at an equipment and personnel disadvantage when compared to the other multi-car teams in the series. That makes Ragan's 2017 performance even more impressive. Per usual for this veteran driver, the Top-10 finishes all came at the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona. Ragan's level of skill on the large ovals is undisputed. His two-career Monster Energy Cup Series victories came at these two tracks, so that's something to remember in weekly lineup fantasy leagues.

32. Matt DiBenedetto - DiBenedetto wound up making the best out of his situation at Go Fas Racing last season. The 26-year-old Californian took the No. 32 Ford team to new heights and posted good finishes in this small single-car team. DiBenedetto nabbed two Top-10 finishes (Daytona & Indianapolis) and he grabbed five Top-20 finishes. It all led to a 32nd-place finish in the final driver points, and a 27.1 average finish for the 36 events. It was the best campaign of his three-season Monster Energy Cup Series career. DiBenedetto returns to this team in 2018, and crew chief Gene Nead also returns to guide the effort. If he hopes to improve in his fourth Cup season, DiBenedetto will need to reduce the DNF's. He had six of those last year, and it was a bit of a drag on his consistency.

33. Brennan Poole - Poole has been rumored to Richard Childress No. 27 Chevrolet, but at the time of this writing that hasn't happened yet. If it does, then this young driver should climb the driver rankings a few spots. Poole has spent the last three seasons competing in the Xfinity Series. He's nabbed eight Top-5 and 36 Top-10 finishes for Chip Ganassi's organization in that division of NASCAR. Now 26-years-old, it's make-or-break time for Poole in climbing the NASCAR ladder. If Poole makes the jump to this race team, it could be a great situation for the young driver. He'll enter the Rookie of the Year field of drivers and have all the team support and personnel to succeed in season one. This is a situation and driver to watch closely going into January and February.

34. Cole Whitt - Whitt should return to TriStar Motorsports and the No. 72 Chevrolet, however, as of this writing it's not a done deal just yet. The journeyman driver started all 36 events last season for this race team, and collected four Top-20 finishes. That led to a 33rd-place finish in the final driver standings, and some growth for this small race team. The team's charter is in question and that puts a question mark on Whitt and TriStar's potential 2018 season, although we feel it's a good chance that a deal get works out and they will race this season. If Whitt hopes to improve on last season better qualifying efforts will be a must. Starting an average 32.1 on the grid is not the way to ensure good finishes each week.

35. Ray Black Jr. - The Rick Ware Racing team announced a mid-December deal that will put Black in the No. 51 car for this season. He will be a Rookie of the Year candidate since he only has three-career starts in NASCAR's top division, although he'll be a long-shot odds to win the honor. Black made three starts with this team last season and averaged a 37.3 finish across those handful of starts. A lot of the team's details are sketchy at this point, including crew chief and some of the sponsorship, however, RWR does have a charter for this team and they are guaranteed to start the full season. As far as Black and this team's chances go, well it is about as "shoestring" as an operation gets in NASCAR's top division.

36. Landon Cassill - Cassill will not return to Front Row Motorsports in 2018, and at the time of this writing he's still a free agent and in limbo as far as a team. The 28-year-old driver possesses some valuable skills and experience with over 250-career starts in the Cup Series. Cassill only managed three Top-20 finishes last season, and no Top 10s. That's likely the reason why he and FRM parted ways. Still, he presents good value and experience for a small single-car race team. There are a handful of race teams that are organizing for a full-time run this season, and Cassill will most likely land a driving gig for one of them.

37. Gray Gaulding - Gaulding raced most of the season and made 27 starts last season. He split the time between Premium Motorsports and BK Racing. In those efforts Gaulding nabbed one Top-10 and four Top-25 finishes. At the time of this writing Gaulding hasn't been named to any of the available rides, but he should land one of the open seats. We wouldn't rule out the possibility of him splitting time between rides once again in 2018. At just 20-years-old the young driver still has a lot to learn and room to grow. However, Gaulding's 29 starts of experience at NASCAR's top level makes him a valuable commodity to any team in search of a driver.

38. Reed Sorenson - The 13-season veteran will likely return this season. Although his contract status has not been announced at the time of this writing, we would suspect he'll be back with the Premium Motorsports No. 15 team that he spent much of last season racing. Sorenson logged 27 starts between the team's No. 15 and No. 55 entries. He nabbed only two Top-25 finishes as opposed to five DNF's in those starts. That level of performance rules out much, if any fantasy racing expectations for this driver and team.

39. Corey Lajoie - Lajoie's fortunes will ride with what happens with BK Racing in 2018. He made 32 combined starts for this team's two cars last season. In his time bouncing back-and-forth between the No. 23 and No. 83 Toyotas Lajoie earned just four Top-25 finishes. He did have an impressive 11th-place showing in the summer Daytona race, but little else made impact. If BK Racing can get one or both teams back in action this season, Lajoie should figure into the picture in some way.

40. D.J. Kennington - The young Canadian attempted five starts last season and made four starts split between two teams. Kennington raced Gaunt Brothers Racing and Premium Motorsports. It's not certain at the time of this writing, but Kennington could have an expanded role in the No. 96 Toyota of Gaunt Brothers Racing. His average finish in his handful of starts last season was a bloated 33.2. That level of performance lowers any expectations for fantasy racing success this season.

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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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