NASCAR Draft Kit: 2018 Sleepers & Busts

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2018 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, Kyle Busch 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., Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney likely helped many to win their leagues last season. While drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard and Joey Logano 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 2018 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

Ryan Blaney

Car: 12
Owner: Penske Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup160012N/A
2016 Monster Energy Cup36003920th
2017 Monster Energy Cup36124149th
Total8812825

Last season Blaney took Wood Brothers Racing to heights not seen in several years. His one victory, 14 Top-10 finishes and ninth-place
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, Kyle Busch 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., Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney likely helped many to win their leagues last season. While drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard and Joey Logano 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 2018 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

SLEEPERS

Ryan Blaney

Car: 12
Owner: Penske Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup160012N/A
2016 Monster Energy Cup36003920th
2017 Monster Energy Cup36124149th
Total8812825

Last season Blaney took Wood Brothers Racing to heights not seen in several years. His one victory, 14 Top-10 finishes and ninth-place finish in the points were top marks for the No. 21 team since Morgan Shepherd drove the team's car in the mid '90s. It's was truly a breakthrough campaign for the young driver. Blaney now gets rewarded for his patience and excellence by being promoted to Penske Racing. The team expands to three cars in 2018 and Blaney will join Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in Penske's Cup camp. They immediately become one of the deepest and most talented three-driver team's in NASCAR's top division. Blaney has won on every level of NASCAR that he's competed in, and now he's a winner in the Cup Series. His victory last season at Pocono was no fluke. It was an impressive performance, and a sign of things to come. Now that he has the full support of Penske Racing, and top sponsors lining up, big things are sure to come.

Erik Jones

Car: 20
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup30000N/A
2017 Monster Energy Cup360151419th
Total3901514

Jones' 2017 campaign earned him Rookie of the Year honors, and he made history in the process. The young driver became the first driver in NASCAR history to earn rookie honors in all three of the national touring series of the sport. Along with that, Jones has a Camping World Truck Series championship (2015) and 16 combined victories between the truck and Xfinity Series. He has a trophy room full of hardware at the age of 21. Jones will now move from Furniture Row Racing into Joe Gibbs' No. 20 Toyota that Matt Kenseth just vacated. Crew chief Chris Gayle stays paired with Jones and makes the move into the new team. This is a situation set up for success and growth. Jones is wildly talented, and he nearly won at Bristol and Pocono last season. This driver and team is likely the class of the field in the sophomore driver pool.

Aric Almirola

Car: 10
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup36003617th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36000126th
2017 Monster Energy Cup29003629th
Total10100613

Danica Patrick steps aside and now Almirola takes over the No. 10 Ford of Stewart Haas Racing. The veteran driver has spent the last 10 seasons racing for smaller, less equipped teams. Now he gets the chance to show what he can do at a top organization. Almirola battled through a back injury in 2017, and had to sit out seven races. However, he still racked up six Top-10 finishes in the abbreviated schedule and showed some real skill on the superspeedways. Almirola will now join SHR and drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch as teammates. The resources, people and excellence of Stewart Haas Racing should take this experienced driver to new heights. Almirola has a very easy going attitude and everyone on the team likes his approach and feedback to driving. It should be a great fit for a No. 10 team that saw a lot of turmoil last season. It's not an unreasonable expectation that this combination of team and driver could yield a Chase berth in the upcoming season.

Alex Bowman

Car: 88
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2014 Monster Energy Cup36000035th
2015 Monster Energy Cup35000033rd
2016 Monster Energy Cup100103N/A
Total810103

Don't overlook or underestimate the abilities of Bowman. He largely sat on the sidelines last season, but did make three combined starts between the trucks and Xfinity Series. Bowman has stayed active and engaged as Hendrick Motorsports test driver and simulator driver. That has kept his abilities razor sharp despite the on track layoff. In 2016 he made 10 relief appearances in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during his concussion issues. Bowman nabbed three Top 10s during that stint, but most impressive was his Phoenix outing. He won his first-career pole position and led 194 laps before finishing the day sixth-place for a career-best finish. Bowman is the driver that most fantasy racing players don't see coming, because of his thin resume and short statistical returns. But make no mistake, he's inheriting a great team at a great organization in Hendrick Motorsports. This is a situation ripe for the 24-year-old driver to flourish right out of the gates.

Clint Bowyer

Car: 14
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2014 Monster Energy Cup360021216th
2015 Monster Energy Cup36000327th
2016 Monster Energy Cup360061318th
Total10800828

So the move to Stewart Haas Racing didn't provide quite the bounce we expected last season, but it was still a good move in the right direction for this veteran driver. Bowyer nabbed six Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes in his first season in the No. 14 Ford. He did flirt with victory on a couple occasions, but just didn't have the speed or luck to pull through for a win. That could change in 2018, but that will ultimately fall on the shoulders of Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. Also, a lot of that burden falls on Ford and Stewart Haas Racing to give Bowyer cars that are capable of winning and cracking the Top 5. There's no question about his driving abilities or the potential he possesses to succeed. If the right pieces fall into place Bowyer could surprise and wildly exceed expectations. It's a situation worth speculating on in fantasy racing drafts this pre-season.

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Car: 43
Owner: Richard Petty Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2017 Monster Energy Cup40000N/A
Total40000

The twists and turns that some drivers take navigating the NASCAR ranks never ceases to amaze us. Just when it looked like Wallace's career had stalled out at Roush Fenway Racing, his Xfinity Series team had to end operations early last year. While that on the surface was bad news, it did present Wallace with the golden opportunity to act as a relief driver for the injured Aric Almirola in the Cup Series. In just four starts the young driver showed his capabilities. Wallace nabbed finishes of 26th-, 19th-, 15th- and 11th-place in his four relief starts in the No. 43 Ford. So impressive was his efforts that the King, Richard Petty, tabbed the 24-year-old to take over after the departure of Almirola. Wallace has five years and 130-combined starts of experience between the Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Series. He's much more seasoned than the average rookie driver. Wallace's six-career truck series victories show that he has a lot of untapped potential.

BUSTS

Kasey Kahne

Car: 95
Owner: Leavine Family Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup360131018th
2016 Monster Energy Cup360031317th
2017 Monster Energy Cup36103615th
Total10811929

Kahne's six-season run with Hendrick Motorsports came to a close at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The 37-year-old driver now has over 500 starts to his credit in NASCAR's top division, but the trend line in recent years has not been that good. Despite stealing a victory at Indianapolis last year, his first win since the 2014 season, Kahne posted a career-low six Top-10 finishes in the campaign. His average start position and average finish position numbers have been steadily inching upward over the last four seasons. The veteran driver now takes over the No. 95 Chevrolet of single-car team Leavine Family Racing. Former driver Michael McDowell did some respectable work with this team over the past four seasons as they transitioned from a part-time to a full-time Cup team. However, the Top-10 finishes were few and far between for McDowell. Kahne will face a tough challenge as this small team hopes to continue climbing the ladder. They should improve with Kahne at the wheel, but Kahne could yet again post career-low numbers.

Jimmie Johnson

Car: 48
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup3651142210th
2016 Monster Energy Cup365111161st
2017 Monster Energy Cup363041110th
Total1081322949

The 2016 championship aside, the trend line for Johnson is very troubling. That title was largely captured as a result of getting hot in NASCAR's 10-race Chase format, and not illustrative of the 26 regular season races where Johnson was wildly inconsistent. He carried that inconsistency right into the 2017 season, and saw his average start and average finish stats balloon to career highs of 16.9 and 16.8 respectively. Johnson also posted career lows in Top-5 and Top-10 finishes with four and 11 respectively. The power outage during the Chase was even uncharacteristic for this driver, crew chief and team. Sure, Johnson is legendary and his seven championships place him among the immortal of NASCAR, but after 17 seasons of racing it could be that father time is finally catching up to Johnson and Chad Knaus. With the Monster Energy Cup Series growing younger by the minute, the 42-year-old Johnson is starting to look a little slow. This may be the season where his tier "A" status is no longer applicable in fantasy racing drafts.

Matt Kenseth

Car: TBD
Owner: Free Agent
Manufacturer: TBD

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup3454122015th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36218195th
2017 Monster Energy Cup361210187th
Total106873057

While he didn't officially retire, Kenseth did decide to temporarily step away from the sport. It's clear that the 45-year-old driver isn't willing to be finished, and he does have some good racing left in him. However, the sport is changing, sponsorship is changing, and ultimately driver contracts are changing. That's the big catch. For a driver with 20 years of experience, Kenseth will find it a difficult task to sell his talents to any willing suitors. His 650 starts, 39 victories and one championship will always command a lot of respect, but they'll also command a high price tag. It may be that catch that ultimately sends Kenseth to the sidelines permanently and not his current level of driving skill. Watch the early season closely to see if Kenseth signs. If he doesn't after a few weeks, it could be retirement for good for the former Joe Gibbs Racing star.

Michael McDowell

Car: TBD
Owner: Free Agent

Manufacturer: TBD

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2014 Monster Energy Cup16000039th
2015 Monster Energy Cup31000230th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36000126th
Total830003

Leavine Family Racing parted ways with McDowell at the end of the season in favor of the talents of Kasey Kahne. McDowell had done a wonderful job bringing this team from part-time into full-time Cup competition. He gradually improved each of the four seasons. McDowell's average start of 23.9 and average finish of 22.2 were career best marks, and it made him one of the more useful drivers deep in the driver pool of weekly lineup fantasy racing leagues. Now the 33-year-old driver is in the open job market and among the free agent pool. He's been rumored to the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team, and a couple of others. However, if McDowell lands somewhere it will be tough to replicate the consistency and success he developed in the No. 95 team the past couple seasons. We'll watch closely to see if he signs and where he lands, but it will be a tall task to replicate the success he had at Leavine Family Racing.

Trevor Bayne

Car: 6
Owner: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup36000229th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36002522nd
2017 Monster Energy Cup36002622nd
Total10800413

Bayne and his Roush Fenway Racing team have settled into a bit of a predictable groove. He nearly mirrored his 2016 totals last season, and he even posted the same points finish of 22nd-place. The average start and average finish positions were almost nearly identical. This driver and team have almost become as predictable as the moon cycles. Bayne has developed really into a driver of superspeedway specialty. Four of his 11 Top-10 finishes the last two seasons have come on the huge ovals of Daytona and Talladega. Aside from that, there's the occasional surprising finish on a short track. Those are his second best tracks on the circuit. However, this driver and team's continued struggles on intermediate ovals is what keeps Bayne from climbing the ladder to greater success. Unfortunately, we don't see that changing in the 2018 season, so we could be in for more identical stats or even a bit of a downturn.

Jamie McMurray

Car: 1
Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

SERIESRACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10sRANK
2015 Monster Energy Cup360041013th
2016 Monster Energy Cup360021213th
2017 Monster Energy Cup360031712th
Total10800939

The 41-year-old veteran had a banner season in 2017. McMurray tried to match his teammate, Kyle Larson, Top 10 for Top 10 throughout the season and was almost able to keep pace. While the campaign was winless, it was one of McMurray's best seasons in recent memory. The 14.6 average finish was his best mark since 2004, and his average start of 10.1 was the best mark of his full-time career. It's not that we expect a major power outage in the No. 1 team this season, but we are calling a "top". It's difficult to believe that McMurray could be much better than this in the 2018 season. The sport is growing younger and more talented drivers are quickly rising through the ranks. The competition is improving almost overnight. We expect McMurray to hit double digits in Top 10s again this season, but there should be fewer. There should be no surprise if there's a bit of a downturn with this driver and team.

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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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