NASCAR Draft Kit: 2021 Sleepers & Busts

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2021 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.  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.  Austin Dillon, William Byron and Ryan Blaney likely helped many to win their leagues last season.  While drivers like Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson 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 2021 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

Sleepers

Alex Bowman
Car: No. 48
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series360131116th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series361071212th  
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36106156th  
Three Year Totals108211638 

Bowman and Hendrick Motorsports are beginning to build some momentum and get some traction in NASCAR's top division.

Of all the articles that make up the NASCAR draft kit, this is probably the most important.  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.  Austin Dillon, William Byron and Ryan Blaney likely helped many to win their leagues last season.  While drivers like Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson 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 2021 that you should make every effort to get, and those who you should avoid at all costs.

Sleepers

Alex Bowman
Car: No. 48
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series360131116th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series361071212th  
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36106156th  
Three Year Totals108211638 

Bowman and Hendrick Motorsports are beginning to build some momentum and get some traction in NASCAR's top division. He's increased his Top 10 totals and climbed in the standings for three successive seasons.  2021 could be the campaign where Bowman takes a quantum leap.  He stayed alive deep into the Chase playoffs last season and was a threat to win the championship right up until the cut into the Championship Round.  We expect Bowman to take some pretty big steps this season.  He shifts from the No. 88 Chevrolet and into the team's No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson formerly drove.  Greg Ives will continue to be his crew chief and the two will continue their work together.  Bowman has undeniable skill and the team is improving.  It could all add up to his first multi-win campaign and breaching the 20 Top-10 finish plateau for the first time.   

Kyle Busch
Car: No. 18
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series368422284th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series365117271st   
2020 NASCAR Cup Series361014208th  
Three Year Totals1081455375 

After posting 6.5 wins and 27.5 Top-10 finishes each of the previous two seasons, 2020 must have seemed like a pothole in the road to Busch and his championship winning team of 2019.  It was easily his worst season since 2014 and a real shocker after winning the title just the prior year.  We believe much of the reason for this power outage was the COVID affected season.  NASCAR abandoned practice and qualifying after the COVID return and that hurt many teams.  Some were not able to adapt to the radical mid-season change in format.  Busch and the No. 18 JGR team fell into that category.  He and crew chief Adam Stevens' bread-and-butter is setting up a car to be good at the start of a race through good practice feedback.  They didn't get that opportunity in 2020.  At the end of the season Busch collected his first victory and nabbed three Top 10s in the final four events showing that they may have finally figured things out.  That should carry into the new season and Busch should post more Busch-like numbers in what promises to be a similar season of racing without practice and qualifying.

Kyle Larson
Car: No. 5
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series360312199th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series36118176th  
2020 NASCAR Cup Series4001334th  
Three Year Totals76142139 

Larson makes a return from suspension to take over the No. 5 Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports this season.  He was on track to post a big campaign before his racial slur incident of last April put him out the sport for several months.  Larson had posted Top-10 points finishes in each of the preceding four seasons, so his level of talent is undeniable.  We've always felt that he's been a bit of an underachiever while racing for Chip Ganassi, so the move to Hendrick could be a big boost.  Larson will pair with crew chief Cliff Daniels and look to build chemistry immediately.  Daniels worked with Jimmie Johnson the last two seasons and will be re-energized by the prospect of working with a younger, talented driver.  Larson brings multi-win and 20 Top-10 potential to the table, although it may be a stretch to see it in season one with his new team.  However, we expect the performance of 2021 to be a tantalizing teaser of what the future holds for this driver and team.  

Chase Briscoe
Car: No. 14
Team: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Xfinity Series17101424th  
2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series331213265th  
2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series339016224th  
Three Year Totals831123052 

The top rookie of the 2021 class makes the sleepers list based on pure unknowns.  Briscoe has never made a single start in a Cup Series car, so there will be some on the job training this season.  However, his Xfinity Series numbers tend to do most of the talking at this point.  Briscoe grabbed a mind-boggling nine victories last year, but only pulled up short of the championship due to some subpar racing in the critical final three races of last season.  The young driver will be taking over Clint Bowyer's old ride at Stewart Haas Racing and pairing with crew chief John Klausmeier.  Briscoe has won at every level he's raced and has proven to be a quick learner behind the wheel.  At 26-years-old he's a very seasoned young driver, which should help his Cup ascension tremendously.  We expect to see decent numbers from Briscoe and the No. 14 team.  He could possibly make the Chase for the Cup playoff field and post somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 Top-10 finishes.  That's not bad returns for a driver that will come cheaper in fantasy drafts than most.

Christopher Bell
Car: No. 20
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36002720th  
Three Year Totals360027 

Bell's rookie season in 2020 was a struggle at times, but the light bulb definitely flipped on during the middle portion of the schedule.  The No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team that he started out with is now history, and Bell will move into the No. 20 Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing for this season.  He'll be paired with ace crew chief Adam Stevens for his second season in NASCAR's top division.  Stevens guided Kyle Busch to 28 victories and two championships, so Bell is getting a stud atop the team's war wagon.  With everything Bell went through last season he still fought to seven Top-10 finishes with his small race team.  The potential in the No. 20 Toyota coupled with Stevens is tantalizing to say the least.  Bell has the "goods" from a driving perspective.  His 16-career Xfinity Series victories make that fact quite clear.  Of the second-season drivers in NASCAR's top division, Bell may have the most potential to bring in the biggest returns.

Bubba Wallace
Car: No. 23
Team: 23XI Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series36001328th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series36001128th  
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36001522nd   
Three Year Totals1080039 

Probably the most talked about driver of last season, gets a team upgrade in 2021.  Michael Jordan of NBA fame and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin have collaborated to form a new team for Wallace this season.  23XI Racing will enjoy strong sponsorship, big backing and the brains of veteran crew chief, Mike Wheeler.  The 42-year-old veteran has 181-starts of NASCAR crew chief experience between the Xfinity and Cup Series combined and nine total victories to his credit.  This new team will also greatly benefit from a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.  That technology and info will be shared with Wallace's squad.  While popular thinking may boost Wallace's potential performance to the stratosphere, we would caution against those ambitions.  It's more likely the young driver will make a few steps up the ladder over previous seasons.  Don't overpay for Wallace in fantasy drafts, but keep in mind the potential for 7-9 Top-10 finishes and an upper teens finish in the final driver standings.

Busts 

Erik Jones
Car: No. 43
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series361191815th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series3610101716th  
2020 NASCAR Cup Series360091317th  
Three Year Totals108212848 

Joe Gibbs Racing unceremoniously gave Jones the boot after the 2020 season.  The young driver never really seemed to get upward traction with the No. 20 Toyota team and did not grow to expectations.  That stagnation led to his release to make way for the up-and-coming Christopher Bell.  Jones quickly secured a ride with the open seat at Richard Petty Motorsports.  He'll take over the iconic No. 43 Chevrolet this season.  This team has had it warts for a long time, and really hasn't raced competitively since Aric Almirola's 2013-15 campaigns in the car.  Jones will look to return the RPM brand to competitive racing but he faces a lot of headwinds.  A lot of the sponsorship bolted with Bubba Wallace's departure to his new race team.  Jones will have to pair with crew chief Jerry Baxter and figure out ways to get more speed and better finishes.  It could be an uphill battle for much of the season and we expect Jones' trend line of stats to turn downward as a result. 

Austin Dillon
Car: No. 3
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series36102813th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series36030621st   
2020 NASCAR Cup Series35104911th  
Three Year Totals10723623 

Dillon is coming off his best Cup Series campaign in quite a while.  The one victory and nine Top-10 finish season earned him a respectable 11th-place finish in the final points.  The 30-year-old veteran of 264 Cup Series starts hit his high water mark with last year's performance.  It could be very likely that Dillon has reached his ceiling in terms of potential.  With NASCAR's top division turning younger by the year, Dillon now finds himself one of the older veterans in the field with seven seasons of experience under his belt.  We believe Dillon could experience a slight downturn in performance in the coming season.  He's surrounded by a bevy of younger and very talented drivers who are racing for top teams.  That competition will only hurt Dillon as we go forward.  It's very likely that a downward trend line will begin to form, so don't expect this driver and team to post a sequel to their strong 2020 performance. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Car: No. 47
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series36003518th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series36001323rd   
2020 NASCAR Cup Series36013424th  
Three Year Totals10801712 

Stenhouse's first season with JTG Daugherty Racing didn't go quite as well as expected. The veteran driver scuffled to just four Top-10 finishes for the season, and was decidedly outperformed by his teammate, Chris Buescher.  Stenhouse is entering a contract season with JTG and will have a lot of eyes falling on his performance.  Unfortunately, the chances of a rebound for the 33-year-old driver are slim.  He'll once again be paired with crew chief Brian Pattie, and the two will look to dig out of their malaise of last season.  Stenhouse has always been a top performer on the superspeedway ovals, but even that ace-in-the-hole looked a bit shaky last season.  It could very well be that this driver reached his peak in 2017, and will not likely return to challenging for wins and middle-teens finishes in the championship standings.  The pattern seems pretty much fixed over the last two campaigns, so we all know what to expect in 2021.

Denny Hamlin
Car: No. 11
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series3604101711th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series366319244rd   
2020 NASCAR Cup Series367018214th  
Three Year Totals1081374762 

To clarify, we don't believe Hamlin will go completely in the tank this season.  This is more of a slight downturn signal than anything.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star is coming off arguably the best two campaigns of his career.  Hamlin has averaged 6.5 wins and 22.5 Top 10s the last two seasons and those are the best marks of his 15-season career.  Now 40-years-old, Hamlin is approaching that invisible line that begins to gradually erode a NASCAR driver's performance.  Jimmie Johnson is a great example of this phenomena.  The 40-to-41 transition years saw Johnson go from winning the last of his seven championships to finishing outside the Top 10 in the standings for the final four seasons of his NASCAR career.  Hamlin's "wall" may not be quite that harsh, but we could see a distinct drop off in Hamlin's 2021 numbers.  We could see a pullback to 2-3 wins and 18-19 Top 10s this season.  The bottom line is don't pay 2020 prices for Hamlin in fantasy drafts or auctions.

Ross Chastain
Car: No. 42
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series340000N/A  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series350001N/A   
2020 NASCAR Cup Series80000N/A  
Three Year Totals770001 

After a couple seasons of bouncing around the three top touring divisions of NASCAR, Chastain will finally get a full-time Cup Series ride in 2021. The journeyman driver will get a crack at Ganassi's No. 42 Chevrolet.  This team was originally Kyle Larson's for the last several seasons and it went into distress in 2020 when Larson was abruptly released after his racial slur incident.  The No. 42 camp spent the rest of the campaign in a long malaise as veteran Matt Kenseth came out of retirement and struggled to just two Top 10s in 32 races in this car. Chastain will now take over this ride and hope to right the ship this season.  It will be a tall task for a driver that has yet to really have an impact in the Cup Series in 79-career starts.  Chastain will need some time to develop chemistry with his new crew chief and team, so it could be a slow start to the campaign that may well run long into the season before they get any traction.  The lack of weekly practice and qualifying will only exacerbate this growth timeline. 

Ryan Newman
Car: No. 6
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

NASCAR Three-Year StatsRacesWinsPolesTop 5Top 10Rank
2018 NASCAR Cup Series36000917th  
2019 NASCAR Cup Series360031415th  
2020 NASCAR Cup Series33000225th  
Three Year Totals10500325 

We called for a Newman downturn in 2020, and was sadly not surprised when it materialized.  However, it wasn't father time that caught up to Newman as much as it was the horrific crash he experienced in the season-opening Daytona 500.  The veteran driver would then spend the next several weeks hospitalized and recovering from serious head injuries.  The COVID shutdown of NASCAR would allow Newman time to heal and he would only miss three events as a result.  However, when the 42-year-old veteran returned to the race track at Darlington in mid-May, he didn't appear to be the same driver.  Newman would go on to slog through a two Top-10 finish campaign and a career-worst 25th-place finish in the standings.  His average finish ballooned from 14.6 in 2019 to 20.0 last season.  Newman returns to the No. 6 RFR team this season, but a lot of question marks remain after his very turbulent 2020 season.          

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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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