1. Joey Logano – Despite not having a championship trophy in his case, he's climbed to the top of the hill in NASCAR's top division. Logano has averaged nearly five wins per season over the last three years, and a robust average of 18 Top-5 and 25 Top-10 finishes during the same span. The Penske Racing star is the most dominant statistical driver in the series, and his first championship is simply a matter of time.
2. Kevin Harvick – Harvick has been an incredible driver for the last four-straight seasons. He's been a top championship contender, multi-race winner and weekly Top-10 finisher. What he and crew chief Rodney Childers have built at Stewart Haas Racing is very special. They'll switch from Chevrolet to Ford this season, which will bring some new challenges, but this is still one of the elite teams in NASCAR no matter the circumstances.
3. Kyle Busch – The top driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable has one championship under his belt and he's looking for more in 2017. After a four-win, 25 Top-10 campaign last season, he's looking to win the championship for a second time this season. In a lot of ways, last season was the best of his NASCAR career. There's still room to grow and for Busch to remain consistent. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has finally matured past the hiccups and inconsistencies that plagued Busch earlier in his career.
4. Jimmie Johnson – The Hendrick Motorsports star is our reigning champion entering 2017. Now a seven-time winner of NASCAR's coveted trophy, Johnson has etched his name into the history books as one of the most elite drivers in stock car racing history. He'll set out to win a record-breaking eighth title this season, but it's a very tough road ahead. Johnson still possesses multi-race winning talent, but has slipped a bit in week-to-week consistency the last couple seasons. He's a top tier driver in Monster Energy Cup racing, but the competition has caught up to the No. 48 Chevrolet.
5. Brad Keselowski – A blown engine at the Chase race in Talladega last fall may have been the only thing to prevent Keselowski from winning the championship last season. The driver of the No. 2 Ford had a stellar campaign. The four victories and 22 Top-10 finishes he posted are marks we've come to expect from this veteran driver on an annual basis. The likelihood of a letdown in 2017 is very remote, as Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe will remain together once again.
6. Martin Truex Jr. – Truex has taken Furniture Row Racing from a small upstart team, to championship contenders in just three short years. The move to Toyota was a fantastic decision and it yielded a career-high four victories for the veteran driver last season. Crew chief Cole Pearn and Truex have developed an incredible level of chemistry and the team is racing side-by-side with the best in the series each week. We wouldn't rule out a run at the championship in 2017.
7. Matt Kenseth – Since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, things have been pretty good for Kenseth. He's won 14 races in the last four seasons and averaged 20 Top-10 finishes. Cold streaks and some unexpected inconsistency are all that have prevented the No. 20 team from winning a championship. Still, Kenseth and his JGR team have well established their dominance. We expect more wins and more Top 10s this season, however, those 3-to-4 race spans of inconsistency could still dot Kenseth's schedule here and there.
8. Denny Hamlin – As Hamlin has matured in the Monster Energy Cup Series he's won fewer races each season, but he's increased his Top 10 totals and become more consistent. The last three seasons show that the Joe Gibbs Racing star is good for a couple victories and 20 Top-10 finishes on average. The consistency we spoke of a bit ago was reflected in his career-best 11.8 average finish last year. The No. 11 team returns intact for 2017, and we should see this trend line continue for this driver and team.
9. Chase Elliott – The 2016 Rookie of the Year will attempt to follow up the great campaign he had last season. Elliott flirted with victory on a couple occasions, but could never breakthrough for a win last year. However, the young driver did visit the Top 10 in 17 of his 36 starts, so it was a strong first season for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Elliott wound up 10th overall in the final driver standings and we expect him to do better this season. He'll finally breakthrough for that first win.
10. Kurt Busch – Busch revived his career a couple seasons ago with the move to Stewart Haas Racing. Since the formation of the No. 41 team the veteran driver has been multi-race winner and Top-10 finisher most weekends. Busch has averaged 1.5 wins and 21 Top 10s over the last two campaigns. That's made him a Top-10 driver in NASCAR's top division, and there's no expectation for that to change this season. The change to Ford is a bit of a concern in the short term, but Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson should figure things out pretty quickly.
11. Kyle Larson – We can't help but be excited about Larson. He's taken big leaps in development the last two seasons. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver may be on the verge of another huge leap in 2017. This driver is a budding star, and there's no doubting the potential. It's up to Ganassi how far Larson goes, and that depends largely on how good the cars are in the No. 42 camp. We like to think one or two wins are possible this season, and a whole bunch of Top-10 finishes.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Cautiously optimistic would best sum up our expectations for Earnhardt this season. While he easily has the potential to revert to 2014-15 form and post multiple wins and 20+ Top 10s, we have to remember that the iconic driver sat out most of last season. The concussions that Earnhardt has accumulated over the years are hard to ignore. We don't know if he'll be sharp right out of the gates this season, and we also remain leery of any potential to suffer further concussions and be sidelined again from racing.
13. Clint Bowyer – Bowyer will be a driver to speculate on in all fantasy racing formats this season. He takes over the No. 14 team of now-retired Tony Stewart and will look to get his NASCAR career back on track after a couple seasons in the wilderness. Bowyer has big potential and a high ceiling for success racing in this strong and well-established team. The possibility of the veteran driver returning to victory lane in 2017 is reasonably high, and the potential for many Top-10 finishes is a near-certainty. Bowyer will be the rebound driver of the year this season.
14. Kasey Kahne – Inconsistency has plagued Kahne the last few seasons. Victory lane has become elusive and racing for the championship has not been in the picture of late for this veteran driver. He'll hope to turn that around this season, but the pattern of cold and hot streaks has been pretty established with the No. 5 team. If Kahne can ever put two halves of racing together look out, but we don't believe it's a high probability this year.
15. Austin Dillon – 2016 was a growth year for Dillon and the No. 3 RCR team. He is a bit of a question mark entering the new campaign. How much room to grow is there for this young driver and team? We should get some answers pretty quickly after his Daytona 500 performance. Dillon has been pretty strong and consistent on the big ovals, so if he slips during Speed Weeks, that could be a troubling sign. We don't expect a downturn, in fact, it would not surprise us to see Dillon break through at some point for career victory number one in the Cup Series.
16. Daniel Suarez – The 2016 Xfinity Series champion now sets his sights on the Rookie of the Year trophy in NASCAR's top division. He'll have all the brains, resources and team at Joe Gibbs Racing to make it happen. Suarez takes over the No. 19 Toyota of the just-retired Carl Edwards. By extension he is thrust into the favorite's seat to win the ROTY. The only hitch in what appears on paper to be a good situation is Suarez's lack of experience in Cup cars. He's very talented, very coachable, but there will be a learning curve in this grueling 36-event schedule.
17. Ryan Newman – Newman is coming off what was probably one of his worst season's in the last decade in 2016. He failed to make it into victory lane and he posted just 10 Top-10 finishes en route to finishing 18th in the final driver standings. Nowhere to go but up from here, but the question is how far? At 39-years-old Rocket Man is far from finished, but we may be starting to see some skill erosion take place. He just recently re-signed with Childress for what is probably a two-to-three-year extension. Newman's potential and performance is likely linked to just how hungry he is to improve.
18. Ryan Blaney – Were it not for Chase Elliott, Blaney would have easily claimed the Rookie of the Year honors last season. In a normal year, what this Wood Brothers Racing driver did in 2016 would have fetched the ROTY. Blaney's three Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes were good enough for 20th in the driver standings. Wood Brothers had to be very encouraged in their long-awaited return to full-time racing in NASCAR's top division. We believe Blaney will have some room to grow this season, now that he'll be seeing many tracks for the third and fourth time of his career.
19. Erik Jones – Jones was the driver to beat for this season's Rookie of the Year for much of the off-season until the mid-January announcement of Daniel Suarez's promotion. This talented Gibbs development driver will take over a new team at Furniture Row Racing and he'll bring his Xfinity Series crew chief along for the ride. While we believe Jones has more driving talent than Suarez at the present time, he'll face the obstacles that faces any new race team with a rookie driver and rookie crew chief. Jones will drop some jaws at times this year, and at times he'll fail to impress, but the future is very, very bright.
20. Jamie McMurray – The 15-season veteran is now among the longest standing veterans of NASCAR with the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Over the last few seasons McMurray's level of performance has become pretty predictable. He's averaged about four Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes per year over the last three campaigns. McMurray is less of a threat to win compared to earlier in his career, but he still cranks out about a dozen Top 10s and finishes somewhere between 13th and 18th in the driver standings. Younger drivers are finally pushing him down the rankings, but McMurray is still a pretty steady performer.
21. A.J. Allmendinger – The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran is coming off a pretty productive season. Allmendinger grabbed nine Top 10s and finished a respectable 19th in the final point standings. His average finish of 17.8 was tied for the second-best mark he's ever posted during his career. All pieces and parts of the team return intact for 2017. Allmendinger wants to get back into victory lane, and the road courses afford him the best opportunity. Sonoma and Watkins Glen are where this veteran driver truly shines.
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse made some pretty good strides in 2016. He doubled his Top-10 totals over the previous season with six, and he inched up to 21st-place overall in the final driver standings. The departure of Greg Biffle from Roush Fenway Racing could ultimately be good news for Stenhouse. While Roush is in contraction and equipment, sponsors and personnel are limited, Stenhouse now becomes the lead driver of this two-team stable. The focus at Roush will be on the No. 17 team this season. The knowledgeable and talented Brian Pattie takes over as crew chief, so we could be under-ranking this driver in the pre-season.
23. Paul Menard – Menard took a pretty big hit in this season's rankings. He's coming off a very poor campaign in the Richard Childress Racing No. 27 Chevrolet. The 36-year-old driver claimed only three Top 10s all of last season and finished a lowly 25th overall in the driver standings. The falloff in performance since his strong 2011 and 2012 seasons is easily measurable. The trend line is not good. Matt Borland has been brought on to be the new crew chief of this team, but he faces a tough battle turning around Menard's trend line.
24. Aric Almirola – We're projecting a rebound season for Almirola and his Richard Petty Motorsports team. How could he not? This driver and team pretty much hit rock bottom last year. With only one Top-10 finish all season long and a lowly 26th-place finish in the final driver standings, the campaign was Almirola's worst since going full-time in Cup in 2012. The 32-year-old Tampa native should claw back most of the way to the numbers he posted in 2014-15. So a return to about 4-to-6 Top-10 finishes should be expected.
25. Ty Dillon – The best Casey Mears ever achieved in this Germain Racing Chevrolet was three Top-10 finishes in one season, and 23rd-place in the point standings. We're willing to bet Dillon can top those numbers in his first full season of Monster Energy Cup Series racing. The 24-year-old driver has 18 starts of experience over the last three seasons at NASCAR's top level, and he has 111-career Xfinity Series starts to his credit. Dillon isn't lacking for seat time. He'll need to form chemistry with crew chief Bootie Barker quickly, and take this team up the ladder a few rungs.
26. Trevor Bayne – Bayne made some real progress in 2016. He collected a career-high five Top-10 finishes and ended up the year 22nd in the driver rankings. Among the highlights was a surprising Top-5 finish in the Bristol spring race and an electric third-place finish in the summer Daytona race under the lights. He really came into his own on the circuit's short tracks. Bayne will look to build on that improvement in 2017, and he'll have familiar crew chief Matt Puccia along to help. This division of NASCAR is very tough, and making headway will be hard to come by with the level of competition.
27. Chris Buescher – A second team at JTG Daugherty Racing has emerged and the talented Buescher has been tabbed to pilot the team's No. 37 Chevrolet in season one. He made waves last season at Front Row Motorsports with his surprising win at Pocono that qualified Buescher for the Chase. The young driver would be rewarded with a stunning 16th-place finish in the final driver standings, despite his early exit from the Chase for the Cup. He'll bring that expertise to the growing JTG camp. In the lower tier of the driver pool, Buescher brings a lot of upside to the table.
28. Danica Patrick – No driver in the Cup Series needs or wants sponsorship problems, but Patrick can probably afford those issues the least. However, that's what she faces in 2017. Primary sponsor Nature's Bakery and the Stewart Haas Racing camp are at odds and in a legal battle over last year's sponsorship. That will hang a dark cloud over Patrick's season. It was going to be tough enough for her to improve on last year's performance, now the lack of funding will be a major distraction to Patrick's efforts.
29. Michael McDowell – Last year's venture into full-time Cup racing was an unquestionable success for Leavine Family Racing and McDowell. He posted two Top 10s and finished a decent 30th-place in the final driver standings. LFR has merged with Tommy Baldwin and the move could move this small team up the ladder a bit. Veteran crew chief Todd Parrott returns, and he and McDowell will look to improve this season. The team's strong 10th-place finish in last year's season finale at Homestead could be a preview of things to come.
30. Greg Biffle – As of early February Biffle is still a free agent driver and looking for opportunities on his terms. The bad news is that all the good seats have filled up and what is left is less than competitive teams. We don't see Biffle driving for anyone but a team that he thinks he can be competitive with this year. That could easily leave the 15-year veteran on the sidelines in 2017. Only time will tell, but with each passing day that Biffle does not sign, his fantasy racing value continues downward.
31. Landon Cassill – The 223-start veteran pilots the No. 34 Ford of Front Row Motorsports this season. He and crew chief Donnie Wingo will look to build on this team's recent level of performance. Chris Buescher drove this team to one victory and two Top-10 finishes last season, with a 16th-place standings finish. Those are high marks for Cassill to shoot for in 2017. While victory lane is probably a stretch, we wouldn't be surprised to see Cassill grab two or three Top 10s this season. This driver has talent and experience and the No. 34 has shown to be the lead car of the FRM stable.
32. David Ragan – Front Row Motorsports gets an upgrade in the No. 38 Ford this season. Ragan's two-career victories and 360+ starts of experience climbs in the driver's seat. He's coming off a tough campaign at BK Racing last year and surely looking forward to the FRM homecoming. Ragan has two Top-10 finish potential in this car and the ability to crack the Top 30 in the driver standings. We'll see if the veteran driver is up to the task in the highly competitive Monster Energy Cup Series.
33. Matt DiBenedetto – The young driver has finished 35th in the standings each of his first two seasons in the top division of NASCAR. We expect improvement this season. DiBenedetto takes over the seat of the No. 32 Go FAS Racing Ford. Veteran crew chief, Gene Nead, comes on board and it's clear that this small race team in manning up to take on 2017. The 25-year-old Californian has the ability to push this team higher up the standings. DiBenedetto should nab one or two Top 10s and challenge the 30th spot in the final driver standings this season.
34. Jeffrey Earnhardt – Signed with Circle Sport-TMG Racing in early February. Looks like he'll get most, if not the entire, season in the team's No. 33 Chevrolet. Earnhardt has only 24 starts of Cup Series experience and not racing very competitively in those efforts. It will be a steep learning curve and big challenge for him to have much impact if he does race the full schedule. Earnhardt is a fan favorite for the obvious reason, but he'll face a tough test with this small race team in 2017.
35. Casey Mears – It's looking more and more likely that Mears may be an odd-man-out in NASCAR's musical chairs of free agency. As of early February he still doesn't have a ride lined up for this season and opportunities are very few. If Jeffrey Earnhardt is not able to race full-time in the No. 33 Chevrolet, he might get some spot starts or a part-time schedule there, but outside of that things look slim. Mears has close to 500 starts of Cup Series experience, but his level of performance has been flagging in recent seasons.
36. Cole Whitt – Takes over the No. 72 Ford of TriStar Motorsports this season. Whitt will race the full schedule with this team as sponsorship and other support comes together. Veteran crew chief Frankie Kerr gives this small team to race competitively each week. However, it is a small operation and does suffer the handicap of competing against better funded multi-car teams. Whitt does have the ability to stretch this team to about an average finish of 28-29 and a possible Top 35 standings finish.
37. Reed Sorenson – Sorenson is looking at the possibility of competing most of the season split between the two Premium Motorsports cars. He'll be in the No. 55 Toyota in the Daytona 500, and possibly other starts for this team. Sorenson could also drive some starts in the team's No. 15 Toyota as that is not a complete driver lineup either. In any case, Sorenson's impact will be limited due to his week-to-week schedule.
38. Gray Gaulding – The rookie driver is guaranteed to make at least 33 attempts in the No. 23 Toyota of BK Racing this season. He'll be unable to drive in the season-opening Daytona 500 and the other restrictor-plate races due to not having NASCAR qualification to compete on the superspeedways. The talented 18-year-old faces a sharp learning curve in his first near-full Monster Energy Cup schedule. There will be plenty of lessons learned along the way.
39. Corey Lajoie – Signed to drive part-time for BK Racing in their No. 83 Toyota Camry. It will be only a 14-start schedule for this second generation driver. He will share this team with Gray Gaulding and an array of other drivers. Due to Lajoie's lack of experience in the Cup cars and his very limited schedule this season, his impact in fantasy racing is expected to be near zero.
40. Joey Gase – Gase will get only three starts in the No. 23 Toyota of BK Racing, yielding most of those starts to Gray Gaulding. The veteran driver will get the start in the season-opening Daytona 500 and probably the other superspeedway events. This very limited schedule doesn't forego the possibility that Gase could sign to drive for another team. However, any patchwork schedule he puts together would likely fall short of a half-schedule season.
41. Alex Bowman – The most talented free agent driver in the pool is Bowman. Unfortunately, he doesn't have any driving gigs lined up for this season. He is, however, the first man up for relief driver duty if Hendrick Motorsports experiences any issues with their lineup of drivers. While that could be a long shot at seeing action, we feel that Bowman will find some part-time starts in the lower divisions of NASCAR to keep him sharp until a seat opens up in the Cup Series.