In Fantasy Racing, it’s Jimmie Johnson…and everyone else. Photo Credit: Daniel E. Dobish
It’s February, and that means it’s time for a new NASCAR season to kick off. The season begins in earnest Feb. 13 with Budweiser Speedweeks, and that leads up to the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 1:00pm ET.
The top Fantasy option will not exactly be a surprise. However, behind six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, there were plenty of team changes during the offseason. That means there are a lot of risers and fallers in Fantasy Racing. Throw in the fact there are new rules for qualifying, and a change to the 10-race Chase format, and there is a lot to figure out.
After Daytona, the pole qualifying will consist of three rounds at all tracks of a mile and a quarter or longer, and two rounds at shorter tracks. The Chase will now include 16 drivers instead of 12, and then there will be three elimination-style rounds to trim the field by four teams. That will mean four drivers will battle for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday, Nov. 16.
1 Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports: Is this really any surprise? He was actually second in Driver Rating (110.3) in 2013 behind Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth, but the No. 48 is the true closer, and until another driver steps up and consistently challenges for a title, J.J. is the driver to beat.
2 Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing: Harvick moves to Stewart-Haas Racing, and he will challenge for a title with his new team. Harvick is consistent, showing well on superspeedways, but also doing very well on intermediates and road courses, as well. And should Harvick make it into the four-man battle for the title at Homestead, he has been tremendously consistent there since the 2008 season.
3 Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing: Love him or hate him, Busch has shown he is one of the most talented drivers on the circuit. He routinely makes saves to his car, or even truck, that simply defy logic. Most lesser drivers would be into the wall or in a tailspin. He knows how to win, especially on the short tracks. He is nearly automatic at Bristol, and a threat at Richmond each time, too. He has really made strides on road courses, especially Watkins Glen.
4 Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing: It was a lost season for Denny Hamlin in 2013, as a dust-up with Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway left Hamlin with an L1 compression fracture in his back. He is completely healthy heading into the season, and he is ready to make his way back up the standings and challenge for a title. He is a stud when it comes to the flat tracks of New Hampshire and Phoenix, and a near-lock at Darlington and Martinsville.
5 Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing: Kenseth led the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season with a 110.9 Driver Rating, but there is only one way he can go, and that’s down. He is on a great team, and that will keep him in the Top 5, but it is hard to see him duplicating his seven victories from a year ago.
6 Brad Keselowski, Team Penske: After winning the Sprint Cup Series title in 2012, Keselowski did not even qualify for the Chase last season. Some might argue it was a move from Dodge to Ford by Penske, but there were pit crew issues, too. The team has addressed pit crew issues, and Keselowski should make his way back up the standings.
7 Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing: Busch moves to Stewart-Haas Racing after two years in limbo with Phoenix Racing in 2012, and Furniture Row Racing in 2013. He showed well with inferior equipment, and now he’ll have access to engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports with SHR. Busch, who will be driving the No. 41 machine, will contend for a championship in his first season with his new super team.
8 Joey Logano, Team Penske: Logano certainly did not make many friends during the early part of the 2013 season. He had run-ins with Denny Hamlin, and drew the ire of Tony Stewart. And in the past, he has had problems with Kevin Harvick, too. However, a funny thing happened as the year went on. Logano seemed to mature, kept his nose clean and ran up top frequently. While he did not have any wins, he was able to secure 11 Top 5 finishes, and 19 finishes in the Top 10. Look for Logano to break through for checkers this season.
9 Carl Edwards, Roush-Fenway Racing: Edwards was a runner-up for the 2011 Sprint Cup Series championship, but he has had a pair of trying seasons since then. He won twice last season, and qualified for the Chase, but he managed a dismal 13th place finish after struggling down the stretch. He still has plenty of talent, and there is no reason to believe he can’t work his way into contention more frequently this season.
10 Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing: Bowyer managed to finish 10th or better in more than half of his races last season, and for the second straight year he posted 10 Top 5 finishes. He is particularly attractive for Fantasy owners on superspeedways, but has showed his chops on intermediates, road courses and especially flats.
11 Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing: Stewart suffered a broken lower right leg in a sprint car crash in August, forcing him out for the remainder of the season. He will be hungry to rise back to the top, and he has a stable of outstanding teammates to help.
12 Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports: Little E finished the season strong, and he had a career-high 22 Top 10 finishes in 2013. However, he failed to post a victory.
13 Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports: Gordon is consistent, and very rarely will he make mistakes. However, he had just eight Top 5 finishes, and 17 Top 10s, and made the Chase field by the skin of his teeth last season.
14 Greg Biffle, Roush-Fenway Racing: Biffle made the Chase last season, but he did so with a total of just four Top 5s, worst of any title contender. He is a so-so Fantasy talent, as he just doesn’t win consistently enough.
15 Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports: Kahne is a tremendous talent, managing two victories and 11 Top 5 finishes last season. He led 677 laps, his best total since 2006. However, he also had two DNFs, and was nearly a threat for the title despite qualifying for the Chase for the second straight season.
16 Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing: McMurray is often overlooked in Fantasy, but he is fairly consistent, and a must-have at the superspeedways.
17 Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing: Newman has moved on from Stewart-Haas Racing, but he shouldn’t miss a beat with his new team. He qualified for the Chase last season, and should threaten again in 2014.
18 Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing: Menard matched a career-high with nine Top 10 finishes for a second straight season. He is particularly attractive at the superspeedways and western intermediates.
19 Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing: Dillon is riding in the legendary No. 3 car. He will have a lot of pressure to perform, and he should respond.
20 Brian Vickers, Michael Waltrip Racing: Vickers is back with a full-time ride, and he should make his presence felt in the No. 55 machine.
21 Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing: Patrick showed her inexperience at times, and had just plain bad luck at others. She should continue to improve, and cracking the Top 20 in the standings is possible.
22 Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing: MTJ lost his sponsorship with Michael Waltrip Racing after the Richmond incident, when ex-teammate Clint Bowyer was charged with deliberately manipulating the finish to help Truex into the Chase. Now, he needs to work his way back to the top. It won’t be easy.
23 Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush-Fenway Racing: Stenhouse was the rookie of the year last season, and he steadily improved as the season went on. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him notch his first career Sprint Cup Series win in 2014.
24 Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing: Larson will be in his first full Sprint Cup Series season, and the talented youngster has the tools to challenge for a spot in the revamped Chase field of 16.
25 Justin Allgaier, Phoenix Racing: Allgaier is another talented youngster who will get his chance to show what he can do on the big stage. He has been a force in Nationwide, and double-digits in Top 10 finishes wouldn’t be a shock.
26 Marcos Ambrose, Richard Petty Motorsports
27 Aric Almirola, Richard Petty Motorsports
28 Parker Kligerman, Swan Racing
29 A.J. Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing
30 David Ragan, Front Row Motorsports
31 Timmy Hill, Fas Lane Racing
32 David Gilliland, Front Row Motorsports
33 Casey Mears, Germain Racing
34 Michael McDowell, Leavine Family Racing
35 Dave Blaney, Humphrey Smith Racing