Fantasy NASCAR: Sleepers and Breakthrough Drivers
The Daytona 500 kicks off the Sprint Cup Series Fantasy season Sunday, Feb. 21. While it is expected that 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, 2014 champ Kevin Harvick and many of the other big-name drivers will do well, who are the sleepers and breakthrough drivers to look for in the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season?
The top stock car series has had an influx of tremendous young talent in recent years, and many are ready to take that next step. There are also a few wily veterans who have had down times in recent years, but still have plenty left to offer Fantasy owners in 2016.
Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon has yet to break through for his first Sprint Cup Series checkered flag, but you can expect that to change in 2016. He started out in a bit of a hole last season with a 30th place showing at the Daytona 500, and he was 21st or worse in four of his first six races. He put it together by Memorial Day, showing well at Charlotte with an 11th-place finish, and he was a runner-up at the July 4 Daytona race. He was also dominant at Pocono last season with a sixth-place finish in the first race, and a fourth-place finish in the second stop at Long Pond.
Fantasy NASCAR owners in Yahoo leagues with a limited amount of starts will want to remember Dillon at Charlotte, Daytona and New Hampshire, his three best tracks. He has also done very well on the short track at Bristol, and the flat run at Pocono. In four career races at Charlotte he has finished 16th or higher every time, posting a 13.0 Average Finish Position (AFP). He has also run well on the restrictor-plate runs, especially Daytona, where he has three career Top 10 finishes in five starts. Look for Dillon to claim a victory at either Charlotte or Daytona in the four races at those tracks this season.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson fired out of the chute last season, and he finished up strong. It was the in-between that wasn't so good. In his second full season on the circuit you can expect Larson to not only challenge for a berth in the Chase, but also for his first career win with the big boys.
His 2015 season was off to such a promising start with a sixth place at Atlanta, and a fifth place in Las Vegas. A 12th in Phoenix, a fifth at Auto Club and a ninth at Texas had him thinking Chase early on. In fact, after 29th-place showing at Daytona, he didn't finish lower than 18th in any race until Aug. 2 at Pocono. That's when he hit the wall, struggling at Michigan, Charlotte and the superspeedway at Talladega to fall out of contention for the Chase. By the time he righted the ship at Martinsville in early November with a ninth-place finish, he was well off target, but his three straight Top 10 finishes from Nov. 1-15 showed he was still racing hard despite his championship aspirations being long since dashed.
Larson is not quite as dominant as the No. 48 machine at Dover, but Fantasy Live, Yahoo and DFS players will want to remember the No. 42 at Dover. In four career runs at the Monster Mile he has never finished lower than 11th, while turning in three Top 10s with an AFP of 7.25. Chicago, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen are among his best tracks early in his career, showing his talent at a multitude of different track types. In fact, the only places he hasn't run particularly well are the restrictor-plate stops at Daytona and Talladega. So don't panic in mid-February is he starts slow at the Daytona 500. He'll bounce back nicely sooner rather than later. Larson has also been strong at Darlington and Richmond in his career, two tracks which normally eat up young drivers. He has matured at a rapid pace, and while many might not be predicting it for him, Larson has the chance to finish in the Top 10 and go deep into the Chase this season.
Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola has shown improvement over the past couple of seasons, and he has really taken a big step forward with RPM's improvement in their short track program. He had an eighth-place run at Martinsville last fall, and that was a season high. He has practiced and qualified well at Bristol over the past couple of seasons, and the same holds true at Richmond. If you're looking for a Fantasy sleeper at either of the three short tracks, you'll want to remember the No. 43. In fact, he has a 16.4 AFP in eight career starts at Richmond, posting six Top 20s and never finishing lower than 26th. And Yahoo owners with limited amounts of starts will want to remember Almirola in Kansas, where he has three Top 10s in eight career starts while leading 69 laps, his most at any track.
The No. 14 car will have a replacement driver in the early portion of the season, as Stewart-Haas Racing's Tony Stewart (back) is out indefinitely after an all-terrain vehicle accident in early February led to fractured vertebrae. Enter Brian Vickers, who gets a chance behind the wheel of the 14. Fantasy owners in Yahoo, and those in DFS, will find him to be a particularly nice value as Smoke's replacement. He has a respectable 19.4 AFP in 16 career starts at Daytona, so he is a nice sleeper for NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl. The Sprint Cup Series then has stops at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and California, with Atlanta and California being a couple of Vickers' best tracks. In fact, Fantasy owners will definitely want to key on Vickers at Auto Club where he has a 15.5 AFP in 15 career starts with six Top 10s and 11 finishes inside the Top 20. He has also managed 12 Top 20 finishes in 17 career starts in Atlanta, so Vickers should get off to a hot start with a low DFS salary.
RCR's Paul Menard has struggled on the flat track stops at New Hampshire, Phoenix and Pocono, so avoid him in Yahoo Fantasy leagues at those stops. However, there is something about Bristol, Kansas, Las Vegas and Michigan which has really agreed with him over the years. Bristol is an early season stop, and he has led a career-best 100 laps at the big blender while posting six Top 10s. He isn't anything special at the other short tracks, but for some reason he fares well at Thunder Valley. If the price is right, he can be a difference maker for Fantasy owners there. He has run very well at Michigan, too, rolling up four Top 5s and just four runs outside of the Top 20 in 19 career starts, while Kansas is his best track with a 16.0 AFP in 14 career starts, with just three outside the Top 20.
Menard's results on road courses have been mixed, too. For whatever reason he shines at Sonoma, and has been terrible at Watkins Glen. It might be best to avoid him completely at those challenging road courses, too, while rolling the dice on him at restrictor-plate tracks. He has run well enough at Daytona and Talladega to warrant a mid-tier salary in GPPs and cash games in DFS.
Lastly, Chase Elliott takes the keys (OK, it's a switch) to the No. 24 Chevrolet in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, taking over for the retired Jeff Gordon. It's a great gig for the son of Bill Elliott, who will run his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series. His results were rather marginal last season, although he did excite with an 11th place at the Sprint Showdown in mid-May. He'll have one of the best cars on the circuit, a great owner and tremendous teammates in Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. While there will be growing pains, he will put up some big results for a youngster. He showed great poise in the Xfinity Series, and was impressive on intermediate tracks, flat tracks and short tracks. Expect the success to spill over to Sprint Cup in 2016.
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