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NASCAR Draft Kit: 2017 Sleepers & Busts

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A five-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year each of the last two years. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This is probably the most important article in the NASCAR Draft Kit. Surprise drivers in both the positive and negative sense can make or break fantasy racing seasons. We all know what Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski can do, so there's little risk associated with those drivers, but it the drivers who come out of nowhere to have huge seasons can take you to fantasy racing glory. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott likely helped many win their leagues last season, while drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle most likely ended your fantasy racing championship hopes by midseason. Identifying 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 2017 who you should make every effort to get, and those you should avoid at all costs.


Clint Bowyer

Car: 14
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

2014 Monster Energy Cup360051519th
2015 Monster Energy Cup360021216th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36000327th

With the closure of Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of 2015, Bowyer found himself in the wilderness for the most part last season. He raced with small race team HScott Motorsports and struggled all throughout the 2016 season. Bowyer only managed three Top-10 finishes, a career low, for the entire season. The veteran driver is just four seasons removed from a three-win campaign that saw him finish runner-up in the final driver standings of 2012. Bowyer has the skill and the talent to be elite, and he'll get the opportunity to achieve that once again. He takes over the No. 14 Ford of the just-retired Tony Stewart. Bowyer will be paired with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz and the two will look to develop chemistry very early in the upcoming season. This driver and team have the equipment, knowledge and skill to achieve great things in 2017, and that easily makes Bowyer our top candidate for rebound driver of the year in the coming season.

Martin Truex Jr.

Car: 78
Owner: Furniture Row Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

2014 Monster Energy Cup36001524th
2015 Monster Energy Cup36108224th
2016 Monster Energy Cup364581711th

Truex has taken a quantum leap in terms of performance over the last three seasons since joining Furniture Row Racing. He's been fortunate to be paired with one of the more brilliant minds in the NASCAR garage in Cole Pearn. The scary thing for the competition is that Truex may have not peaked yet. The shift to Toyota and alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has taken this team to the next level. All parts of the team return intact for another run at the championship in 2017. We expect to see about the same number of wins and pole positions in the upcoming season, but we expect the consistency from week-to-week to improve even more. Those 17 Top-10 finishes last season should be viewed as the floor for the No. 78 team. Truex should more likely post more in the 20-22 Top-10 finish range. The veteran driver is no longer the best kept secret on fantasy draft day, but he still has some room to grow in the upcoming season.

Kyle Larson

Car: 42
Owner: Chip Ganassi Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

2014 Monster Energy Cup360181717th
2015 Monster Energy Cup350021019th
2016 Monster Energy Cup361010159th

If you thought 2016 was a breakout season for Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing team, you haven't seen anything yet. This young driver is poised to explode in 2017. Larson claimed his first victory last season (Michigan) and flirted a handful of times with some others (Dover, Richmond & Homestead). He posted career highs in Top 5s and made his first Chase for the Cup field en route to a strong ninth-place finish in the final driver standings. The line separating this team from the elite level is growing thinner every season. The potential exists here for Larson to ascend to the level of drivers like Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. While he could easily post carbon copy numbers to last season during 2017, the potential is there to take another big leap forward. That is something to remember on fantasy draft day.

Daniel Suarez

Car: 19
Owner: Joe Gibbs Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

2016 Monster Energy Cup00000N/A

Carl Edwards' unexpected retirement in mid-January thrust Suarez from obscurity into sudden relevance in NASCAR's top division. The young driver will take over one of the premiere rides in the Cup Series and be teamed with a championship caliber team and crew chief. The 25-year-old Mexican-born driver is fresh off a major accomplishment, which was becoming the first foreign-born driver to win a NACAR touring series championship. His 2016 Xfinity Series trophy hasn't been on the shelf scarcely two months and now Suarez is setting his sights on more hardware for the trophy case. He'll be the top contender to win the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series and he'll be contender to make the Chase for the Cup field in his first full-season of racing. Suarez lack of experience in Cup cars is really the only concern, but he should prove to be a quick and talented study in this seasoned race team.

Erik Jones

Car: 77
Owner: Furniture Row Racing
Manufacturer: Toyota

2015 Monster Energy Cup30000N/A

It can be a bit dicey putting too high expectations on a rookie driver, but as we saw with Chase Elliott last season, big things are still possible. We're not saying that Jones will reach Elliott-like numbers in 2017, but he certainly races for a stable (Furniture Row Racing) that could propel the young driver to big things, including the Rookie of the Year in 2017. Jones didn't make any starts at NASCAR's top level last season as he focused entirely on competing for the Xfinity Series championship. However, the talented youngster did get a brief introduction to Cup cars in 2015. Those three starts were just a sample of what to expect in the coming weeks and months. The very good news is that this second start-up team for Furniture Row has all the technical backing and expertise of Joe Gibbs Racing behind it. That alone is a setup for success. Jones is wildly talented, so we expect him to battle strongly with Daniel Suarez for the ROTY, most likely make the Chase field, and register double digit Top 10s in season number one.

Ryan Blaney

Car: 21
Owner: Wood Brothers Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

2014 Monster Energy Cup20000N/A
2015 Monster Energy Cup160012N/A
2016 Monster Energy Cup36003920th

At times last season Blaney raced with the best in the series. While he didn't lead many laps, there were several instances of the Wood Brothers Racing driver competing in the Top 10 and rubbing fenders with the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. No, this No. 21 team isn't just another team in the field filling out the starting grid. Blaney races competitively and races hard every week and it shows in the results. 2016 was the first full-time schedule this team has raced in many years, so it was uncharted waters of sorts. There were many ovals that Blaney and Wood Brothers had never raced on together. That all changes this season. They have great data and they learned a lot from their full 2016 schedule. We now expect to see these lessons employed on the track and we expect to see those Top 5 and Top 10 totals grow. Blaney wound up 20th in the final driver standings last year, but he'll challenge to make his first Chase field in the upcoming season.


Kasey Kahne

Car: 5
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

2014 Monster Energy Cup361031115th
2015 Monster Energy Cup360131018th
2016 Monster Energy Cup360031317th

Kahne has really fallen into a rut over the past three seasons. He's been slow to start each campaign, but then somewhere finds his stride late in the season. This typical level of performance has led to the veteran driver missing the Chase for the Cup field the last couple years. Also the No. 5 Chevrolet team hasn't had even a sniff of victory lane over the last two plus years. It is a disconcerting level of performance for a driver in such a major team. Hendrick will keep Kahne paired with crew chief Keith Rodden to see if they can figure things out and hit the ground running in 2017. Given the trend line of this driver and team, a rebound would be far more surprising than the status quo continuing. We're willing to place our bets on the latter. Don't be the fantasy racing player that is duped into thinking a breakout or major rebound is in store for Kahne this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Car: 88
Owner: Hendrick Motorsports
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

2014 Monster Energy Cup364012208th
2015 Monster Energy Cup3630162212th
2016 Monster Energy Cup18005632nd

A concussion and its side effects put Earnhardt on the sidelines for the second half of 2016. A combination of crashes across a few events in the early summer led to Earnhardt experiencing balance issues and blurred vision. The doctors pulled the plug on his racing activities and began to treat his post-concussion symptoms. It's not the first time in Earnhardt's career that he's dealt with a concussion. Now the concern going forward is how will he race after such a long layoff at the end of last season. We don't expect Earnhardt to be razor sharp in the early going of 2017, and to be completely honest we're not even sure that the 41-year-old will get back to the levels of performance we saw from him in 2014 and 2015. As with most athletes who suffer multiple concussions over their career, they're just one tough hit away from having another concussion. The prospect of that will hang like a cloud over Earnhardt and his fantasy racing value in the coming season.

Greg Biffle

Car: TBD
Owner: Free Agent
Manufacturer: TBD

2014 Monster Energy Cup360031114th
2015 Monster Energy Cup36003420th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36011323rd

The trend line for this driver and his former team was on such a downward spiral that things finally came to an end for Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing at the end of last season. The veteran driver has moved on and is searching for opportunities to sign with another team for the 2017 season. Roush folded his old No. 16 team, so that stable won't even be in the market for a replacement driver. Whether Biffle's skills had eroded or whether it was the team's fault really isn't at issue here. The fact of the matter is that this 46-year-old driver may still have plenty of good racing left in him, but the opportunities to race competitively are very slim. Of the teams that are likely to sign Biffle, none could put him in a car where he could likely perform any better than the numbers he was posting the last two seasons at Roush Fenway Racing. Biffle is a driver to avoid this season in almost all fantasy racing formats.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Car: 17
Owner: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

2014 Monster Energy Cup35001527th
2015 Monster Energy Cup36001325th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36004621st

While we did see an uptick in performance last season, we have to put things in their proper perspective for Stenhouse and his Roush Fenway Racing team. 2016 was a difficult season for this three-team stable. Greg Biffle had his worst season on record and left the team at the end of the year. Roush contracts to just two race teams in 2017, and now Stenhouse becomes the veteran and leader of the organization. This is an embattled team struggling survive in the new NASCAR economy. Stenhouse will have limited resources and limited opportunities to push the bar higher in the Monster Energy Cup Series. As difficult as it is to imagine, Stenhouse's numbers from last season may be the ceiling for this team and there's nowhere to go but down from here.

Casey Mears

Car: TBD
Owner: Free Agent
Manufacturer: TBD

2014 Monster Energy Cup36001326th
2015 Monster Energy Cup36000123rd
2016 Monster Energy Cup36000028th

Mears is in much the same position as Greg Biffle. He was released by Germain Racing at the end of the 2016 season. The veteran driver had worked hard to build that single-car team up from its inception in 2009-10 to the present day. After 227 starts, Mears and the team parted ways. Now the 14-season veteran will try to land another racing gig at NASCAR's top level. Open seats are few, and quality among those rides is even fewer. The chances of Mears landing a competitive ride and turning his career around at this point would seem slim. If he does end up somewhere in the Monster Energy Cup Series, he would likely be making non-competitive laps at the back of the pack and being irrelevant from a fantasy racing standpoint each week.

Danica Patrick

Car: 10
Owner: Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer: Ford

2014 Monster Energy Cup36000328th
2015 Monster Energy Cup36000224th
2016 Monster Energy Cup36000024th

Patrick has become about the most predictable driver in the Monster Energy Cup Series, however, it's not in a good way. The Stewart Haas Racing driver is entering her fifth full season of competition and to this point the Top-10 finishes have been few and far between. In fact, last season she failed to register a single Top 10 for the first time in her full-time Monster Energy Cup Series career. Although, Patrick did improve her average finish to a career-best 22.0 over the season. That is more of an indicator of Top-20 finishes and less finishes outside the Top 30. While that is a sign of improvement, there are no indications here that a breakout or huge leap in performance is in the offing. Patrick has changed crew chiefs almost every season, so this is a situation that is not going to change due to some team shakeup. If anything, the level of performance is well registered so you know what to expect in the coming season.
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