Fantasy NASCAR: 2012 sleeper drivers

by Brian Polking on February 14, 2012 @ 13:26:32 PDT

 


Every year, there is at least one driver that seems to come out of nowhere to deliver big numbers and help fantasy owners. Last season, it was Brad Keselowski emerging from obscurity to become a top-10 driver in the second half, winning three races and making the Chase. While Keselowski's dramatic rise may be tough for someone to top in 2012, that doesn't mean there won't be a few pleasant surprises for fantasy owners. Before owners sit down for a draft, here are a few names to keep in mind.

Aric Almirola | Richard Petty Motorsports

He has spent much of his career racing in the Nationwide Series while making spot starts for various Cup teams. That will all change this season when Almirola jumps behind the wheel of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 machine and begins his first season as a full-time Cup driver. He is an unknown in fantasy circles, and having never run more than 12 races in a year at the Cup level, there are certainly no guarantees that he will provide useful results. That being said, there are enough reasons for owners to be optimistic about Almirola's chances this season.

For starters, he has always shown enough potential to land Nationwide rides with several high-profile organizations. He was the future at Joe Gibbs Racing before Joey Logano came along, and Kyle Busch started double dipping in the series on a regular basis. He eventually replaced Brad Keselowski in the JR Motorsports No. 88 ... not to mention the fact that he finished second in the Truck Series standings in 2010. Circumstances have always seemed to go against him, but this year, they appear to be working in his favor.

Almirola does have some experience with RPM. He briefly took over the No. 9 machine when Kasey Kahne left for Red Bull Racing at the end of the 2010 season, and Almirola finished 21st or better in four of his five starts, including a career-best fourth in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That's not to say he will be a consistent top-five driver by any means, but it does suggest that he has some serious talent if given some decent equipment to work with.

There will likely be some ups and downs for Almirola this season, but RPM seems committed to giving him a legitimate chance to succeed. He has never had that opportunity at the Cup level, and the added confidence should only help his chances of delivering decent results. Don't be surprised if he ends up finishing consistently in the top 20 and getting stronger as the year goes on.

Mark Martin | Michael Waltrip Racing

Mark Martin didn't retire after the 2011 season, but he did leave Hendrick Motorsports and join Michael Waltrip Racing to drive the No. 00 on part-time basis. While not running in every event does somewhat limit Martin's fantasy value, it doesn't make him a bad pick by any means. After the top 20 or so drivers are off the board, a half season of Martin doesn't seem like a bad option compared to some of the alternatives.

Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip Racing

Forget about the naysayers that point out that the ageless wonder underperformed in his final two seasons at HMS after nearly winning the title in 2009. Martin was treated like the obvious fourth wheel at the organization following his five-win season in '09, and his team personnel was stolen away in an attempt to help the sputtering Dale Earnhardt Jr. In a stable that includes Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Junior, even a driver as accomplished as Martin can be neglected.

He isn't going to be the odd man out at MWR. The expanding three-car operation will also includes Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, and Martin may actually give the organization's its best chance at winning some races this season. More importantly, Martin has thrived in a part-time role in the past, posting 11 top-10 finishes in 24 starts in both 2007 and 2008. In both seasons, Martin averaged better than a top-15 finish.

Forgetting about Martin just because his days as a full-time Cup driver have likely come to an end is a huge mistake. The guy can still get it done behind the wheel, and even in limited action, he can make an impact on a fantasy team. He will require a little more week-to-week lineup maintenance than a full-time driver, but the results should outweigh the extra leg work on the part of fantasy owners.

Marcos Ambrose | Richard Petty Motorsports

After coming close to winning at the Cup level on several occasions, Ambrose finally broke through in 2011 and sealed the deal at Watkins Glen. The victory validated his status as the top road course driver in the Cup Series, but it was Ambrose's performance at the oval tracks that should have fantasy owners' attention heading into 2012. He made major strides at the intermediate ovals, transforming him from a spot spotter in fantasy leagues into a potential every week option. If the trend continues, this year could be his breakout campaign.

Last year was his first with Richard Petty Motorsports, and he didn't disappoint. In addition to winning a race, Ambrose set a career-high with five top-five finishes and 12 top-10s. He also had a career-best average finish of 18.3, and his one DNF was the fewest of his career. After the departure of A.J. Allmendinger in the offseason, he will be RPM's top option this season. That fact alone should bolster his numbers a bit, and another year of experience should help the cause as well.

It's not like Ambrose hasn't shown his all-around talent in the past. He has finished in the top five at a variety of tracks, including Bristol, Richmond and Dover. The move to RPM only expanded his strengths last year, as the 1.5-mile tracks became the site of some of his better performances. Ambrose finished sixth or better at Las Vegas, Texas, Kansas and Charlotte in 2011.

Coming off the best year of his career and preparing to begin life as RPM's top gun, it's easy to see the potential surrounding Ambrose. It is a real possibility that he could sweep both road course events and grab about 15 top-10 finishes when all is said and done. A lot of people still see him as only a road course ringer, but savvy owners should know better and take full advantage of his improving all-around skill.

A.J. Allmendinger | Penske Championship Racing

A.J. Allmendinger, Penske Championship Racing

There is little doubt that the biggest loser of the offseason was Kurt Busch. The 2004 champ cost himself a ride with Penske Championship Racing thanks to his obnoxious behavior and short temper. Busch's loss turned out to be a huge gain for Allmendinger, who will jump behind the wheel of the No. 22 this season. The move instantly gives Allmendinger the best equipment he has ever worked with at the Cup level, and for a driver that has been steadily improving the last few years, a big season could be on tap.

Last season was Allmendinger's third as a full-time driver. During that span, his number of top-10s, his average finish and his average starting position has improved every year. In 2011, he finished with a career-high 10 top-10s and a career-best 16.1 average finish. The argument could have easily been made that Allmendinger was going to be a top-15 driver just by staying put at Richard Petty Motorsports. By signing with Penske, he should shatter his previous career highs in most major categories.

Of course, a move to a powerhouse organization comes with added expectations and increased pressure. However, history indicates that Allmendinger knows how to handle himself under pressure. After all, he was essentially fighting for his job at the start of the 2009 season, and he responded by racing his way into the Daytona 500 and then finishing third. That performance earned him a partial contract, and his continued results landed his team more sponsorship and himself a multi-year deal. That is about as clutch as a driver can get.

The pieces have appeared to have all fallen in place for Allmendinger. He gets the resources and equipment of an excellent organization and gets to team with a budding superstar in Brad Keselowski. The situation has Allmendinger primed for long-term success, and fantasy owners should jump on the bandwagon and reap the rewards while he is still flying under the radar.

Greg Biffle | Roush Fenway Racing

Believe it or not, Biffle did actually race in the Cup Series in 2011. His complete lack of production may have confused some fantasy owners into thinking otherwise, but Biffle had plenty of help putting up his terrible totals. If there was a multi-car wreck, he was inevitably involved. If two tires turned out to be the proper strategy, Biffle undoubtedly had grabbed four. In other words, his luck awful, and anything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Last season, Biffle posted his fewest top-five finishes (three) since 2003 and his fewest top-10s (10) since 2004. In addition, his 16th-place finish in the standings snapped a streak of three straight years finishing seventh or better. This is the same driver that averaged 10.3 top-five finishes and 17.3 top-10s from 2008 to 2010. Writing Biffle off after one down year is a decision fantasy owners could end up regretting.

In addition to his proven production, Biffle's situation is actually better in 2012 than it was last season. Roush Fenway Racing reasserted itself as one of the top organizations with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth contending for the title. RFR is likely downsizing to just three cars this year, meaning resources won't be stretched as thin. Biffle should be a definite beneficiary, helping erase any doubts as to whether or not he can bounce back.

Plain and simple, Biffle is a better driver and has a better team behind him than his 2011 numbers suggest. More importantly, the chances of his luck being as bad as it was last season are next to impossible. There is no reason he should win multiple races in 2012 and contend for a spot in the Chase. Biffle's days as a strong fantasy performer are far from over.

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About Brian Polking

Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.

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