Fantasy NASCAR: 2012 rookie drivers to watch
Winning the Rookie of the Year Award in the Cup Series is as much about timing as it is talent. Andy Lally took home ROTY honors last season and did so with a 30.8 average finish and not a single top-10. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson had three wins and 21 top-10s in 2002, only watch Ryan Newman to take home the award thanks to 14 top-five finishes and 22 top-10s. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, recent years have yielded more rookies that fall closer to Lally than to Johnson and Newman, and the 2012 rookie class isn't overly promising.
The two leading candidates for the award appear to be Josh Wise and Robert Richardson Jr. They are currently the only two drivers eligible for ROTY honors that have plans to run the entire season. By default, one of the two has to win. However, that doesn't mean either driver is going to be a valuable fantasy commodity. Wise is driving for Larry Gunselman's Max Q Motorsports, and Richardson is driving for R3 Motorsports. Both organizations are single-car operations that are actively searching for sponsorship. Limited funds mean limited resources, which is going to put a low ceiling on the results either driver can produce. There simply isn't a lot of fantasy value either driver has to offer.
While Wise and Richardson are likely going to be dead weight on rosters, there are a couple of rookie drivers running limited schedules that could make an impact. Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are both set to make some starts this season, but unlike Wise and Richardson, they are in a situation to succeed immediately. In leagues that limit the number of times a driver can be used, taking advantage of spot starts from Patrick and Stenhouse could end up being a sneaky way to save a start or two from a marquee option while maintaining decent results. A closer look at the two drivers reveals why fantasy owners need to keep both names in the back of their minds once the 2012 season goes green.
Believe it or not, Stenhouse was benched by Jack Roush and nearly fired from his Nationwide Series ride in 2010 because of his bad habit of tearing up racecars. One year later, he won the series title. Stenhouse finished the 2011 Nationwide season with 16 top-five finishes, 26 top-10s and an 8.8 average finish. Yes, he took advantage of the new rule that prevented drivers like Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski from competing for the championship, but his numbers were impressive nonetheless.
While his Nationwide stats point to a driver with plenty of potential, it is his lone Cup Series start that should have fantasy owners drooling. He was forced to make an unexpected Cup Series debut when he subbed for a sick Trevor Bayne in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Stenhouse responded by qualifying ninth and finishing 11th. The debut would have been impressive in any race, but considering it came in the longest and most grueling race of the season, his performance was something special.
When Stenhouse runs in the Cup Series this season, he will do so behind the wheel of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. The organization is one of the best in NASCAR, and it put a pair of drivers in the thick of the title fight last season. In terms of equipment, resources and teammates, Stenhouse couldn't ask for a better situation. There is really no reason he can't continue to finish in and around the top 15, especially at the intermediate ovals.
The only downside with Stenhouse is that he is currently slated to run only the Daytona 500. After that, additional races are dependent on whether or not his team lands sponsorship. Given his status as the defending Nationwide Series champ and a major part of Roush Fenway Racing's future, there is a very good chance he will be behind the wheel for at least a handful of other Cup events. Owners will have to pay close attention to the entry list each weekend, but if Stenhouse's name is on it, he should be considered a legitimate sleeper option.
Patrick has been somewhat of a polarizing figure since venturing into the world of NASCAR. There are plenty of fans pulling for her to succeed, but there are also plenty of fans that feel she hasn't earned her way into the sport and are hoping she fails. Love her or hate her, it's tough to argue her marketability. She attracts sponsorship and a new demographic; both are good for NASCAR as a whole. She has also been improving and has a part-time ride with an excellent race team in 2012, which is good news for fantasy owners.
After a seemingly endless amount of speculation about her future, Patrick committed to a full-time ride with JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series for the upcoming season and a part-time ride with Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series. She is currently scheduled to run 10 Cup races for SHR in 2012, and the quality of her equipment alone should put her one step ahead of several more experienced options that are driving for underfunded teams. Patrick will also have championship-winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli on top of her pit box, which should help her handle the tough transition she is going to face.
On the track, Patrick made some legitimate strides last season. She posted a 28.0 average finish in 2010, but that mark improved to 17.4 last year. Yes, she still has plenty of room to go, but she is definitely trending in the right direction. She is also committing fully to NASCAR for the first time in 2012, which could speed up the learning process.
Patrick probably isn't going to be piling up top-10 finishes right out of the gate, but she should be a top-25 driver immediately and improve as the year goes on. In some of her later starts, top-20 finishes aren't out of the questions. With fewer and fewer drivers landing with the powerhouse teams in NASCAR, Patrick's situation alone makes her an intriguing sleeper pick for fantasy owners this season. Given the choice between David Reutimann driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing, David Ragan driving for Front Row Motorsports, and Patrick driving for an SHR team that just put two cars in the Chase and helped Tony Stewart win a championship, a strong argument can be made for the rookie.
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.Follow @kffl_racing
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