With the awards banquet in the books and the Cup Series taking a few weeks off before preseason testing begins and talk of the Daytona 500 heats up, it is the hardest part of the year for diehard NASCAR fans. In order to help fill the void and bridge the gap, I thought it would be the perfect time to take a look back on the year that was. More specifically, it's time to hand out some fictional hardware to a few drivers for their impact on the fantasy NASCAR world in 2012. Without further ado, here are the lucky and not so lucky recipients.
Fantasy Driver of the Year: Jimmie Johnson
Brad Keselowski hoisted the Sprint Cup, but it was Johnson that did the most damage in fantasy leagues, especially in roto-style leagues. He led the Cup Series with 24 top-10s, and his 18 top-five finishes were four more than the next closest driver. Johnson also tied for the series lead with four poles and five wins in 2012. When you dive into the loop data categories, his dominance really becomes undeniable. Johnson led the series in driver rating, laps led, average running position, laps spent in the top 15 and number of fastest laps run. He basically led the series in every statistical category NASCAR uses to measure how a driver stacks up against the competition. Yes, Keselowski scored 18 more points than Johnson throughout the course of the year, but Johnson's huge edge in all the other categories that more and more leagues are incorporating into their scoring systems earns him Fantasy Driver of the Year honors for 2012.
Comeback Fantasy Driver of the Year: Greg Biffle
I won't disagree with anyone that wants to argue Denny Hamlin for this award, but I'm giving the nod to Biffle. For one, he jumped from 16th in points last year to fifth in 2012. He also finished the year with 12 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s after managing just three top-five finishes and 10 top-10s in 2011. More importantly, his 10.2 average finish was the second-best in the series, and Biffle scored the second-most points of any driver in the Cup Series in 2012. He basically followed the worst year of his career since his rookie season with arguably his best. He only won two races, but Biffle was a reliable, steady source of fantasy points all season.
Breakout Fantasy Driver of the Year: Brad Keselowski
He showed flashes of his upside in the 2011 Chase, but even the most optimistic of Keselowski fans probably didn't see a championship heading his way in 2012. Not only did Keselowski score more points than any other driver during the season, but he also tied for the series lead with five victories. His 10.1 average finish was also the best in the series. No, he didn't lead the most laps or dominate the loop data, but with his incredible consistency, Keselowski earned himself a spot among the elite fantasy drivers. Beginning with an 11th-place finish at Kansas in April, he went on to finish in the top 15 in 27 of the final 29 races. You can't ask for much more than that as a fantasy owner.
Surprise Fantasy Driver of the Year: Clint Bowyer
I'll include myself among the many people that questioned whether Bowyer could continue to be a reliable source of top-15 finishes when he decided to leave Richard Childress Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing. It turns out that his decision was the right one, as he went on to have what was by far the best season of his career. Bowyer finished second in the final standings, setting career highs with three wins, 10 top-five finishes, 23 top-10s and a 10.9 average finish. His 23 top-10s were also good enough for the second most in the series, and his 10.9 average finish was the third best. Fantasy owners had become used to Bowyer being that solid but unspectacular driver that bolstered a roster but couldn't carry it. In 2012, he emerged as the type of driver that can carry a fantasy team for weeks at a time. Not too bad for his first year with a new team.
Unsung Fantasy Hero: Kyle Busch
Although he missed the Chase and won just a single race, Busch was anything but useless for fantasy owners in 2012. He actually finished third in the series with 13 top-five finishes and fifth with 21 top-10s. Not to mention the fact that he posted the second-best driver rating in the series and led the second-most laps. Heck, he even delivered a monster performance in the Chase. Only Brad Keselowski scored more points in the final 10 races, and Busch actually led all drivers with eight top-five finishes in the playoffs. In the end, a ton of mechanical issues and some mistakes on his own part kept his real-life season from being something special, but he was still an underrated fantasy commodity that came through down the stretch in a big way.
Fantasy Newcomer of the Year: Paul Menard
Since rookies Stephen Leicht and Josh Wise combined for 39 DNFs in 45 starts in 2012, handing out a Fantasy Rookie of the Year Award just seemed wrong. Instead, I decided to recognize the driver that made the leap from fantasy afterthought to useful option this past season. Thanks to a career-high nine top-10 finishes and a career-best 15.5 average finish, Menard earns the honor. No, he didn't win a race like he did in 2011, but with just a single DNF to his name, Menard finally showed the consistency that had been missing throughout his Cup Series career. He wasn't a driver that carried fantasy teams, but he emerged as a driver that could round out a roster and be trusted almost every week to deliver a top-20 finish.
Fantasy Bust of the Year: Carl Edwards
One year after taking home my Fantasy Driver of the Year honors, Edwards earns a much more dubious award. He became the latest in a long line of drivers to totally bomb in the year following a runner-up showing in the Chase. In fact, this is the second time he has followed up a runner-up season with a lackluster campaign. The decline was staggering, as Edwards went from a 9.3 average finish, 19 top-five finishes and 26 top-10s in 2011 to a 15.6 average finish, three top-five finishes and 13 top-10s in 2012. To top it off, he went winless and fell from second to 15th in the final standings. Edwards was the most reliable driver in the series in 2011. This past season, he wasn't even a top-10 option. He no doubt earned the ire of many fantasy owners and cost a lot of people league titles.