24) Marcos Ambrose | No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota | JTG Daugherty Racing
Pros: The 2008 Australian Driver of the Year, Ambrose will take part in a full race schedule this year. He made 11 starts in the No. 47 car last year, managing one top-five finish. In addition to his Sprint Cup schedule last year, Ambrose made 35 starts on the Nationwide Series in each of the last two years. In those 70 races, Ambrose has one win, four top-fives and 12 top-10s. His best chance for wins should come at the road courses, where he won at Watkins Glen on the Nationwide Series and came third at the Centurion Boats at the Glen in the Sprint Cup. The merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing opened up a spot for Ambrose's team in the top 35, which should take some pressure off from having to qualify early in the season.
Cons: Ambrose's inexperience should work against him; he has raced only one season in the Sprint Cup and just 11 races at that. Over the last two years, Ambrose has 11 DNFs between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series. In addition to this, he doesn't have the backing of one of the stronger teams in NASCAR, which should make it tough to compete on a race-to-race basis.
Fantasy Tip: It should be tough running for one of the few independent teams. Ambrose should be viewed as a No. 3 driver, though some inconsistent performances might be expected from him given the team surrounding him and his lack of experience. He has upside but carries equal or greater risk. If anything, Ambrose may wind up being reserved for road courses this year for fantasy owners.
25) David Stremme | No. 12 Alltel Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Pros: Stremme is returning to the Sprint Cup after starting just one race in 2008. Not only is he returning, but he is returning with powerhouse Penske Racing. He picked up his three career top-10 finishes with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2007, and spent 2008 in the Nationwide Series where he finished 11th in points with five top-fives and 16 top-10s.
Cons: Stremme just didn't work out with Ganassi Racing in 2007. He had seven DNFs in 2007 and only three top-10s that contributed to his disappointing 24th-place finish in points. He might have run well in the Nationwide Series, but still has yet to translate that over to the Sprint Cup. In addition to this, he'll be running on a new Dodge engine that won't have the benefit of being tested on the NASCAR-sanctioned tracks.
Fantasy Tip: Obviously questions abound regarding Stremme for 2009. The fact remains, however, that he had a decent year in 2008 and is joining the team that won the Daytona 500 last season. He should be able to take advantage of those resources, but that still doesn't make him much more than a No. 3 driver with decent upside.
26) Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Wrigley's Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Pros: In his second full season in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, Montoya's best finish was second place at Talladega in the Aaron's 499. He posted two top-five finishes and three top-10s. The merger of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing means Montoya will be driving a car with a Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engine.
Cons: Montoya will be driving the No. 42 car, but it is sponsored for only 19 races. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing will need to find sponsorship for the remaining 17 races or switch Montoya to the No. 41 Target ride. Montoya has won a lone race in his two full years, which was on the road course at Infineon Raceway. His standing dropped five places from his 2007 season to his sophomore '08 campaign, finishing 25th this year. Montoya didn't finish nine races in 2008, seven of which were due to accidents. With a merged ownership, a car without full sponsorship and a lot of pressure to produce in his third full season, Montoya has a lot working against him this year.
Fantasy Tip: Montoya has talent, but he has yet to put it all together on the oval. He is probably a midrange No. 3 fantasy option, at best, but could produce in the neighborhood of a weak No. 2 if all goes his way. Nevertheless, it's tough to bank on an upswing in production since his average finish is no better than 23.0 in the last two years.
27) Elliott Sadler | No. 19 Best Buy/Stanley Tools Dodge | Richard Petty Motorsports
Pros: In an otherwise disappointing season Sadler took home two top-fives and eight top-10s in 2008. After a slow start, Sadler notched all but one of his top-10 finishes and even slid his two top-fives in there following the All-Star weekend.
Cons: Sadler was outpaced by substitute A.J. Allmendinger, who filled in for Patrick Carpentier for the final five races of the 2008 season. Allmendinger's average finish in that time was 16.4 versus Sadler's 31.8. This is important because Allmendinger almost replaced Sadler in the No. 19 except for a lawsuit threatened by Sadler to keep his ride. It would be tough to expect a lot from Sadler in 2009 given his struggles last year and all but losing his job in the offseason. After finishing sixth in the Daytona 500 to open the season, Sadler finished outside of the top 10 in 12 of his next 13 races. He also hasn't won a race since 2004.
Fantasy Tip: Sadler has now spent at least three seasons in disappointing circumstances. He was set to make 2008 a great year after a dismal 2007. Unfortunately, he didn't start or finish the season strongly. Sadler is only a midrange No. 3 driver, but you might have to watch his form more than some other choices, especially if he starts slowly.
28) Travis Kvapil | No. 28 Ford - no sponsor | Hall of Fame-Yates Racing
Pros: Kvapil won his first pole at the 2008 AMP Energy 500 and led for 10 laps. He finished with four top-10 finishes last year, with a seventh-place result coming in the year's final race in the Ford 400. Kvapil wrecked only twice all year, and he didn't suffer a DNF otherwise.
Cons: First and foremost, Kvapil needs a sponsor. There is no expected timetable as to when he will find sponsorship, either. In 106 career starts, he has yet to win a race and has placed in the top 10 just six times without a single appearance in the top five.
Fantasy Tip: Stay away from Kvapil even if Yates finds a sponsor for his ride. Assuming he finds a ride, he is no better than an average No. 3 driver, and that is a bit optimistic on our part. Kvapil is still young enough (32) and relatively inexperienced on an oval, so it's conceivable that he could improve if given the chance.
29) Paul Menard | No. 98 Menards Ford | Hall of Fame-Yates Racing
Pros: After finishing 34th in 2007 in the Cup standings, Menard improved his ranking to 26th place in 2008, his sophomore season. He earned his first top-five and top-10 finishes in '08, leading a career-best 28 laps on the season. Last year, at the Daytona 500, Menard captured his first pole. He wrecked once and did not finish due to an overheating engine last year, which is very solid in comparison to other more prominent drivers.
Cons: A transition period may occur as Menard moves from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Yates Racing. He'll have to adjust to racing in a Ford and coordinating with a new crew chief, Larry Carter, who is new to Yates Racing himself after spending 2008 with Roush Fenway Racing's Jamie McMurray. Menard has yet to win a race in 83 career starts, and only one top-10 finish in '08 is nothing short of alarming.
Fantasy Tip: Three of his last four seasons have been relatively average, which leads us to lean toward calling his 2006 outburst a fluke. He is a No. 3 driver for fantasy teams with marginal upside. Some racers have openly questioned Menard's talent, suggesting he is only in the Sprint Cup Series since his father has deep pockets, and we feel this campaign will be the true make-or-break year for him. Don't overvalue him, but be aware that he could take advantage of his new surroundings and out-produce expectations.
30) Scott Speed | No. 82 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Pros: Having raced five times in 2008, Speed isn't completely green coming into the 2009 Sprint Cup Series. Speed, a rookie to NASCAR in 2009, is the first driver since Michael Andretti in 1993 to participate in Formula One. A full-time driver for Red Bull Racing, Speed is known for his confidence and competitiveness. His best finish during his limited stint on the Sprint Cup last year came in his final race, a 16th-place finish at the Ford 400, which could be a sign he is acclimatizing to the Sprint circuit.
Cons: Speed has been known to let his temper get the best of him, having once given up the ARCA RE/MAX Series championship because he found it necessary to get even by wrecking second-place driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for putting him into the wall, costing Speed the points championship. He is brash, outspoken and is sure to ruffle some feathers of other NASCAR drivers given the opportunity. This could lead to several DNFs if other drivers feel the need to retaliate against Speed.
Fantasy Tip: Despite having the perfect last name for a racer, Speed shouldn't be relied on in fantasy leagues in 2009. Draft him as a late flier option if you're looking to take a gamble, but the smart money says to leave him for the free-agent pool.
31) Reed Sorenson | No. 43 Air Force Dodge | Richard Petty Motorsports
Pros: Sorenson is entering his fourth season as a full-time driver, suggesting improvement could be in store. He will be 23 years old Feb. 5, 2009, so he is still quite young and has room for vast improvement within his racing repertoire of tricks. 11 of his 13 career top-10s have come on intermediate tracks, including four top-five finishes, but that was a common occurrence for Chip Ganassi Racing teams.
Cons: Uncertainty as to who will be Sorenson's crew chief remains, but someone is expected to be named to the post soon. He moves from Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 41 Dodge to Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 car, which hasn't had any notable success since the legendary Richard Petty put the car on the map. Sorenson needs to adjust to a new team and a new car. Some feel that Sorenson simply isn't talented enough to compete at this level.
Fantasy Tip: Stay away from Sorenson in fantasy leagues until he shows something. He may eventually evolve into a quality driver, but he hasn't given us enough reasons to promote him at this point. If he gets on a hot streak during the season, feel free to look at him on your league's wire.
32) David Gilliland | No. 38 Ford - no sponsor | Hall of Fame-Yates Racing
Pros: In 2008 Gilliland picked up a very good second-place finish at Infineon Raceway, which was his best finish of the year. His only other top-10 for the season came at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Food City 500. His average finish in the 2008 season was 26.2. It was a difficult year for the driver, but 2009 may be better given the team's stability.
Cons: Gilliland is one of those drivers that seems like he may never make the breakthrough. His best 2008 finish was a fortuitous second at the road course of Infineon Raceway, yet he could only muster 40th at Watkins Glen International Raceway, so his top-five finish might be aberration. The consistency just isn't there from Gilliland, and without a sponsor this close to the season, his prospects don't look great.
Fantasy Tip: Given his inconsistency, Gilliland should be no more than a low-end No. 3 driver on your fantasy roster. He should pull down some top-20 finishes in 2009 to help boost your point totals, along with the occasional top-10 or even an unexpected top-five. However, consider taking him after he secures sponsorship for the upcoming season. Even if he does find a sponsor, the team has transferred the car owner points from the No. 38 car to the No. 96 car, which won't help Gilliland's fantasy cause.
33) David Reutimann | No. 00 Aaron's Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
Pros: Reutimann took home four top-10 finishes in 2008 and enjoyed some great qualifying performances, including the pole at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is apparent that the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's have speed as Reutimann qualified in the top 15 in seven of his final 14 races.
Cons: Reutimann suffered four DNFs in 2008. Since three of those failures were mechanical in nature, one can see the teething issues MWR experienced. The team does not have a sponsor for Reutimann for the entire 2009 season and that lack of funding won't help sort out the mechanical issues. Additionally, the lack of testing in 2009 may have a negative impact on this team being able to overcome such issues. A new crew chief, Rodney Childers, could put a damper on some of the momentum Reutimann had with Ryan Pemberton at the end of 2008.
Fantasy Tip: Reutimann can run strongly when the car is set up properly and there are no mechanical issues. By simply reducing mechanical issues, Reutimann should be able to improve his average finish in 2009. On the other side of the coin, the lack of testing may limit the strides the leading teams can make with their development and allow MWR and Reutimann to close to gap. However, without secured sponsorship and a shaky history, Reutimann is no better than a low-end No. 3 driver.
34) Robby Gordon | No. 7 Jim Beam Toyota | Robby Gordon Motorsports
Pros: Gordon is at his best on a road course, having run 21 times with two wins, nine top-fives and 10 top-10s. In his 10 races at Watkins Glen International, Gordon has a 10.6 average finish, one win, seven top-fives and a matching seven top-10s.
Cons: Without the money of a major racing team, like Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Fenway Racing, Gordon is held back to a degree. His sponsor, Jim Beam, is slated for only 13 races this year, but they will be an associate sponsor for the duration of the season. He hasn't won a race since 2003, and he has only three career checkered flags under his belt in the Sprint Cup Series. From 2004 to 2008, Gordon has tallied a mere 10 finishes inside the top 10.
Fantasy Tip: Gordon should go undrafted in fantasy leagues, but he's worth considering at Watkins Glen International and Infineon Raceway if you're desperate or looking to catch lightning in a bottle. He has been more consistent at The Glen, though. Given that his best career finish in the points standings was 16th place in 2003, Gordon should be avoided over the course of a season.
35) Michael Waltrip | No. 55 NAPA Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
Pros: Waltrip brings a wealth of experience on the Sprint circuit. His first race came in 1985, and he has run at least 28 races each year since. The veteran racer fell just short of making the Chase in 2002 and 2003, finishing 14th each season. He improved his Cup standings in 2008 to 29th, up from 45th the year before.
Cons: Amazingly enough, Waltrip has just four career wins, and the last time he took home the checkered flag was 2003. He has registered one measly top-five finish and only four top-10 showings in the past three seasons. Waltrip has shown to be no stranger to feuds on the track, which could lead to suspensions or point docking.
Fantasy Tip: Waltrip should be avoided on draft day, but you could consider using him for the Daytona 500. Three of his four career wins have come at Daytona International Speedway, and the other win came at Talladega Superspeedway. In other words, avoid him on short tracks, intermediates and road courses.
36) Sam Hornish Jr. | No. 77 Mobil 1/AAA Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Pros: Hornish has committed to the Sprint Cup for 2009 rather than returning to the Indy Racing League. He is entering his second full season on the oval, which should help him improve his standings and perhaps pick up his first top-five appearance or even a win.
Cons: Hornish's rookie season didn't go exactly as planned. He did not place in the top 10 in any of the 34 points races he participated in, and he led just two laps all year. The former open-wheeler drove his way to 35th place in the standings. His best finish was 13th place at the Coca-Cola 600 after starting 20th. Hornish finished the season with a pathetic three finishes better than 30th place in his final 11 races. He finished 31st at Infineon Raceway and 32nd at Watkins Glen International, two courses that should have been right up his alley.
Fantasy Tip: There is no conceivable reason for fantasy owners to draft Hornish. He is, at best, a weak fourth driver for your squad and should not be counted on in any circumstance. If he somehow manages to get on a hot streak he could be worth a look, though.
37) Max Papis | No. 13 GEICO Toyota | Germain Racing
Pros: Papis is an experienced driver, although not necessarily on NASCAR tracks. He has enjoyed some form of success at driving a multitude of different cars, so he has serviceable talent. Both of his starts last year came on the road courses, which would be considered his specialty, though he managed just 35th-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 - he was involved in an accident during his other race.
Cons: Papis is slated to drive at least 18 races this year, which already puts him behind the curve. He has no experience racing on the majority of the tracks with very limited time in both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series. In nine starts on both circuits, Papis has managed just one top-five finish while compiling three DNFs. In addition, the lack of testing at NASCAR-sanctioned courses will limit his chance at picking up some of that valuable experience on the oval circuits.
Fantasy Tip: Given all the uncertainty surrounding Papis and his inexperience in this type of racing, he should be viewed as nothing more than a No. 5 driver given his part-time sponsorship.
38) Bill Elliott | No. 21 Motorcraft Ford | Wood Brothers Racing
Pros: After over three decades in NASCAR, Elliott will be making his final go-round on the Sprint Cup this year. His schedule will be cut back to only 12 races, which should allow him to focus on the tracks his car runs best in, which are the 1.5-mile tracks. His final race of the season was also his best finish (12th) of the year, which could be a promising sign for 2009.
Cons: With only in 12 races on tap, Elliott won't be a weekly fantasy option. He has just a 22.6 average finish at intermediate tracks over the last five, which is where most of his races will be coming this year. He managed only four finishes in the top 20 last year, with half of his finishes ending up in the 30s. He also does not have the strong monetary backing of one of the powerhouse teams.
Fantasy Tip: With only a part-time schedule on the docket, Elliott is a No. 5 driver heading into this year.
39) Regan Smith | No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet | Furniture Row Racing
Pros: Smith finished at the top of the 2008 rookie class, winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award with a seven-point finish ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. Smith became the first driver to finish every start during his rookie season. One of the reasons for this: He was involved in only four accidents or spins during his 34 starts, which ranked third on the Sprint Cup. He also edged out Tony Stewart for what appeared to be the first win of his career at the AMP Energy 500, but he was bumped down to 18th place because he dipped below the yellow line on the final lap.
Cons: Smith has just 12 races planned in the No. 78 car this year, which hasn't finished better than 37th since Richard Petty won the championship in 1998. He has never finished in the top 10 on the Sprint circuit and has only six top-10s in 102 starts on the Nationwide Series.
Fantasy Tip: Despite his Rookie of the Year status, Smith was part of a disappointing overall class. None of the rookies managed even a top-five or top-10 finish last year. View Smith as a No. 5 driver.
40) Brad Keselowski | No. 25 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Pros: Possibly being groomed to replace Mark Martin in 2011 - Martin, 50, signed a two-year deal and will only take part in 26 races next year - Keselowski will compete in seven races this year in the No. 25. The 24-year-old driver showed some promise in both of his Sprint Cup starts last year, finishing 19th at the Dickies 500 and 23rd at the Ford 400. He improved for the third year on the Nationwide Series, finishing third with two wins, 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. The two drivers ahead of him: Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer.
Cons: His participation in only seven races will severely limit his contributions this year. He has had trouble with DNFs in his limited time on the Sprint and Nationwide circuits; he had two last year, nine in 2007 and three in 2006.
Fantasy Tip: With so little experience on the Sprint Cup and not much chance at picking up a lot more this year, Keselowski is not someone to draft as anything more than a No. 5 driver.
Editor's note: C.J. Radune, Bryce McRae and Cory J. Bonini contributed to this analysis.
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