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Fantasy NASCAR: Top comeback drivers for the 2014 season

By Brian Polking

One of the toughest things to do in NASCAR is to sustain success. Whether it is from race to race or season to season, there just aren't many drivers and teams that can perform at a high level on a consistent basis. Of course for fantasy purposes, this means that it is all but inevitable at least one driver you are counting on will let you down.

On the flip side, it also means a driver who let you down one year will end up saving your season the next. Take the Busch brothers for example. Both missed the Chase in 2012, while combining for 14 top-5s. Last year, both drivers made the Chase, while accounting for 27 top-5s. A lot can change from one year to the next, and knowing which drivers are primed to turn things around is one of the best ways to get a leg up on the competition. With that in mind, here is a closer look at a few drivers who underperformed in 2013 and are set to make amends in 2014.

A.J. Allmendinger

After a failed drug test in 2012 put his Cup career in jeopardy, Allmendinger made the most of his second chance last year, winning both his Nationwide starts and finishing in the top 20 in half of his 18 Cup starts. While his Cup numbers weren't outstanding, they were solid enough to land him a full-time ride in the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 in 2014. Now, Allmendinger will try to resume a career that was heading in the right direction until his positive drug test.

From 2009 to 2011, Allmendinger improved his average finish and total number of top-10s in each of the three seasons. The upward trend landed him a ride with Team Penske, and while JTG Daugherty isn't on the same level as an organization, Allmendinger has been a top-25 driver with every team he has ever driven for. In fact, he managed four top-20 finishes with JTG Daugherty Racing last year, including three top-15s.

Driving for a single-car team, Allmendinger is bound to be inconsistent throughout the year, but he should still prove to be a useful sleeper option in fantasy leagues. He is an excellent road racer, and he has enjoyed success at 1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta, Chicagoland and Homestead and flat tracks like Indianapolis and Phoenix. From nearly being out of NASCAR completely to landing a full-time ride, Allmendinger has already made a big comeback. He should continue to revive his career on the track in 2014 by finishing in, or around, the top 20 on fairly routine basis while providing the occasional top-15.

Brad Keselowski

In 2012, Keselowski celebrated his first Cup Series title. In 2013, he didn't even make the Chase. Call it a championship hangover or just an off-year, but Keselowski was one of the bigger fantasy disappointments last season, finishing with his worst average finish and the fewest number of top-5s since his first full season in the Cup Series.

Looking ahead to 2014, there are several reasons to be optimistic about Keselowski bouncing back. For one, he found his stride a bit during the Chase, winning his only race of the year and compiling a 12.9 average finish, including and 11.2 average finish during the final five races. Perhaps more importantly, this is still the same driver who won a combined eight races and piled up 23 top-5s in 2011 and 2012, finishing in the top five in the final standings both years.

Keselowski has already proven he can win races and championships at the Cup level, and without the offseason distractions that come from winning a title, there is no reason to think he won't return to form in 2014. Pencil him in for multiple victories and double-digit top-5s, and as long as your fantasy league doesn't deduct points for being outspoken, Keselowski should be a top-10 option this season.

Tony Stewart

Stewart was off to a slow start in 2013, but just as he was rounding into form, a gruesome leg injury suffered in a dirt-track event abruptly ended his season in early August. Prior to the injury, Stewart had one win and a 16.1 average finish in 21 starts, and three surgeries later, the three-time series champ is on schedule to return to the track at the start of the 2014 season.

While I'm sure nobody is ready for Stewart's return more than the man himself, fantasy owners probably aren't far behind. After all, he has a 12.9 average finish for his career, and he has won at least one race in all 15 seasons of his career. Yes, his consistency has taken a bit of a hit in recent years since he became both an owner and driver, but he is still averaging three wins a year with Stewart-Haas Racing. He also remains one of the best all-around drivers in the series, and he is capable of delivering a top-5 finish at any track type on the schedule.

His career numbers speak for themselves, and Stewart showed just a couple of years ago that he can still be the best in the business. Sure, he may have to shake off some rust after being out of a Cup car since August, and Stewart-Haas Racing's expansion to four cars this offseason could cause some growing pains. However, Stewart is too talented not to produce when all is said and done, and the additions of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch to SHR is going to help everyone in the organization in the long run. Smoke will be back in victory lane and back in the mix for a Chase spot in 2014.

Denny Hamlin

To say that his 2013 season was a disappointment is a huge understatement. He entered the year as one of the frontrunners for the championship, but a wreck at Auto Club Speedway in March resulted in a back injury that sidelined Hamlin for four races and hampered his performance all year. The end result was a career-worst 21.0 average finish in 32 starts to go along with a career-low four top-5s and eight top-10s. On the plus side, Hamlin did win the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, more importantly, heads into 2014 fully healthy.

Hamlin back at full strength should have fantasy owners smiling. Since the start of the 2007 season, Hamlin has notched at least a dozen top-5s in five of his seven seasons. During the same stretch, he has logged 17 or more top-10s five times while winning 21 races. Not to mention the fact that prior to last season, Hamlin had never finished worse than 12th in the final standings.

After the back injury basically robbed him of the 2013 season, there is no reason not to expect Hamlin return to form in 2014. In fact, don't be surprised if he returns extra motivated to make up for lost time. This is the same driver that was in the thick of the championship hunt in 2010 and 2012 and has been one of the elite fantasy options in the series. Fantasy owners should expect multiple victories and around 15 top-5s are from Hamlin, who should be a strong top-10 option in all formats.


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