Fantasy NASCAR: Silly Season review
As it pertains to NASCAR, the Silly Season refers to hectic activity that goes on during the second half of each season and spills into the offseason. Teams replace drivers, new sponsors join the sport while old sponsors leave, the schedule is tweaked and rules are adjusted. In particular, the 2011-12 Silly Season was loaded with important driver changes. From a fantasy perspective, it's important to keep up with these changes and how they impact your view on the upcoming season.
Since becoming the first foreign driver to qualify for the Chase in 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya's performance has taken a step back. However, the former Indianapolis 500 champion was re-signed to pilot the No. 42 machine. Chris Heroy will take over the JPM's crew chief. As an engineer at Hendrick Motorsports, Heroy sat atop the pit box a few times when JR Motorsports fielded a third car last year in the Nationwide Series.
There are no major shakeups in Jamie McMurray's camp. Jamie Mac had a career year in 2010 by winning three races, including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. He only tallied four top-10s last year, McMurray's worst mark since becoming a full-time driver in 2003.
Both EGR drivers have shown flashes of ability in recent years but are seeking consistency. Each finished outside of the top 20 in points a year ago. In response, the organization replaced two of their top competition executives in hopes of righting the ship.
Last year, the No. 32 car ran full-time with eight different drivers. Ken Schrader is expected to make at least 10 starts with 1996 Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte also competing in some races. Other drivers will also be in the mix. The team is not expected to start and park, so owners might look here for a bottom-tier option when the situation calls.
After being overlooked for much better open seats at Penske Championship Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, David Ragan lands at Front Row. The 26-year-old driver had been a full-time driver at Roush Fenway Racing since 2007 but was let go after a lack of sponsorship caused owner Jack Roush to drop his fourth car. David Gilliland stays on board, but the fantasy ceiling is limited on this middle-tier organization.
Last year was big step forward for the single-car shop based in Denver. After recording his first career top-10 in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith dropped a stunner by winning the Southern 500. In all, Smith recorded one win, a pair of top-fives and five top-10s. While it's hard to imagine the No. 78 team performing much better, they are safe bet for a top-20 finish on weekly basis.
In addition to a new set of team colors and paint scheme, No. 13 car will run at least 22 races making a switch under the hood from Toyota to Ford equipment from Roush Yates. Casey Mears remains behind the wheel while primary sponsor GEICO has been inked through the 2014 season. The influx in cash would suggest the team will no longer have to start and park as they've needed to do on several occasions over the years. Among bottom-tier teams, there is optimism Mears could become a deep sleeper.
The best team in NASCAR just became better. Kasey Kahne takes over the No. 5 car from veteran Mark Martin after being signed by HMS for this gig back in 2010. Kahne spent last year with the now-defunct Red Bull Racing organization that ended with a strong run in the postseason after failing to qualify for the Chase. His longtime crew chief Kenny Francis will provide a consistent voice during the transition. Kahne has seen a lot of changes as his former teams have been sold and merged. Now the stability at Hendrick gives Kahne the best platform of his career.
Last year, Inception made its debut in the first Richmond race and qualified for 18 races, failing to make the show five times. David Stremme is still the driver, but this group currently looks to be a start and park operation once again. Even if sponsorship is found, they appear irrelevant.
All three drivers from last year remain with JGR but two have new crew chiefs. After winning eight races and challenging for a championship in 2010, Denny Hamlin experienced a down year despite making the Chase. Darian Grubb, fresh off navigating Tony Stewart to a championship, replaces Mike Ford as Hamlin's point man keeping title aspirations very high. Joey Logano was a force in the 2010 Chase but barely registered as a blip a year ago. Greg Zipadelli, who led Stewart to his first two championships, is out in favor of Jason Ratcliff. As a crew chief in the Nationwide Series, Ratcliff won 36 times in 11 seasons and captured the 2009 championship with Kyle Busch.
Former Richard Childress Racing crew chief Todd Berrier has been tabbed to take over as general manager and crew chief for 2000 Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte. The single car operation is among the better middle-tier teams with higher ambitions. Despite his limited outlook, Labonte's championship provisional will guarantee him a spot in the field most weeks, regardless of qualifying.
Scott Speed takes over for David Starr as the wheelman for the No. 95 machine. In last year's debut the team attempted to make eight races, failing to qualify on four occasions. Starr crashed twice prior to finishing 27th and 29th. Speed could be considered a marginal improvement, but the upside is minimal for the 15 races they are currently scheduled for.
At the moment, John Wise appears to be the only driver that figures to contend for the rapidly declining Rookie of the Year Award. In 2011, Wise made his debut in the No. 37 as a start and park driver in four races while failing to qualify three times. It's unknown if the team will run the distance at any point this season. Even if they do, Wise's limited experience is a big deterrent.
It appears 2012 is the start of MWR's big stand in NASCAR as it adds a third car despite failing to purchase the remains of Red Bull Racing. Things stay the same with the hot and cold Martin Truex Jr., but there are big changes for the other two cars.
Clint Bowyer moves over from Richard Childress Racing to drive the No. 15 car in the year's biggest free-agent acquisition. His new crew chief will be Brian Pattie, who called the shots for Juan Pablo Montoya at EGR. Bowyer quickly established himself at RCR and has been able to compete on every kind of track. However, the move to MWR is an equipment downgrade, so it's hard to be excited for the time being.
David Reutimann was given the axe after failing to show improvement. His former No. 00 will morph to the No. 55 with Mark Martin, expected to run 25 races, as the primary driver. Owner Michael Waltrip is said to be running five races. The remaining dates on the schedule could be filled by another driver. Martin is coming off a down year at HMS while Waltrip has failed to do much recently as a part-time driver.
Owner-driver Joe Nemechek opened some eyes by hitting 203 mph in a recent testing session at Daytona International Speedway without the benefit of a drafting partner. Nemechek figures to be a start-and-park driver once again in the No. 87, but he has run some of the recent restrictor plate races. The team put Kevin Conway in the No. 97 for a handful of races last year but also start and parked.
Following a dreadful performance in the Chase, Kurt Busch, who has a long history of blowing his top, lost it after an early exit to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. An obscene hand gesture and a bunch of obscenities directed at a TV reporter landed him a $50,000 fine from NASCAR and an exit from Penske. A.J. Allmendinger was hired to replace Busch in the No. 22. The former Richard Petty Motorsports driver gets a major upgrade in equipment and could finally cash in on his annual sleeper hype.
Things remain the same for Brad Keselowski fresh off a monster season that saw him win three races and finish fifth in points.
Formerly HP Racing, will switch from Toyota to Ford while retaining driver Michael McDowell. They have reportedly found sponsorship for the first five race of the season but may have to start and park from there, as they did last year. Even if McDowell runs the distance every week, this team has a lot to prove before trusting them in your lineup.
In hopes of rehabilitating his image, Kurt Busch will drive for Phoenix on a one-year deal. Landon Cassill did a decent job in this car last year with nine top-25s. Busch could lift the team into the top 20 or so, but he's unlikely to be worth the asking price in fantasy formats given the team's limitations.
Armed with cars purchased from EGR, driver Robert Richardson Jr. will aim to compete in the Daytona 500 for the third time in his career. Richardson has never started outside of restrictor plate races in his limited number of Cup starts since 2009 but plans to run the entire schedule in the No. 23 car. Sponsorship is unclear, however.
Now a three-car operation following Bowyer's departure to MWR, RCR switched out two of its crew chiefs. Kevin Harvick will partner with Shane Wilson, Bowyer's former crew chief. Meanwhile, Jeff Burton, coming off a dreadful season, is teamed with Drew Blickensderfer, formerly the crew chief for Ragan at Roush Fenway Racing. Harvick remains a championship-caliber option while Burton needs to establish some kind of consistency before he can be considered starting.
Things remain the same for Paul Menard, coming off an impressive debut with RCR. Consider him a very legitimate sleeper among middle-tier drivers.
Austin Dillon, grandson of the owner, made his first Cup start last year at Kansas Speedway finishing 26th. He's expected to get a few more looks in 2012.
After passing on Kurt Busch due to objections from sponsors and Ragan, Petty selected Aric Almirola to pilot his legendary No. 43. Greg Erwin will remain the crew chief about turning things around for the departing Allmendinger in the second half of 2011. Almirola made his Cup debut in 2007 but never had the opportunity to drive a full-time schedule until now. In 2010, he made waves in the Camping World Truck Series by finishing as the runner-up for the championship and again in 2011 finishing fourth in the Nationwide Series standings. Almirola is just 27 years old and a bit of a wild card thanks to the solid ride he landed at RPM.
Marcos Ambrose stays on to drive the No. 47 after winning his first Cup race and showing major improvement on intermediate tracks.
While his Cup schedule is unclear, owner Robby Gordon will get behind the wheel in 2012. Gordon recently tweeted he'll be at the Daytona Speed Weeks and it's assumed he'll compete in the two road course races. Gordon did have to resort to start and parks at times last year, however. Aside from being a decent option at Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International, Gordon's value is nonexistent.
Nationwide Series car owner Jay Robinson has announced an entry into the Cup Series. As of now there are no details on the driver, but the team plans on running the entire schedule. Regardless of who is driving, Robinson's cars are, at best, mediocre in the Nationwide Series, so it's unwarranted to expect much in Cup.
Sponsorship issues caused the No. 6 car operation to fold, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will drive the car in the Daytona 500. Last year, in his Cup debut, he impressed by qualifying ninth and finishing 11th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. If sponsors can be found, Stenhouse would be added for more races.
Despite winning the 2011 championship, Tony Stewart elected to replace crew chief Darian Grubb. Steve Addington, whom Stewart worked with at JGR, will take over after calling shots with two previous fiery drivers in Kurt and Kyle Busch.
Teammate Ryan Newman is coming off a 10th-place showing in the Chase and enters 2012 without any major changes.
SHR will field a third car for the first time allowing Danica Patrick to make her Cup series debut at the Daytona 500 and nine other races. In her second part-time Nationwide season, Patrick recorded a top-five and three top-10s over a dozen starts. She has some ability and is worth looking at as a bottom-tier driver when she competes.
Once a start-and-park operation, TBR was able to run the distance with Dave Blaney and a second car for several races in the second half of the season with a variety of drivers. David Reutimann is now on board as the driver of that vehicle. The team hopes to start Blaney and Reutimann in every race of 2012 but is still in search of sponsorship.
Trevor Bayne, the surprise winner of the 2011 Daytona 500, will once again run a partial schedule for the legendary Woods Brothers. Despite his historic win, Bayne only recorded one more top-15 in the remaining 16 races in which he competed. Bayne is a young, up-and-coming driver with a ton of upside. While the Roush-affiliated team is not an elite operation, they build quality race cars capable of solid results.
About Eric McClung
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. Follow @EricMcClung
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