Regardless of the sport, there is no better feeling for a fantasy owner than landing a sleeper pick that turns out to be a stud. Of course, landing a sleeper in fantasy NASCAR leagues is easier said than done thanks to the limited number of quality rides available these days. That being said, there are a few drivers that aren't household names and have a chance to deliver useful results in 2013. No, these drivers aren't going to produce better numbers than Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and the other big names, but they could be the key to rounding out a championship-caliber roster. With that in mind, here is a look at five drivers flying under the radar heading into 2013 that could help out fantasy owners in a variety of formats.
The 2012 season wasn't exactly a banner year for Ragan. In his first year with Front Row Motorsports, Ragan managed just two top-10s and a 27.0 average finish. Talladega proved to be the lone bright spot for Ragan as he followed up a seventh-place finish in May with a season-best fourth-place finish in the October event. Outside of Talladega, his only other top-20 finish of the year came at Kansas in the fall.
Statistically, 2012 was the worst season of his career, but given that he had raced for powerhouse Roush Fenway Racing in his first six years, a decline was to be expected. On the plus side, Ragan instantly became Front Row Motorsports' top driver. More importantly, the organization has made small, steady strides in each of its first three years at the Cup level. In fact, Ragan's teammate David Gilliland has improved his average finish by a full spot in all three years with Front Row Motorsports. With a year to get adjusted to his new caliber of equipment, it is more than reasonable to expect Ragan to see a respectable jump in his numbers
Ragan will probably never approach the numbers he put up in his best years at Roush Fenway Racing, but entering his second year with a team that has a history of making small strides bodes well for his numbers. No, he isn't going to carry a fantasy team, but he will be on the track every weekend and should be a steady top-25 driver. At the very least, he is a sneaky source for top-10s at the superspeedways. When the available options start to get really thin in the final rounds of fantasy drafts, don't forget about Ragan.
The 2012 season was Almirola's first full-time campaign at the Cup level, and as expected, there were some rough patches. While the end result wasn't overly impressive, it was respectable given the circumstances as he finished the year 20th in points with a 20.0 average finish. The results were also enough to earn Almirola a spot behind the wheel of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 again in 2013, and his follow-up effort is worth keeping an eye on.
When evaluating a young driver, consistent improvement is always a positive sign. Almirola showed just that last year, finding a groove in the final months of the season. He scored the 16th-most points in the series during the Chase, posting a 16.1 average finish and 11.6 average starting position. In the final five races, those numbers jumped to 14.2 and 7.8, respectively. Almirola definitely saved his best for last.
Of course, closing 2012 on a high note means nothing to fantasy owners unless Almirola carries the momentum into 2013. Fortunately, his steady progression throughout last season bodes well for sustained success. No, he probably won't put up the scorching numbers he did in the final five races of 2012, but Almirola is poised to become a consistent top-20 option in his second full season in the Cup Series.
Fresh off his second consecutive Nationwide Series championship, Stenhouse is set to take over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 and fill the void left by Matt Kenseth's departure to Joe Gibbs Racing. He is also set to become the first rookie to make an impact for fantasy rosters since the 2009 season when Joey Logano made his debut. More importantly, Stenhouse has shown signs of being able to make a significant impact for fantasy owners as the soon as the green flag waves on the 2013 season.
His numbers at the Nationwide level were gaudy, but as we have seen with Martin Truex Jr. and even Brad Keselowski, it can often take a year or two for the success to translate in the Cup Series. However, Stenhouse's brief ventures into NASCAR's top series suggest he may have a short learning curve. In five career Cup starts, he has posted three top-20 finishes, including a pair of top-12 efforts. In fact, he finished 11th at Charlotte in his first-ever Cup start.
Stenhouse is obviously talented, and he is going to be driving for a great organization. He has also already shown he can finish in the top 20 at the Cup level, and even if that happens to be his ceiling in his rookie year, he deserves to be universally owned in fantasy leagues. The more likely scenario is that Stenhouse will improve as the year goes on, and for those owners thinking about drafting veterans like Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray or Juan Pablo Montoya, they may want to strongly consider gambling on the rookie's upside instead.
Earning respect from his peers has been tough from Menard. After all, his father's sponsorship dollars have kept him in rides that he would never have kept based on performance alone. However, Menard has been holding up his end of the bargain the past two seasons, and after his solid showing in 2012, it is time he starts getting respect from both his fellow drivers and from fantasy owners.
Although he managed just a single top-five finish, Menard did record a career-high nine top-10s last year. He also finished in the top 20 in 28 races. More importantly, he posted a career-best 15.5 average finish and ended the year 16th in the standings. To top it off, Menard had just a single DNF and actually completed more laps than any other driver in the series in 2012.
Sure, he has his limitations as a fantasy option, especially in rotisserie leagues. Menard doesn't lead many laps, and he isn't going to have many elite finishes. However, he has quietly become one of the more consistent drivers in the series since moving to Richard Childress Racing. Menard stays out of trouble, and he piles up top-20 finishes. In leagues that base scoring solely off of the points a driver accumulates each race, Menard's reliability makes him the perfect addition to any roster in any format.
After missing out on a full-time ride prior to the start of the 2012 season, Vickers opted to take a part-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. The limited schedule turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Vickers had a strong season in his eight starts in the No. 55. He will be a part of the three-driver rotation for the team again in 2013, and even in his part-time role, he is primed to deliver big results for fantasy owners.
His final numbers last season were impressive. In his eight Cup starts, he notched three top-five finishes and five top-10s. For comparison's sake, Carl Edwards started all 36 races and managed the same amount of top-five finishes. Vickers also managed a 13.3 average finish in 2012, which was eighth best in the series. Take away an engine failure at Watkins Glen and his average finish jumps to 9.0. Plain and simple, Vickers got the job done was he was behind the wheel.
Of course, a part-time schedule does mean that his value varies depending on the format of the league. If you play in a draft-style league where the only category is points scored, almost any driver that races a full schedule is going to be a better option than Vickers. On the other hand, he is basically a must-start option when he races in leagues that allow weekly driver changes. Vickers is also a much better draft option in rotisserie leagues that factor in multiple categories. Keep in mind that in his eight starts last year he still managed to rank 13th in driver rating, 16th in top-five finishes, 17th in laps led and 21st in fastest laps run and top-10s.
Yes, Vickers is going to require some diligent roster maintenance on the part of his owners, but he is worth it. Many owners are scared away because of his very limited schedule, but acquiring him at a discounted rate only sweetens the pot. In any league that puts an emphasis on per-race performance rather than total points, Vickers is definitely worth snatching up ahead of several drivers with full-time rides.
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 @BPolking
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