The Frontstretch: 2013 NASCAR Fantasy Preview: Old Favorites And Diamonds In The Rough by Jeff Wolfe -- Thursday February 14, 2013

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FRONTSTRETCH FANTASY: GET IN THE GAME
Want to compete against some of your favorite Frontstretch writers this season? Our fantasy guru, Jeff Wolfe has created a Yahoo! league and wants you, our faithful readers to join in the fun with us. All you need is a Yahoo! ID and an internet connection. You thrn go through the following steps…

1) Sign in to Yahoo!, then go to http://racing.fantasysports.yahoo.com/auto
2) Create Your Team
3) Join our Group!
ID: 11132
Password: rickybobby

Come back every Thursday, to the website to get Jeff’s advice on who to pick for your team, all season long and see if you can beat your favorite staff members! More special announcements about this league to come.

Daytona is just around the corner, so it’s time to rev up that NASCAR fantasy engine again. When it comes to playing fantasy sports, we all like to think we have some inside secret, or maybe some unique idea that can shoot us to the top. We like to think we know more than the other people we’re playing against.

But having played in many a fantasy league in many a sport (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, NASCAR) more often than not, having success is more about not making the huge mistake than coming up with a sleeper pick who comes up big consistently. So whether you are in league that limits drivers to a certain amount of races for the 36-race season (Yahoo gives drivers nine) or a where you have drivers for an entire season, one of the key factors is to not mess up that early “sleeper” selection.

On-track, the biggest factor this season is how the drivers and teams adjust to the new Gen-6 car. It’s a big variable that no one can answer for sure just yet in terms of fantasy value. But based on past history, to the extent we can judge here’s a look at three levels of drivers and which category each Sprint Cup regular fits into.

The Front Runners

No real surprises here. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski look to be guys that you can take just about every week. One comment from the preseason testing that stuck out a bit is that Gordon said he is much more comfortable in the new car rather than the old Car of Tomorrow (shouldn’t it be known as the Car of Yesterday?) Only six drivers over the age of 40 have won the Sprint Cup title — could the new car help Gordon become the seventh?

Don’t be a chump — choose the champ! Brad Keselowski now has more than one team to draw from, meaning a championship hangover seems unlikely from the “new” Ford Penske camp.

But what everyone really wants to know is who are the guys who could graduate to the every-race list. You’ve got Kasey Kahne, who after a horrendous start last year, rallied to make the Chase.Clint Bowyer put himself in the picture to join this elite group based on his runner-up title finish and three wins last year. But beware of that second-place-in-the-point-standings jinx. While Bowyer did finish second last year, recent history is for those guys to come back and have disappointing seasons the year after (Carl Edwards is exhibit A in 2011 and Hamlin is exhibit B from 2010).

Just how to treat Kevin Harvick is another big question. He’s in his final year at Richard Childress Racing before moving to Stewart-Haas for 2014. But take this into consideration: Stewart won the 2011 title when it was widely known that crew chief Darian Grubb would not be returning. Then, Keselowski won the title in a Dodge when it was known that the team would be switching to Ford for 2013. So, if you’re into “lame duck” theories, then Harvick could be your guy.

The Middle Children

Carl Edwards came within one point of winning the title in 2011, then didn’t win a race last year and missed the Chase. It wasn’t long ago that he was considered one of the sport’s elite, but going into this season at least some consider him a second-tier kind of guy. So, if you’re looking for a driver who could rejoin that top group again, Edwards has to be at the top of the list. New crew chief Jimmy Fennig has engineered comeback stories, winning a championship with Kurt Busch back in ’04 and taking the Daytona 500 trophy with Matt Kenseth last year.

Some other drivers not considered elite on some fantasy lists, but could reach that level include Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle and Martin Truex, Jr., who each qualified for the Chase for the Championship last year. Earnhardt, Jr. admits that he needs to win more to have a chance to take the title and Biffle just needs some more consistency. Truex is somewhat similar to Earnhardt, in that he can be consistent but needs to throw a win into the mix on occasion.

That would be nice, considering he hasn’t gotten one since 2007.

One interesting prospect has to do with the No. 55 car. If you’re in a league with driver race limits, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers will be sharing a seat this season (except for one race) in the No. 55 Toyota. That was an excellent ride last year, with Martin nearly winning at Pocono while Vickers did quite well on the short tracks and road courses with it, catching the whiff of a win at Bristol in August. It might not be an every week play, but there a lot of ones where the No. 55 should fit squarely into your lineup.

Mark Martin won four poles in 2013, leading the series, and came within a lap of winning Pocono. If you’re waiting for him to slow down, stop. Bargain pickup of the fantasy century.

The same can be said of Kurt Busch and his new ride, the No. 78 Chevrolet of Furniture Row Racing. If, and this theory is about as big of an “if” as there can be, he can keep some kind of control of his emotions during difficult times, then he could be a factor in several races, including the season-opener at Daytona. Three straight top-10 finishes to end the year give credence to that “sleeper status” in your draft order.

Ryan Newman and Paul Menard also belong in this second group. Newman, who did win early last year, could contend for the Chase and he’s at least been there before. Newman’s No. 39 is also in a bit of a sponsor pinch, so he may feel the need to be a bit more aggressive and run up front — that could actually be a positive for him. Menard hasn’t shown the consistency for a full season, but he did win at Indy in 2011. It’s someone to keep in mind for the bigger tracks, like the Brickyard and Pocono, where he tends to finish between seventh to 15th consistently.

Also, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose are certainly favorites to pick for the two road-course races. Ambrose’s teammate, Aric Almirola showed promise late in the season, and is one of those guys you shouldn’t forget about although he’s more of a longshot sleeper pick.

Finally, Montoya’s teammate, Jamie McMurray looked to be ready to break through after a promising 2010, but was a major disappointment the past two seasons. So just what to do with McMurray for 2013 is anyone’s guess; he’s at the lower end of this category.

The Dark Horses

This part is where it gets fun. Sure, you’ll be pulling for your main guys, but if you get a top-10 finish, or even an unlikely win from this group, then you may have reason to celebrate for a week, anyway.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Danica Patrick are easily the top two Rookie of the Year candidates and are guaranteed to run every race. But figuring which tracks they can excel at can be a bit of a difficult task. At least you know they’ll be in the lineup. Know that Stenhouse is driving for a team that was seventh in owner points, just a season ago but remember the youngster struggled during his first season driving Nationwide.

Here are some other drivers to consider…

Trevor Bayne is running a part-time schedule again in the No. 21 Ford and has proven he is capable of a good finish, especially on restrictor plate tracks. Then there’s Sam Hornish, Jr., who showed he was capable of running in the top 10 last season and will pursue a limited schedule with Penske Racing. Also on a limited schedule will be Austin Dillon for Richard Childress Racing. He’s young, but talented and could be worth a flyer in a race or two.

If you find that none of the part-timers are running you can look at Travis Kvapil, David Reutimann or Casey Mears, especially at short tracks where there’s a better shot for underdogs to shine.

Here’s the beauty of having to pick one these wheelmen. If they manage a 12th or 13th-place finish, you’ll find meaning where others don’t… and as longtime fantasy players know, it’s those few extra points collected that can make all the difference.

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