With an off-weekend approaching for the Sprint Cup Series, it gives us a chance to reflect on the young season. We’re only eight races in, but already we’ve seen more parody than ever before. There have been seven different winners in the first eight races and 20 different drivers have already scored multiple top-10 finishes.
*Trevor Bayne* paved the way for a year of surprises by winning the Daytona 500 in his second career start. Bayne’s victory may top the list, but several other drivers have pulled off unexpected victories starting in week two with *Jeff Gordon*. Gordon broke a 66-race losing streak at a track he had only one career victory at previously. On top of that, *Kevin Harvick* picked up his first career victory at a 2-mile race track at Auto Club and *Matt Kenseth* broke a 76-race winless streak at Texas. Picking fantasy drivers has been no easy task in 2011 because of the unpredictability.
Here are the surprises and disappointments of the first eight races of 2011.
Few people have questioned the talent of *Carl Edwards* or *Kyle Busch* since they each entered the NASCAR’s top series. They’ve always been capable of winning races, but over the past couple of seasons, the No. 99 and No. 18 teams have lacked the consistency to compete for the championship. In 2011, they’ve already established themselves as championship contenders. They each have four top 5s in the first eight races, proving that they are both reliable fantasy picks at almost any race track.
Don’t look now, but *Dale Earnhardt Jr.* is third in the standings. He has been the best mid-level fantasy driver so far this season. Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t look like he is on the cusp of winning a handful of races, but he is back in the top 10, and he has been consistent with five top 10 finishes. Earnhardt Jr. has a higher fantasy value right now than nearly any other driver except maybe a certain Richard Childress driver.
The reason I don’t think Earnhardt Jr. is the most valuable driver in fantasy NASCAR right now is because of *Paul Menard*. After placing 23rd in the standings last season with only six top 10 finishes, the expectations weren’t much higher for Menard this season. They probably should have been, considering he moved to a top-tier team in RCR. This season, Menard already has three top 10 finishes and is 11th in the standings. However, in most fantasy leagues he is still not given much value, often placed in a bottom-tier category of drivers. Fro example, in Yahoo! leagues, his top competition is *David Ragan*, *Regan Smith* and *Bobby Labonte* in the ‘C’ category. Menard has clearly outshined his counterparts, making him the most valuable fantasy driver out there.
After eight races, *David Gilliland* has two top-10 finishes and *Denny Hamlin* has one. This wasn’t how 2011 was supposed to go for Hamlin. He was *Jimmie Johnson’s* biggest challenger last season, coming just 37 points short of the title.
There is little doubt in my mind that Hamlin has been the biggest disappointment of 2011. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has always been strong at the short tracks, but last season he proved to be a decent fantasy pick across the board. Hamlin swept Martinsville (half mile), swept Texas (1.5 miles) and even won at Michigan (2 miles). He ended with a career-high and series-high eight wins. Even more importantly, he had 14 top 5s and 18 top 10s.
This was supposed to be Hamlin’s year to surpass Johnson and win it all. Instead, he is mired back in 17th in the standings and if his team doesn’t figure something out, his Chase chances look bleak.
While Hamlin has been disappointing, nobody has been more frustrating for fantasy owners than *Tony Stewart*.
Stewart got off to an uncharacteristically strong start in the opening three races, but has fizzled since. While Harvick has been “The Closer” this season, Stewart has been the guy who can’t get the job done at the end of races. After being on the front row during the final restart in the Daytona 500, Stewart wound up 13th. After having one of the strongest cars at Phoenix he was seventh, after dominating Las Vegas he was second and after being third on the final restart in the closing laps at Auto Club Speedway, he again finished 13th. Stewart’s ability to run in the top-five or top-10 early in races isn’t doing fantasy owners any good, he needs to bring home better finishes to be valued more highly.
*Jeff Burton* and *Joey Logano* were supposed to contend for Chase spots this season. Burton was in the Chase last season and Logano, in his third full season, was expected to take his game to the next level. After eight races, Burton is 22nd in the standings and Logano is 24th. It can’t all be attributed to bad luck either. Neither driver has run in the top-10 much. Burton’s best finish is 12th and Logano got his best finish of the year (10th) last Sunday at Talladega. They have been two undependable mid-level fantasy picks.
It has been the year of the Roush resurgence. Edwards is leading the points with a season-high six top-10s, Kenseth broke a 76-race losing streak and is currently eighth in the standings and after a slow start *Greg Biffle* has surged up the standings to 16th with three top-10 finishes. Lost in the shuffle is Ragan.
After qualifying on the pole, Ragan finally put a full race together at Texas, finishing seventh. With the new Ford engines and Roush’s rise back to the top, Ragan was expected to be one of the highest valued fantasy drivers in 2011. Instead, he has been nothing more than a tease. He can put up a fast lap anywhere during practice or qualifying, but he drops like a rock on race day. For example, Ragan was second fastest in happy hour at Phoenix, and was fastest at both Auto Club and Martinsville. He was 36th, 22nd and 8th respectively, in those three races.
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