12) David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Pros: Ragan has been touted as the most improved driver in 2008. It is easy to see why with his results. He barely missed the Chase, ultimately finishing 13th in points, the first position outside of the Chase contenders. On the way he picked up six top-fives and 14 top-10s. He more than doubled his top-five finishes and quadrupled his top-10 tally from 2007 to 2008. His average finish also jumped from 24.5 to 15.6, and he only endured two DNFs.
Cons: Ragan seemed to lose his grip on a spot in the Chase in the last race or two before the cut off. The pressure of being near the bubble may have gotten to him and he arguably missed the Chase due to that pressure. He finished 32nd in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, which was his last chance to secure himself a top-12 spot.
Fantasy Tip: Even though Ragan missed the Chase, he picked up one top-five and five top-10s in the Chase races. He finished the season strongly and had it not been for a few rough patches through the season he may have made the top 12. Ragan had the potential to win at a few tracks in 2008. With the stability of Roush in 2009, a new high-powered sponsor in UPS and the experience of finishing consistently in the top 15, Ragan could be a frontrunner in 2009. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig has a history of making young drivers championship contenders and his magic is starting to take hold on Ragan.
13) Martin Truex Jr. | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Pros: Although he disappointed in 2008, Truex still managed 11 top-10s in the 31 races that he finished. His 2007 season demonstrated his considerable talent as he finished with one win, seven top-fives and 14 top-10s, which helped him to an average finish of 16th. He has consecutive Nationwide Series wins in 2004 and 2005, which suggests he has the talent to drive with the best, even if it hasn't been on display in the Sprint Cup just yet.
Cons: All three of Truex's full seasons in the Sprint Cup have disappointed. He made the Chase in 2007 and finished with 6,164, but he struggled to a 15th-place finish last year. His finish in 2006 was a pedestrian 19th. In addition, Truex has 14 DNFs since joining the Sprint Cup on a full-time basis in 2006. Not finishing wasn't a big problem for him during the Nationwide Series, but even in 2005, when he ran just seven races in the Sprint Cup, he had five DNFs. The merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing could take a few races to settle down in 2009.
Fantasy Tip: This will be a make-or-break year for Truex. He has failed to hold up over a full 36-race schedule in the Sprint Cup, even though he has twice finished atop the Nationwide Series standings. He has value as a low-end No. 1 driver but shouldn't be viewed as a staple of a fantasy roster.
14) Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Pros: Biffle picked up two wins in 2008 along with 12 top-fives and 17 top-10s. It was another strong season for the driver, and he finished the Chase in third position. Biffle, like most Roush drivers, is extremely strong on the intermediate to two-mile tracks. For instance, his average finish at Michigan International Speedway in 12 starts is 13.2. His two wins in 2008 came in consecutive races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Raceway.
Cons: Of Biffle's three DNFs in 2008, just one was mechanical. He was involved in a crash in the AMP Energy 500 and also in the Coke Zero 400 where he finished 43rd. He has had trouble with DNFs in the past with 11 combined over 2006 and 2007. There aren't many drawbacks to Biffle, but his worst average finishes are at the two superspeedways. His average Talladega finish in 12 tries is 25.2 and his Daytona International Speedway average in the same number of starts is 22.7.
Fantasy Tip: Biffle is one of those drivers that can start on any fantasy roster at every track. Finishing third in the standings makes him a strong option heading into 2009. He will have crew chief Greg Erwin by his side again in 2009. Keep in mind that teammate Carl Edwards and Biffle finished second and third in the 2008 standings and with just a bit more inconsistency from Jimmie Johnson in 2009, the title could change hands. View Biffle as a quality No. 2 option.
15) Mark Martin | No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Pros: The veteran driver turned in a solid performance last year, despite making only 24 starts. He racked up 11 top-10 finishes and slipped into the 20s in just five of his races - one of those came when he ran out of fuel. He finished an average of 13th place in each of his races last year, which tied him for sixth place with Greg Biffle. Finally, he will be taking a step up by switching from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports.
Cons: Martin does not have a win in the last three years nor has he won a pole since 2001. Moving to a team that features Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't leave Martin with many chances to win any more races. Casey Mears drove the No. 5 car last year to a 20th-place finish. With the other prominent drivers at Hendrick, it is safe to say Martin is well down the pecking order for the top crew.
Fantasy Tip: If you are looking for consistency in a second-tier driver, Martin is your guy. He doesn't appear to have the edge to win, but he is rarely in any accidents and posts some of the best average finishes on the circuit. View him as a strong No. 2.
16) Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Pros: Busch won the 2004 Sprint Cup, so there is a standard set that he can be a winner on the track. Despite a disappointing couple of years, he is still backed by one of the strongest teams in racing and has won in this car. He finished 11th place or better in nine straight races during the 2007 season. His average finish, when you remove DNFs, is 8.5 at Daytona International Speedway since 2005 (jumps to 2.8 if you remove a 37th-place finish in 2005). Meanwhile, at Talladega Superspeedway, Busch boasts an average finish of eighth in the same timeframe, which rises to 5.8 when you remove a 21st-place finish in 2008's AMP Energy 500.
Cons: Busch finished the 2008 season with his lowest point total, 3,635, since his second year on the Sprint Cup; he fell all the way into a disappointing 18th spot. In two of the last three years, he has failed to surpass the 4,000-point mark, and as you would expect, his wins have fallen off the map with just four in the last three years. In each of the last three years, he has failed to get a good jump out of the gates, last year proving a fine example of this as he managed just one top-10 in his first 14 races.
Fantasy Tip: With his recent disappointing seasons, Busch is no longer a No. 1 driver, but he doesn't fall far from that tier as he is still ranked as a strong No. 2 driver. His recent history could overshadow his considerable achievements earlier this decade, which might make him an undervalued driver heading into 2009.
17) Joey Logano | No. 20 Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Pros: Logano raced his way to the top of the list of up-and-coming young drivers in the 2008 Nationwide Series. He captured three poles, one win, four top-fives and 14 top-10s in 19 races. Logano, 18, became the youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Nationwide race. Replacing Tony Stewart in the No. 20 Home Depot ride won't be easy, but famed crew chief Greg Zipadelli should help ease the transition. Logano will be driving a car with a proven track record.
Cons: Having big shoes to fill can be a daunting task for anyone. Even though we're not particularly worried about Logano's transition to a full-time driver of the well-recognized No. 20, some concern has to be there for fantasy owners. In his three Sprint Cup races in 2008, Logano progressively lost ground with his finishing place. His best showing was 32nd at the Sylvania 300, and his worst effort came running in the Dickies 500.
Fantasy Tip: Fantasy owners should consider Logano if they are willing to take on considerable risk with a tremendous amount of upside. Safely, view him as a No. 3 driver due to the history of rookies in the Sprint Cup. However, he could produce like a No. 2 driver and be worth the gamble. Keep in mind, though, regardless of how good this racing prodigy may be one day, only Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have won three races as rookie drivers on the Sprint circuit.
18) Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser/Allstate Dodge | Richard Petty Motorsports
Pros: Kahne has averaged 5.67 top-five finishes in the past three seasons, and he has scored eight total wins in the same time span, six of which came in 2006. His 2006 season was by far his best to date, finishing eighth in the Cup standings and winning six races along the way. In 2008, Kahne won two races (Coca-Cola 600 and Pocono 500), finished in the top five four times and the top 10 14 times.
Cons: Kahne hasn't been great in the past two years, finishing 14th and 19th, respectively. Three of his last four seasons have been relatively average, which leads us to lean toward calling his 2006 outburst a fluke. Kahne started hot last year, registering four top-10 finishes in his first five points races to begin the season before finishing outside of the top 10 in five of his next six runs. His two wins last year came in three races, which he followed up with a second-place finish and then consecutive 30th-place finishes. In other words, he can be streaky.
Fantasy Tip: View Kahne as a pedestrian fantasy option entering 2009. He has shown the ability to score big for fantasy owners and to disappoint just the same. He is best drafted as a middle of the road No. 2 fantasy driver.
19) Ryan Newman | No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Pros: Newman, who leaves Penske Racing for the newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing, gets a fresh start. He will be switching from his No. 12 Alltel Dodge to the No. 39 Chevrolet, made with a Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engine. Newman has shown the ability to be a dominant force in the Sprint Cup Series. In 2003, he won a whopping eight races, collecting 11 poles, 17 top-fives and 22 top-10s. He has won 11 times on intermediate tracks, the most common in NASCAR, and has found success on both short tracks and superspeedways, too. In 14 road course appearances, Newman hasn't won a race but boasts his best average finish (12.9) of any track type.
Cons: After a monster season in 2003, Newman has failed to live up to expectations. He has just four wins since posting eight that year. Newman has finished in the top 10 in points once from 2004 to 2008, a sixth-place showing in 2005. He won his first race since 2005 at the 2008 Daytona 500, but that is all he won last year, finishing 17th in the standings. A new team, a new car and new surroundings could lead to Newman being slow out of the gate in 2009 due to the adjustment period.
Fantasy Tip: Newman is working his way to the middle after a promising start to his career. He is a very solid driver but doesn't appear to be a special racer. While it could go either way, we feel the move to Stewart-Haas Racing will help him in the long run after a likely bumpy start to the marriage. For fantasy purposes, he is a reasonable No. 2 driver with limited to no upside.
20) Casey Mears | No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Pros: Mears will be taking over the No. 07 car from Clint Bowyer this year; luckily for Mears, he will also receive all the car's owner points, so he won't have to worry about qualifying for the opening races. He drives for one of the strongest teams in the Sprint Cup with all four drivers being potential Chase participants this year. Mears has also put up consistent point totals with at least 3,527 points per season in each of the last five years.
Cons: Although Mears will taking over for Bowyer in the No. 07 car, the switch to a new car could make his beginning to the season a bit rocky. In addition, he could find it tough to break through on such a strong team. Mears wasn't able to produce under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella, so who is to say he can with another team. He had trouble finishing races last year as he finished with five DNFs, all of which were due to accidents. His DNFs almost matched his top-10 finishes last year (six) in 36 starts. He has rarely managed any poles (two) or wins (one) since joining the Sprint Cup in 2003.
Fantasy Tip: Mears carries a tag as a No. 2 driver this year. More safely, view Mears as a high-end No. 3, if you can land him there. Don't expect the world from him, but he should bring you consistent results for the midrange drivers that fill out your roster.
21) Bobby Labonte | No. 96 Ask.com Ford | Hall of Fame Racing-Yates Racing
Pros: The 2000 NASCAR champion, Labonte has a proven track record. He was the runner-up in 1999, and placed inside of the top 10 from 1995 to 2001. Labonte finished eighth in 2003. He moves to the recently merged Hall of Fame Racing/Yates Racing team, where he will take over the No. 96 Ask.com Ford. His ride is guaranteed for 18 races with the option for race-by-race sponsorship the rest of the season.
Cons: Despite his past success, Labonte hasn't been very productive in recent years. He hasn't finished in the top five in his last 72 races and only has five top-10s over the same span. Labonte has not won a race since a pair of first-place finishes in the 2003 season. His No. 96 car doesn't necessarily have a sponsor after 18 races, so Labonte may not run a full slate of races in 2009.
Fantasy Tip: Labonte is a tricky driver to gauge. When his recent struggles are factored into his pass success, he should be an average No. 3 fantasy driver. He has the potential to be a weak No. 2, but he is safely drafted as a mid-to-low third option.
22) Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Team Red Bull Racing
Pros: Vickers has been consistent during his six-year Sprint Cup career, finishing with at least 3,500 points in four of his last five years. He won one pole last year, finishing with three top-fives and six top-10s. He is a former winner of the Nationwide Series in 2003, when he compiled three wins, 13 top-fives and 21 top-10s en route to the championship. Vickers challenged for a spot in the Chase and was just three spots out after the Sharpie 500.
Cons: Despite participating in 36 races last year, he managed just six top-10 finishes and only three top-five finishes. He wasn't a particularly strong starter, either, with an average start of 22. In the last five years, Vickers has only averaged a top-20 finish on the flat tracks. His average on the more common intermediate tracks is a poor 20.4 since 2003.
Fantasy Tip: Vickers will move into one of the top spots for Red Bull Racing this year alongside rookie Scott Speed. Vickers won't have a strong team compared to some others; however, he still has value as a low-end No. 2 driver.
23) Jamie McMurray | No. 26 Crown Royal/Irwin Industrial Tools Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Pros: McMurray turned in four top-fives and five top-10s in the last six races of 2008. It was an extremely strong close to a season that saw McMurray trailing his teammates. Through 2008 he finished in the top 10 six other times and finished the season 16th in points.
Cons: McMurray was outshined by his teammate in 2008. He didn't show much, if any, improvement from 2007, when he finished 17th in points. There are no tracks where McMurray really stands out, but his Achilles heel is definitely Richmond International Raceway. His career average finish at that track is a lowly 27.1.
Fantasy Tip: McMurray must step up in 2009. He has been consistently outshined by his teammates and hasn't grown into the consistent race winner a lot of people hoped for. The Roush cars are proven race winners, but McMurray hasn't cashed in on the equipment yet. He did finish the season strongly though. For these reasons, McMurray should only be considered a strong No. 3 driver.
Editor's note: C.J. Radune, Bryce McRae and Cory J. Bonini contributed to this analysis.
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