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Fantasy NASCAR driver analysis: Group A

Fantasy NASCAR driver analysis: Group A

Start your fantasy NASCAR engines, racing fans! It is time to take to the race track this year in fantasy NASCAR Sprint Cup action!'s free fantasy auto racing coverage brings you driver-by-driver fantasy analysis to help you when selecting your fantasy NASCAR team this year.

Quick Jump: Fantasy NASCAR Sprint Cup Driver Profiles

1 Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports
2 Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing
3 Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing
4 Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
5 Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing
6 Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports
7 Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing
8 Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing
9 Clint Bowyer, Richard Childress Racing
10 Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing
11 Mark Martin, Hendrick Motorsports
12 Kurt Busch, Penske Championship Racing

Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports
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Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kolbalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson

It wasn't a walk in the park, but Johnson's 2010 season ended with his fifth straight Cup Series title. A second-place finish in the season finale clinched the title for the No. 48 team, making Johnson the first driver to come from behind in the final race of the Chase to win the championship. Along the way, he tallied six victories, 23 top-10s and a series-leading 17 top-five finishes. Johnson has been a blessing to fantasy owners since joining the Cup Series, and the best seems to keep getting better.

In 2010, Johnson actually won at two of his historically weakest tracks. He went to Victory Lane at Bristol in March and then picked up his first career road course win when the series visited Infineon. There isn't a single track on the schedule where Johnson's average finish is worse than 18.3, and there are only four tracks where he hasn't notched at least one win. Each and every week, Johnson has the potential to win regardless of the track.

The scary thing is that Johnson actually had somewhat of a down year by his standards. His 12.2 average finish was his worst since 2005, and his six victories were his lowest total since the 2006 season. He also recorded four DNFs last year after posting just one in each 2009 and 2008. It must be nice to have an off-year and still walk away with the series title.

It doesn't appear Johnson is going to slow down anytime soon, and fantasy owners have to consider him the top fantasy option in 2011. Since 2008, he ranks in the top five at all track types except superspeedways. Expect him to do the same this year. There is no safer pick come draft day as he has been a top-five driver every year of his career, finishing either first or second in seven of his nine seasons. 

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing
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Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Express, Freight, Ground, Office Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin did a lot of talking prior to the 2010 season, but he delivered a career year that nearly ended with the Cup Series title. He notched a series-high eight victories and compiled a career-best 12.9 average finish. Even though he ultimately gave away the title in the season finale, his breakout year established Hamlin as one of the elite fantasy options in NASCAR.

Assuming he can shake off the disappointment of losing a golden opportunity to win the title, fantasy owners should expect another big year from Hamlin. The inconsistencies that had plagued him at intermediate tracks vanished last season as he notched five wins and compiled an 11.4 average finish in the 24 events. He scored wins at Darlington, Texas and Michigan for the first time in his career, and there is a good chance he will add a few more tracks to his resume this season.

He ranked in the top 15 in terms of points scored at all track types in 2010, with the exception of road courses, and he finished the year as the top-scoring driver at short tracks. That type of all-around talent is why Hamlin deserves to be a top-three pick in fantasy drafts. There just aren't that many drivers that can be counted on regardless of the track type.

Coming off the best year of his career, anything less than a championship in 2011 will be a disappointment. His only real weakness last season was poor qualifying efforts, and Hamlin already made it clear he plans to address the problem. Whether or not he can dethrone Jimmie Johnson remains to be seen, but he should pile up plenty of wins and top-five finishes along the way. 

Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Racing
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Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Kevin Harvick

After one of the worst seasons of his career in 2009, Harvick responded with the best year of his career in 2010. He finished the year with a series-best 8.7 average finish, and he led the series with 26 top-10 finishes. Although he finished third in the Chase standings, no driver scored more points during the course of the year than Harvick. In terms of fantasy production, Harvick was the best in the business.

The turnaround for Harvick was remarkable. After posting a 19.9 average finish, five top-five finishes and nine top-10s in 2009, he posted an 8.7 average finish, 16 top-five finishes and 26 top-10s last season. All three totals were the best of his career. To top it off, he won three times in 2010 after going winless in 2008 and 2009.

Harvick's reliability made him a fantasy owner's dream last year. He finished outside the top 15 only four times in 2010, finishing outside the top 20 only three times. He even managed to be bulletproof at the always-treacherous restrictor-plate tracks. Harvick posted a 2.7 average finish and two wins in the four plate races. He became the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007 to finish in the top 10 in all four plate events.

Everything fell in place for Harvick last year, and he performed well above his career numbers. Although there is a strong possibility he will see a slight decline in his numbers in 2011, he still has the ability to be a top-five driver. Harvick ranks fifth in terms of points scored at intermediate tracks since the start of the 2008 season, and he has been the top option at superspeedways. No driver scored more points in 2010 than Harvick, and fantasy owners won't want to let the top overall scorer fall too far during drafts.

Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
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Tony Stewart | No. 14 Office Depot/Burger King Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing

Tony Stewart

After an incredible first year as an owner-driver, Stewart took a step back in 2010 as he worked through some growing pains. That being said, his season still ended with another appearance in the Chase and a pair of victories. Even in an off-year by his standards, Stewart is still a top-five fantasy option thanks to his versatility.

He is the definition of an every-week fantasy starter. Since the start of the 2008 season, he ranks 11th or better at every track type on the schedule. During the stretch, he has scored the ninth-most points at superspeedways, the 11th-most points at short tracks, the seventh-most points at intermediate tracks, the sixth-most points at flat tracks, and he leads all drivers in points scored at road courses. There isn't a track on the schedule where he can't contend for the win.

With another year of being an owner-driver under his belt, the inconsistent stretches that Stewart battled in 2010 should be minimized in 2011. He has a 12.6 career average finish, and he has won at least one race in every season at the Cup level. Stewart has never finished worse than 11th in the final standings and has never had fewer than 16 top-10 finishes.

Even if he has a repeat of 2010, Stewart is still a top-five fantasy option because of his all-around talent. Thankfully, owners can expect Stewart to exceed last season's numbers in the upcoming year. He is better than the nine top-five finishes he posted in 2010. Look for Smoke to return to his elite status and make a serious title run.

Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing
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Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac/Subway/Kellogg's/Cheez-It Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Carl Edwards

After a slow start to the 2010 season, Edwards became better and better as the year progressed. He capped a strong second half of the year with back-to-back wins in the final two races, putting him on the short list of drivers capable of winning the title in 2011. He finished the year fourth in the final standings, and his 11.8 average finish was the second best in the series.

In many ways, Edwards has become a victim of his own success. His nine-win campaign in 2008 made him an elite driver, and he has been forced to live up to those numbers ever since. The fact is that Edwards has been a very steady performer even if the wins haven't been there the last two seasons. Since the start of the '08 season, he ranks in the top 15 in terms of points scored at every track type on the schedule, ranking seventh or better at all types except intermediate tracks.

He is an emerging all-around talent with as much upside as any driver in the series. Edwards has averaged a top-15 finish in every season at the Cup level, and he has posted two of his best averages in the last three seasons. In other words, Edwards is still getting better. Considering that his numbers are already impressive, his potential alone makes him worth a first-round pick in any draft.

Last season, Denny Hamlin used the momentum from the end of the 2009 season to have an incredible 2010 campaign. Edwards looks like the likely candidate to do the same in 2011. At worst, he is a top-10 driver. At best, he can win the series title. Either way, Edwards deserves to go high in any draft and to have a regular spot on fantasy rosters throughout the year in all formats.

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports
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Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont/Pepsi/Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Jeff Gordon

It has now been nine years and counting since Jeff Gordon claimed the Cup Series title. While the Chase format has played a part in that, considering he would have won two more titles under the old format, the fact is that his time as the dominant driver in the sport is gone and isn't coming back. That being said, Gordon isn't exactly washed up, either. He may not be as great as he once was, but he is a still a top-10 driver in the sport.

He finished the 2010 season with 11 top-five finishes, 17 top-10s and a 13.4 average finish. Gordon peaked during a five-race stretch from early June to early July, when he reeled off five straight top-five finishes. He made the Chase, but he was never able to reach that elite level in the second half of the season. Gordon failed to finish in the top five in the final seven races of 2010, ending the year ninth in points.

He enters the 2011 season in the middle of the longest winless drought of his career, and he has made just one trip to Victory Lane in the last three seasons. However, fantasy owners that focus only on his lack of victories are missing out. During the same three-year span when he has just the one win, Gordon also ranks in the top 10 in terms of points scored at all track types with the exception of superspeedways. More importantly, he ranks second in points scored at intermediate and short tracks. Just a reminder to fantasy owners, 30 of the 36 races are run on those two types of tracks each season.

Hendrick Motorsports shuffled their lineups in the offseason, and Gordon will be teamed with crew chief Alan Gustafson and share a shop with Mark Martin in 2011. Gordon's talent behind the wheel isn't going anywhere, and the shakeup could be the spark he needs to get back to the next level. He probably isn't going to win more than a couple of races, but at the end of the day, Gordon is an every-week fantasy starter that will finish the year somewhere in the top 10. He is a safe, solid pick in the first round of any draft.

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing
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Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's/Snickers/Combos/Pedigree/Double Mint Gum/Interstate Batteries Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Kyle Busch

After missing the Chase in 2009, Busch shed his checkers or wreckers mentality in 2010 and returned to the playoffs. His newfound attitude led to a 14.0 average finish last season - the second best average in his six-year career. Along the way, he still managed to notch three victories to go along with 18 top-10s. The fact that no driver spent more time on the lead lap last season than Busch was the true testament to Busch's maturity.

That's not to say Busch doesn't have some work to do. He had an epic meltdown at Texas in the fall after he gave a one-finger salute to a NASCAR official following a speeding penalty. Busch was docked two more laps thanks to the gesture, and he managed to turn a car capable of winning the race into a finish outside the top 30. 

Clearly, Busch is an emotional driver with an explosive temper, but if he can limit his outbursts to one or two a year, the good he does on the track will outweigh the bad. Since 2008, Busch ranks in the top 15 in terms of points scored at every type of track on the schedule, and he ranks sixth or better at all types with the exception of flat tracks. More importantly, Busch is the top-scoring driver at intermediate tracks during that stretch. With 24 of the 36 races being held at intermediate tracks each season, Busch's fantasy value is obvious.

The truth of the matter is that Busch has as much talent behind the wheel as any driver in the Cup Series. He can win a race at any track on any given weekend, and at times, he will perform like the top driver in the sport. That being said, he hasn't shown the ability to compete at that level for an entire season. There are a few too many up and downs to consider Busch a top-three fantasy option, but he has far too much potential not to pick in the first round of drafts.

Matt Kenseth, Roush Fenway Racing
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Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Crown Royal Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Matt Kenseth

After missing the Chase for the first time in his career in 2009, Kenseth rebounded in 2010, ultimately finishing fifth in the final standings. He managed just six top-five finishes all season, but his 12.8 average finish was his best since 2006 and the third-best average of his 11-year career. With Roush Fenway Racing getting better as the 2010 season progressed, big things could be in store for Kenseth in 2011.

More than anything, the 2010 season marked the return of Kenseth's traditionally consistent ways. No driver completed more laps than Kenseth, and he finished outside the top 20 just four times last year. His fantasy value has never come from his top-five finishes, and the low total in 2010 isn't a sign of decline. If anything, Kenseth became better as the year progressed.

Assuming his performance in the second half of last season was a preview of what to expect in 2011, fantasy owners have to consider Kenseth a top-10 fantasy option. When he is running well, he is among the safest picks in the series. Based on his career numbers, Kenseth's top-five and top-10 totals should increase this season, which only drivers his value higher.

Since the start of the 2008 season, Kenseth has scored the second-most points at intermediate tracks, which makes him an elite option at more than half of the races on the schedule. He doesn't exactly excel at any other track type, but he doesn't hurt fantasy owners, either. Kenseth's ability to produce solid finishes almost every week makes him a safe pick at the end of the first round of fantasy drafts.

Clint Bowyer, Richard Childress Racing
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Clint Bowyer | No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper/General Mills/BB&T/The Hartford Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Clint Bowyer

While Bowyer's 2010 season will be remembered mainly for the 150-point penalty that eliminated him from title contention after the first race of the Chase, last year may have been his best since joining the Cup Series. He won two races during the Chase, tied a career high with seven top-five finishes, and set a new career high with 18 top-10s. Bowyer finished 10th in the final standings, but if you take away the penalty, he would have finished fifth.

The fact that Bowyer hasn't won a lot of races has kept him under the radar, but his overall numbers are actually quite impressive. In the last four seasons, he has posted an average finish of 14.9 or better, recording 16 or more top-10s in each year. Aside from road courses, Bowyer has averaged better than a top-15 finish at all track types on the schedule since 2008, ranking 11th or better in terms of points scored.

He may never be an elite fantasy option, but he certainly has the all-around ability to be considered a top-10 driver. There are only two tracks on the schedule where he hasn't finished in the top 10, and there isn't a single track on the schedule where he hasn't finished in the 15. He has scored the second-most points at superspeedways the last three years, and his inefficiencies at road courses have really been limited to Watkins Glen. He has two top-10s in his last three starts at Infineon.

It's easy to forget about Bowyer on draft day because he doesn't make a lot of noise in the media and doesn't make many trips to Victory Lane. That being said, there aren't too many drivers that offer his all-around production. No, he isn't an elite option and will probably never be one. However, he can certainly help fantasy teams on a weekly basis.

Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing
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Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Greg Biffle

There were ups and downs at times, but 2010 was a solid year for Biffle. He picked up two wins, 19 top-10s and finished sixth in the final standings. Biffle can be as streaky as any driver, but as the past few years suggest, he is a top-10 driver when all is said and done.

Biffle has finished seventh or better in the final standings in each of the last three seasons. During that stretch, he has averaged 10 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s while compiling a 14.3 average finish. He has posted better all-around numbers than he is given credit for, as well. In the last three seasons, Biffle has posted an average finish of 17.2 or better at all four track types on the schedule.

There is no doubt that he is at his best at the intermediate tracks. Fifteen of his 16 career wins have come at the intermediate tracks. That being said, he has shown in recent seasons that he can be a top-15 driver at every track type. He is always going to go through hot and cold stretches, but as long as he is performing at his current level, he is going to be a staple of the Chase.

From a fantasy standpoint, Biffle is an elite option at the intermediate tracks in all fantasy formats. Martinsville is the only short track where he struggles, and he needs to improve his numbers at Infineon. That being said, he is a safe No. 2 option for teams in "Draft and Play" leagues. He will carry a fantasy team at times, but the rough patches he experiences now and then prevent him from having first-round value.

Mark Martin, Hendrick Motorsports
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Mark Martin | No. 5 State Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Mark Martin

A year after finishing second in the final standings, Martin failed to make the Chase in 2010. A miserable summer stretch was to blame, and at times, it seemed as if the ageless veteran was finally over the hill. However, Martin was able to salvage his season with a strong run during the playoffs, and a return to the Chase in 2011 seems likely.

The offseason brought plenty of changes for Martin and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team. His crew chief Alan Gustafson was sent to Jeff Gordon's No. 24 team, while Lance McGrew left Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team to join Martin. In addition, Martin will now share a shop with Gordon after spending his first two seasons at HMS in the same shop as Junior and the No. 88 team.

Despite the struggles last year, Martin finished the year with a 15.3 average finish, and that number improved to 11.5 during the Chase. When you consider that his 2010 average was his worst since 2003, it is more than reasonable to expect a rebound from Martin in 2011. He probably won't be in the mix for the title, but a top-10 finish is more than reasonable. After all, the guy was still a top-15 option even in a bad season.

Martin isn't really an elite option at any track type, but he is a solid choice at almost every track. Not to mention the fact that he has been very strong at intermediate tracks and short tracks since joining HMS. Martin is the type of driver that can notch a top-15 finish on any given week, which makes him an excellent pick in Draft and Play leagues and a useful driver in any fantasy format. 

Kurt Busch, Penske Championship Racing
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Kurt Busch | No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

Kurt Busch

After looking like a legitimate title contender for the first half of 2010, Busch collapsed in the second half of the year. He still made the Chase, but he was a never a factor for the title. The two drastically different seasons have plenty of questions surrounding Busch as he enters the 2011 season.

There will be plenty of pressure on Busch to put his poor second half behind him. Shell-Pennzoil joined Penske Racing in the offseason to sponsor Busch and the newly formed No. 22 team. Unfortunately for Busch, there was really no obvious reason why he struggled. He managed just two top-five finishes in the final 18 races of 2010, and he was borderline unpickable in fantasy leagues.

Before fantasy owners get the wrong idea, it's highly unlikely that Busch has suddenly lost his talent behind the wheel. He still managed two wins and 17 top-10s last season. Busch has had a few down years, but he has at least one victory in every year since 2002 and has finished outside the top 15 in the final standings only twice during the stretch.

Busch is a threat to win at almost any 1.5-mile and 2.0-mile oval, and he is one of the top superspeedway options in the series. In fact, Busch has a 16.9 average finish or better at all four track types, which is why he is always in the mix for a Chase spot and why he deserves to be taken early in Draft and Play leagues. He probably doesn't have what it takes to be an elite force for an entire season, but he can certainly put up solid numbers in any fantasy format.

Also See: Fantasy NASCAR Cheat Sheet | Group A Analysis | Group B Analysis | Group C Analysis | Group D Analysis | Part-Timers Analysis