NASCAR Daytona 500 Practice Recap: Sleeper Drivers to Watch
When the green flag waves at Sunday's Daytona 500, the 2014 Sprint Cup season will officially be underway. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the season opener can also be one of the most treacherous races of the year, making the strong start that every fantasy owner wishes for is very tough to come by. I have long been an advocate for using sleeper drivers at restrictor plate tracks, especially in formats that cap the number of times a driver can be used. For one, drivers that are lucky to crack the top 25 most weeks can finish in the top 10 at the plate tracks. More importantly, big name drivers are much more likely to wreck at the plate tracks than any other track on the schedule. With that in mind, this week's post-practice recap focuses on drivers that could be worth rostering this weekend that have traditionally struggled at Daytona or who aren't traditional fantasy starters.
Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx, Joe Gibbs Racing [Yahoo Class B]
His career record at Daytona is nothing to smile about. In 16 starts, he has compiled a 21.5 average finish and has just two top-10s compared to six finishes outside the top 25. However, he has been nothing short of dominant during Speedweeks. In addition to winning the Sprint Unlimited last weekend, he won his qualifying race Thursday. Hamlin may or may not wreck come race day, but at the very least, fantasy owners can feel comfortable knowing he will have one of the strongest cars on the track.
Kurt Busch, #41 Haas Automation, Stewart-Haas Racing [Yahoo Class A]
He has bounced around between smaller teams the past couple of years, and he has struggled at the plate tracks during the stretch. In his last four starts at Daytona, he has finished outside the top 25 three times. That being said, Busch did reel off eight top-15s in nine starts at Daytona from 2007 to 2011 while driving for power teams like Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske. He is back with a premier team this season, and Busch picked up a top-five in his qualifying race Thursday in his first start with Stewart-Haas Racing. If his performance Thursday is any indication, Busch could be poised to reemerge as one of the top plate track drivers in the series.
Paul Menard, #27 Menards, Richard Childress Racing [Yahoo Class B]
Menard has never been a fantasy juggernaut, but he has quietly been one of the more reliable plate track drivers in the series the past several seasons. In his last eight starts at Daytona, he has five top-15 finishes, including three top-10s. Yes, he benefits from driving for a Richard Childress Racing organization with a great plate program, but fantasy owners should be less concerned with why he is successful and more concerned with his results. Menard was up to his old tricks in his qualifying race Thursday, logging a top-five finish. He should be good for another solid showing Sunday.
Marcos Ambrose, #9 Stanley/Dewalt Power Tools, Richard Petty Motorsports [Yahoo Class B]
His career numbers at Daytona are bad to say the least. In 10 starts, he has a 23.7 average finish. Worse yet, he has just one top-10 finish compared to five finishes outside the top 25. However, Ambrose has been surprisingly solid during Speedweeks. He finished in the top 10 in the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday, and he posted a top-five finish in his qualifying race Thursday. Ambrose will start seventh Sunday, and while his numbers up to this point at Daytona say stay away, owners willing to gamble on the speed he has shown thus far could be rewarded.
A.J. Allmendinger, #47 Kingsford/Clorox, JTG Daugherty Racing [Yahoo Class B]
Allmendinger has had a love/hate relationship with Daytona throughout his career. He has finished as high as third in the Daytona 500, and in his last four starts at the track, he has two finishes of 11th or better. Granted, he has basically wrecked in every other start at Daytona, but Allmendinger looked sharp en route to a top-10 in his qualifying race Thursday. He is a boom-or-bust option for sure, but if Thursday was any indication, one of his better runs at Daytona could be on tap this weekend.
Aric Almirola, #43 Smithfield Foods, Richard Petty Motorsports [Yahoo Class B]
In three of his five starts at Daytona, Almirola has finished outside the top 30. That being said, he has cracked the top 20 twice in his last three starts at the track, including a career-best 13th-place run in last year's Daytona 500. Almirola is taking baby steps at the track, and he had another solid outing Thursday when he logged a top-10 in his qualifying race. Throw in the fact that his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose has also looked strong during Speedweeks, and the recipe for a career day at Daytona could be in place for Almirola.
FFToolbox Fantasy NASCAR Writer since 2011
I grew up in a racing family, and I spent my childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky. NASCAR became a passion of mine at an early age as well, and I have been following the sport ever since I can remember. While I earned my degree in journalism at Ohio State University, I began writing about NASCAR for several Web sites in 2005. I became head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com and FantasyCup.com in 2008 and was a finalist for the Fantasy Sports Writer's Association NASCAR Writer of the Year in 2009. My knowledge of NASCAR stems from my lifelong love of the sport, and I believe that passion shows through in every article I write.