Since the first fantasy racing game was ever created, it has been a cruel irony that the Daytona 500 kicks off the season. NASCAR fans sit mesmerized in front of their television sets or in the stands as packs of more than 30 cars battle nose to tail; fantasy players have a slightly different view of the race, since buried deep inside the maelstrom are the drivers they selected to earn points, maneuvering for position and trying their best to get to the finish line with an unwrinkled racecar.
Recently it has become easier to count the cars without crash damage at the end of day than try and keep record of the ones that experienced trouble. In the 2012 Daytona 500, only 15 cars were unscathed at the end of the race. Staying out of trouble is a vital skill, because it is notable that the top seven finishers were among the undamaged.
This past fall, a 28-car melee coming off turn four on the final lap of the Good Sam 500 drove home an important point: No one races on the restrictor-plate superspeedways for long without damage, but there are a few drivers who have been better than others at keeping their nose clean. Before getting swept into that last-lap accident, Jeff Burton survived four consecutive races without damage. Matt Kenseth got knocked around slightly in the Coke Zero 400, but managed to stay tucked in the draft and finished third; he survived the four races prior to that event. Paul Menard enters the weekend with three consecutive accidents on the three most recent plate tracks, but before his spate of bad luck, he was unmarked in six straight races.
Fantasy players need to enter the Daytona 500 knowing that there is a strong possibility several or even all of their drivers will be caught in an incident on race day, but there are ways to minimize the risk. Success predicts success and there are several in the field who earned three or four top-10s at Daytona and Talladega last year. These are the favorites.
Kenseth has to top the list as this week’s top pick on the plate track, despite his recent move from Roush-Fenway to Joe Gibbs Racing. He won last year’s Daytona 500, the Good Sam 500 at Talladega in the fall, and finished third in each of the other two plate races. Kenseth’s unemotional approach to racing usually keeps him out of trouble and that is a trait worth its weight in gold in the draft.
Burton had a generally miserable season in 2012, but ironically the superspeedways were his safe harbor. Along with Kenseth, he was the only driver to sweep the top 10 in the four plate races. In fact, he might even be slightly stronger overall with a runner-up finish in the fall Talladega race that gives him a current streak of five consecutive top-10s on this track type.
Brad Keselowski got off to a slow start last year and finished 32nd in the Daytona 500. He rebounded quickly, however, and won the Aaron's 499. Despite sustaining crash damage in both fall races on the plate tracks, he managed to record top-10 finishes and his seventh in the Good Sam 500 helped secure his championship. Keselowski has not yet won a Cup race at Daytona, but he will still be a favorite this week.
Greg Biffle rounds out the list of drivers who nearly swept the top 10 on plate tracks last year. His single bad race came at Daytona in July when he was slowed by last-lap crash damage and finished 21st, but the remainder of his results were sixth or better. In 2011, he scored only one top-10 on this track type, but earned three consecutive top-20s, making his average finish during the last seven plate races better than 11th. If fantasy owners could be guaranteed a top-15 for one of their drivers, they would be foolish to pass that up.
Michael Waltrip has a knack for plate racing, which is apparent from his three Daytona victories and one more at Talladega. He has not won since 2003, but he was on his way to Victory Lane last fall at Talladega until Tony Stewart misjudged a blocking maneuver and spun Waltrip rather than stalling his momentum. Moreover, Waltrip has managed to score top-10s in two of his latest four plate starts and that makes him an exceptional value at his current salary cap of $12.00.
Any driver in the field this week can be a dark horse. Before the last-lap accident at Talladega, Waltrip was being pushed by Casey Mears and those drivers would have had enough momentum to finish first and second. Another sleeper, Travis Kvapil managed to coax his damaged Toyota to the line in eighth, trailing fellow dark horses David Ragan and Regan Smith, who finished fourth and fifth respectively. Players should not be afraid of selecting a bargain basement driver this week, especially if that makes room for two or three of the favorites; the Daytona 500 is about salary cap management.
At the beginning of his career, it appeared Marcos Ambrose was destined to be a great plate racer. He finished 17th in his inaugural Daytona 500 and swept the top-10 in his next two starts, but that success literally came crashing to a halt in the 2009 Amp Energy 500 at Talladega. He limped his damaged car home 34th that afternoon and was swept into an accident in all but one of his next 12 starts. The one race in which he did not sustain crash damage was the 2010 Daytona 500 and that was largely because he blew an engine on lap 79.
Jeff Gordon finished second last fall at Talladega, but that has been the recent exception to his rule. In 2012, he blew an engine in the Daytona 500, which got his season off to a rocky start that was difficult to overcome. He crashed and failed to finish the Aaron's 499 after winning the pole and was involved in four separate incidents in the Coke Zero 400. Luck is unpredictable, but it must still be accounted for, and Gordon will simply want to survive this weekend.
* The Power Average is the average finish during the last three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five, and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the race. A driver's recent record in the support series is also factored in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a 44th-place finish).
The restrictor-plate superspeedways are Daytona and Talladega.
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