The sheer dominance of Jimmie Johnson in Dover’s spring FedEx 400 or Jeff Gordon’s effort in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 two months earlier contributed more than 225 points to a player’s total, and if one was lucky enough to have those drivers in each race, maximum points were earned for the weekend.
This year, the points system for the NASCAR Fantasy Live game will change somewhat. Players still have the responsibility of selecting drivers capable of that kind of dominance to win their weekly contest—and one more strength-based category has been added to the formula, which makes it even more critical to pick the strongest racer. Successfully predicting individual races will be at once more beneficial—because of a Chase-style bonus system implemented for winning a regular-season race—but the long-term effects will not be as great. Once a race is completed, the raw points earned will be converted into race points similar to NASCAR’s current points system in the Cup series. Weekly victories will provide bonus points for the Chase, and all of the rules are detailed in What’s New for NASCAR Fantasy Live in 2013.
There are 43 cars in a NASCAR race and fantasy owners have to pick five to be on their roster. If NASCAR.com’s fantasy team does its job correctly, it should be impossible to take the five strongest every week because a salary cap of $100 must be managed. That means selecting the winner is not the only consideration. After all, Johnson won an impressive five Cup races in 2012, but he was the top points earner in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game on seven occasions. In last year’s Capital City 400 at Richmond, Tony Stewart earned the second-most points of 154 for that race, but it was more than the top points earner banked in 22 other events.
LESSONS LEARNED: A look back at 2012 fantasy season
Stringing top-fives and top-10s in the final rundown may have become commonplace for some drivers like Johnson and Brad Keselowski last year, but dominance can be mercurial. Fantasy players need to study the practice and qualification sessions with an informed eye to identify the drivers most likely to spend the majority of their time at the front of the pack, post fastest laps, or overcome poor qualification efforts, but in order to select more than one of these, a solid pool of potential dark horses must be cultivated. Last year, Brian Vickers’ part-time status insured he would be modestly priced, but Paul Menard, Travis Kvapil, and even Danica Patrick also performed much better than their salary-cap numbers indicated.
Each week, five drivers must be chosen and Johnson was nearly always one of the two or three most expensive picks in the salary-cap game. It was tempting to park him some weeks in order to free up the necessary room in one’s budget that would accommodate some other racer who dominated practice, but that was almost always a mistake. Johnson scored the most points in seven races last year, but he also banked the second-most on nine other occasions.
In total, Johnson was one of the top-five points earners in 21 races, or nearly 60 percent of the time. He scored top-10 points in 70 percent of his starts and all of that contributed to an average points total of 71.7, which was significantly better than anyone else in the field. Even with those numbers, he was not a place-and-hold driver because his bad races ran to a type. He scored negative points in three of the four restrictor-plate superspeedway races and probably should not anchor one’s roster for the season-opening Daytona 500. After that, however, all bets are off. One hidden benefit of his being uniformly strong is that while his salary-cap price is always high, it does not fluctuate much during a season. Therefore, fantasy players don’t lose any money when they have to reactivate the No. 48.
Kyle Busch missed the Chase, but it was not because of a lack of strength. This team was inconsistent, experienced some bad luck, and Busch made some poor decisions in various races, but when they clicked on all eight cylinders they were unstoppable. In the first 26 races of the season, they had difficulty sustaining momentum and that contributed to a relatively low salary-cap number. Other than a five-race period from Kansas in early April to Charlotte in late May when he swept the top 10 and earned four consecutive top-five finishes, Busch failed to post back-to-back top-10s until the very end of the regular season. He was determined to be the strongest of the non-Chase contenders and fulfilled that promise with exceptional runs that made him a top-five points earner in seven of the final 10 races. Better yet, he earned the most points three times in that span and it seems likely that he will carry momentum forward into 2013.
Brad Keselowski was filled with surprises in 2012. He spent most of the first half of the season jockeying for position and had back-to-back top-10s only once in the first 16 races. He won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky with equal parts strength and fuel mileage, but it was hard to immediately take him seriously as a fantasy contender with the uneven results that preceded it. Fantasy owners who instantly jumped on his bandwagon, however, got a great ride as he failed to crack the top 10 only twice more before the finale at Homestead. Equally important, he finished better than he started in all but one of those races and that contributed a lot of place-differential points to fantasy owners’ totals. It is difficult to imagine he will carry that momentum into 2013, but then again few experts predicted he would sustain it for so long at the end of last year, so he deserves a spot on the roster in the opening events and should be left in place until he falters for more than two or three consecutive weeks.
Jeff Gordon made the Chase and scored two victories during 2012. He also scored the most points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game on two occasions, and one of these banked the second-greatest points during the entire season. He was uneven for most of the year, however, and placing-and-holding him proved challenging until the final regular-season events and once the Chase began. Even then, six top-five finishes in the span of seven races from Bristol’s summer Irwin Tools Night Race through fall in Talladega were punctuated by poor results at Chicagoland and framed by equally disappointing efforts at Michigan, Texas and Phoenix. His Achilles heel continues to be late-race restarts during which he is either consistently unlucky or lacks the aggression to maintain track position. He should be used in races that are historically defined by long green flag segments.
Occasionally, change is good for everyone involved. Both Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano hope that is the case in 2013. Joe Gibbs Racing traded the potential of Logano for the current star power of Kenseth in order to maintain the current level of sponsorship. For Kenseth, the move will prove to be a lateral one, however, and he will run strong on tracks that have traditionally been kind to Busch and Denny Hamlin. That means his results will probably improve on short, flat courses and slip slightly on the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks.
For his part, Logano will also produce about as well in 2013 as he did in 2012. Since he will be in only in his fifth full season, the list of tracks of which he excels will be much less predictable, however. The No. 22 team utilized two drivers last season. Both AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr. produced exceptional results on occasion, but their strength is not likely to produce an adequate road map. Studying teammate Keselowski’s 2012 season will be equally unproductive in handicapping Logano because the reigning champion produced career-best finishes on a given track in more than half of his starts. That means this organization has the capacity to surprise and delight fantasy owners, but surprise is not the friend of gamers.
There are horses for courses and knowing when to ride one of them can mean the difference between success and failure. Jeff Burton had a generally miserable season, but he was uniformly strong on plate tracks and swept the top 10 in those races’ final rundown. That had the twofold effect of providing a consistent starter on courses that are often wild cards and allowed players to acquire him at bargain basement rates during those weekends. He was never one of the best values of the week on any track, but the 60.5 points he earned at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400, the 59.5 at Talladega in the Good Sam 500, 58 in the Daytona 500 and 54.5 in the Aaron’s 499 made him a top-10 value each time. The big tracks accounted for half of his strong runs. Considering how far down the points many of the most expensive drivers finished in those events, Burton was well worth starting.
Denny Hamlin has long been the master of short, flat tracks and that trend continued last year. He won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix in week two of the 2012 season and continued to score top-10s in the majority of races on this track type. He stumbled at Richmond and developed electrical problems at Martinsville late in the year, but he reversed his fortune in Phoenix’s fall race and finished second. Hamlin is not infallible by any measure and this team made a lot of mistakes last year, but it earned the benefit of the doubt on flat courses. Prepare to use the No. 11 at Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond and New Hampshire and go from there. If they practice well at Pocono and Indianapolis, they should also be activated on the longer versions of the flat tracks and then Hamlin can be salted into the lineup on other courses if he develops some momentum.
* The Fantasy Power Average is the average finish during the past year, 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 and several other strength-based stats. 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).
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