There is an old saying in sports: “You don’t win anything in practice, but you can’t win if you don’t.”
Casual fans turn on their television on race day, watch a little pre-race coverage, and then settle in for the green flag with their beverage of choice and a few snacks. Fantasy players are a different breed, and they become addicted to watching practice sessions, time trials and race news programs -- all while scrolling through datasheets on their computer. To make the task of handicapping races even more challenging, NASCAR continually throws curveballs at the drivers and fans.
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Enter the Generation-6 car, which replaces yesterday’s Car of Tomorrow.
NASCAR teams spent the off-season building new cars to new specifications and with the shortest break in all professional sports, there has not been much time to test the fresh machinery. The real test will come on the track in race trim, when the cars are wheeled in competition with points on the line. But fantasy owners already have their first bits of data in 2013 to consider. Daytona International Speedway held its traditional Preseason Thunder test and Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted 33 cars on Jan. 18.
Notably, both of these sessions were not without challenges that abbreviated practices. A big crash at Daytona sent several teams home early, while weather canceled one day of practice in Charlotte and caused the second day to start late.
Practice at Daytona must be taken with a grain of salt -- make that a shaker of salt. Only the teams know precisely what they are working to achieve and only the driver knows how the car feels. They do not typically share everything with the media or the fans. Players are left to infer the success of tests through practice speeds and intuition.
Unfortunately, speed is essentially meaningless on plate tracks because drivers go only as fast as the drafting pack will allow. Pack racing comprised of up to 43 cars is exciting for the fans, but nerve-wracking for fantasy players. The impending doom of a "Big One" crash hangs over the field like Damocles’ sword and all too often the brittle horsehair holding the blade in place snaps.
That was the case on Jan. 11 during Preseason Thunder. Dale Earnhardt Jr. attempted to bump-draft Marcos Ambrose and found that the front bumper of a Gen-6 Chevrolet and the back bumper of a Ford were not meant to go together. The No. 9’s back tires were lifted off the ground and with no traction, he spun in front of the pack. Ambrose collected Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Regan Smith, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Aric Almirola. This incident effectively ended the test session for those drivers and caused the field to treat any further drafting practice with apprehension.
The Gen-6 car has been designed to put racing back in the hands of drivers and early indications are that will be achieved. The cars are more unstable in the draft than their predecessor on the plate tracks, which should cause the racers to create a little more separation between their cars. Over lengthy green flag periods, that gap will allow drivers who have a feel for how the cars suck up to one another to excel. Plate-track masters like Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton should be considered greater threats now that the test has been completed -- if they can avoid any carnage that ensues soon after a green flag waves.
Charlotte provided a much more important test. Without the threat of a big crash or the erratic nature of the draft, drivers have more control of their fate on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Moreover, the similarly configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks host more than one-third of the NASCAR schedule so any driver who wants to qualify for and win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series must be strong on them. The sheer volume of these tracks makes them equally important to fantasy owners.
The Charlotte test was a chance at redemption for three of the drivers who suffered the ignominy of crashing at Daytona. Almirola topped the charts on the 1.5-mile track on Jan. 18 with a speed of 194.021 miles per hour, which beat the current track record set by Biffle last October that stands at 193.708. Edwards posted the second-quickest time at 196.673, and Ambrose was fourth-best at 193.285.
The Gen-6 cars are fast, but they are also stable on the intermediate tracks. While at Charlotte, Burton equated stability with improved competition, saying the only way to get the cars close to one another on the track is to “slow them down a little bit, make them drive better, and try to get them closer together so you have more action."
Notably, Casey Mears posted the third-fastest time in his Ford during that session. This team spent much of the 2012 season as a bargain in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game and will start 2013 with a modest price tag. If they can sustain their speed on the intermediate tracks, they will be one of the best deals in the game and one of the most pleasant surprises.
The Charlotte test also gave fantasy players a sneak peek at the Rookie of the Year battle. Danica Patrick had one of the fastest cars in Daytona, but that was a function of being in the right draft. At Charlotte, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clocked in with a speed of 192.342 that placed him 10th on the chart. Patrick was able to squeeze only 190.530 out of her Chevrolet, which was 27th-best of 33 cars. This is significant because the rookie contenders will also start the season with a modest salary cap and cannot be ignored for players who need to manage their budget.
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