Related: NASCAR Fantasy Live | Streak to the Finish
NASCAR visits the restrictor-plate superspeedways four times per season and surviving these weekends can be one of the most difficult tasks faced by players.
Handicappers attempt to impose order on what is essentially a chaotic enterprise. Las Vegas odds makers will set their numbers and experts will identify favorites, but all too often the winning driver is the one with the right combination of luck and skill -- and he is not identifiable before the race begins.
Michael McDowell and JJ Yeley earned well deserved top-10s in this year’s Daytona 500, but they slipped to 21st and 31st in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega SuperSpeedway respectively. David Ragan and David Gilliland finished deep in the pack at Daytona before they became the dramatic feel good story in Alabama by finishing first and second. Certainly Daytona International Speedway and Talladega race differently, just as there are no two similarly-configured, 1.5-mile courses that are identical, but there is one overriding similarity between the two plate tracks. The draft is a great equalizer and there is the looming likelihood of a multi-car accident.
If a driver survives the inevitable "Big One" crash, he is liable to have a strong finish, but there are other factors at play that make sifting through stats challenging. Last year four drivers swept the top 10 at Daytona with Matt Kenseth leading the way. He won the Daytona 500 and finished third in the Coke Zero 400, but in a new car driving for a new team, he blew an engine this February. Coming off last week’s victory in Kentucky, he will be considered one of the favorites and he often has a little luck on his side. In last year’s Good Sam 500, which was marred by a 28-car accident in turn four on the final lap, he dodged the melee and won his second plate race of the season.
Fortunately for players of the NASCAR Fantasy Live game, finishing position is not the only way to earn points. Aggressive drivers who like to stay up front with the leaders can amass a lot of Quality Passing points as the draft ebbs and wanes. Joey Logano is one of the few drivers who swept the top 10 at Daytona last year and he is the only one to rank among the top 10 in Quality Passing points in both superspeedway races this season. He logged the sixth-most passes of 128 in the Daytona 500 compared to the leader’s 155 and the fifth-most of 200 at Talladega. He did not finish well in either event, but he was one of the top-10 points’ earners at Daytona.
One other factor that is often important on plate tracks is laps in the top 10. The closer one is to the front of the pack, the fewer drivers there are that can make a costly mistake ahead of them and to score Quality Passing points, one has to be among the leaders. At Daytona during the past three years, Greg Biffle has spent the most time among the top 10 with 55 percent of his circuits around the track occurring in the lead pack. That translated to a third-place finish in the 2012 Daytona 500 and a sixth this year and should make him a top pick on Saturday night.
There is always a risk associated with taking specialists or teams that only show up on a given track type. Often the chemistry between driver and crew is not quite right or there is little incentive to get back out and finish after losing a lap or two, but that is not the case with Michael Waltrip. Since he owns the team and since they utilize three drivers in a season, the issue of chemistry is a non-factor and this team is competing for owners’ points, so they will not stop running when adversity strikes. Racing in a draft is a specialized skill and it takes the right personality to keep from making impulsive moves. Waltrip finished ninth in this race in 2012, probably would have won last year’s fall Talladega race, and finished fourth on that track this spring. Dollar for dollar, he is the best pre-race investment a fantasy player can make.
Other, more traditional dark horses include drivers who view the plate races as opportunities to shine. The draft is a great equalizer that has helped drivers like McDowell, Yeley, Ragan, Gilliland, and Scott Speed score top-10s in programs with far less funding than the superteams. Predicting who they will be until the final lap is impossible, however, because there are simply too many variables at play. Will they avoid the "Big One" crash, will their engines go the distance, and will they get sufficient drafting help on the final lap to finish with the leaders are all unknowns. Players should avoid the temptation to jump on a bandwagon just because a team had a strong run in their last superspeedway outing, but they should also pepper their lineup with less expensive drivers to ensure they can anchor the roster with two or three marquee racers.
Predicting which drivers will be involved in a "Big One" crash is a lot like flipping a coin. If it has come up heads nine times in a row, the odds of it coming up tails the next time is still 50 percent. There is no clear way to predict who will be involved in this week’s inevitable multicar crash, but the odds are good that one of those drivers will be Marcos Ambrose. He has been involved in an accident at least once in 13 of the last 15 plate races. Occasionally, the damage is slight enough that he can tuck into the draft and score a top-15, but that is hard to count on. Moreover, he will almost certainly earn negative points in the Place Differential column since he has finished worse than he started in 12 of his last 15 plate starts.
Kurt Busch has a lot of top-fives and -10s at Daytona and Talladega. He is generally accepted as one of the best plate racers in the field, but like Ambrose he has become crash prone in recent seasons. He has sustained crash damage and failed to crack the top 10 in his last nine consecutive races on the big tracks. In fact, he has not finished within five laps of the leader on the plate tracks in six of his last seven attempts and it is difficult to score many points when that happens. The quarter could come up heads for the No. 78 team this week, but it seems much more likely that Busch will head for the garage at some point during the running of the Coke Zero 400.