RELATED: NASCAR Fantasy Live
NASCAR has the longest schedule in organized sports. Running from mid-February through mid-November, it seems as if there is only a moment or two to eat a little Turkey, open some Christmas presents, watch the ball drop in Times Square, and buy a Valentine’s Day gift before settling into a comfy armchair to watch the Daytona 500.
For diehard fans, the wait is interminable. They have to find some way to pass the time.
While the teams prepare new cars for 2014, players reflect on what they did correctly or could have done better to make their fantasy teams more successful. After the Ford EcoBoost 400, teams sat down and did one final debrief before scattering to spend time with their family. Now, it is the player’s turn to reflect on some of the lessons learned.
The NASCAR Fantasy Live game replicates the demands of a NASCAR race very well. The drivers on players' rosters not only had to finish at the front of the pack, but they also were also awarded points for the number of quality passes, fastest laps run, place differential, and laps led by each of their drivers. To score maximum points, fantasy owners had to put a complete race together that took advantage of this unique system, much the same way that crew chiefs have to keep up with the handling of their car as the track goes through changing conditions.
Over the course of the season, there were dominant drivers and it paid heavy dividends to have them on one's roster. In every race, there were also effective dark horses, who may have scored top-10 points without actually finishing that high on the grid.
The following are some of the lessons learned from this past fantasy season.
In terms of must-have drivers, Jimmie Johnson stood alone. Winning his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship was reflected in his average finish of about fifth in those final 10 races and an-all-but-perfect streak of top-10 finishes, but it was also reflected in NASCAR Fantasy Live's scoring. Johnson was the only driver to record top-10 points in every Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race. He ran well enough during the regular season that by the time the final 10 races rolled around, he was a fixture on most rosters so his rising salary cap did not hurt players.
The Lesson: Johnson typically runs better at the end of a season than its beginning, but players cannot wait too long to add him in 2014 -- or remove him at his greatest value because he could become prohibitively expensive early next season.
After Johnson, there were very few place-and-hold drivers. Even Matt Kenseth showed a more erratic pattern than the No. 48 and finished outside the top 10 in fantasy points twice in the last five races. The remainder of his season was equally hard to predict. He failed to earn top-10 points in 40 percent of his attempts in the first 18 weeks. The race for the Chase was even worse and he scored enough points to make him a good value only three times in 10 races. His greatest value came during the Chase, however, and in those 10 events he rivaled Johnson for the status of a "must have."
The Lesson: Fantasy players occasionally need to be patient with drivers like Kenseth. They run strong nearly every week so that their salary caps do not typically drop enough to warrant taking them off a roster. Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer fit into this same category by earning top-10 or -15 points in the overwhelming majority of their starts throughout the season.
The next group of drivers was most useful in certain situations. Denny Hamlin began the season in his usual fashion by being strongest on short, flat tracks. When he hurt his back in an accident at Auto Club Speedway, he struggled for quite a bit, but his victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the culmination of a series of resurgent runs in the latter stage of the season and he put himself back on players' radar screens with a single victory.
Joey Logano was another situational driver. He was much stronger on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Martin Truex Jr. was a top value on most of the similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks early in the season, and never cost players very much to activate.
The Lesson: Players need to look for patterns and adapt to them early. The NASCAR season is long and mistakes made early in the year can be overcome, so there is no reason to avoid jumping on bandwagons early for drivers who run well situationally. Getting the right mix of these racers in the middle salary car range, will help differentiate one's roster.
Managing the Budget
Winning one's league was often about maximizing the potential of bargain basement drivers. Rookies like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick were useful because they improved during the course of the season, but were never quite strong enough to command a huge price increase. They also showed the erratic nature associated with first-year drivers, which kept their salary cap from fully catching up to their potential value.
There were other drivers who players could be assured would earn points. Dave Blaney was often one of the better bargain drivers because he qualified relatively poorly nearly every week and advanced in nearly every race. His place differential of about seven positions per race added nicely to the finishing points awarded for an average result of 29th.
The Lesson: There is a multitude of strategies involved in winning and players can chose the one that matches their personality best. While it is impossible to ignore marquee drivers like Johnson, Kenseth, and Harvick, a player can only win if they pay attention to the full roster of 43 drivers. That is one of the reasons to read the fantasy editorial each race and seek out the week's diamond in the rough.