News & Media


Fantasy: New game, new rules add to Daytona excitement

February 16, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

It has never been easy to handicap a restrictor-plate, superspeedway race, but it just keeps getting more difficult.

The regular wild cards of blown engines, single-car accidents and mistakes on pit road that go into altering the finish of a stock-car race have the added unknowns of the Big One, the capriciousness of the draft, and now two-car tandems that are apparently becoming standard on the newly repaved superspeedways of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega SuperSpeedway.

Last year in Alabama, we witnessed two-car breakaways that were at least partially attributed to the added grip of the pavement and we are going to see the same thing this week. In the short period of time that we've seen cars on the track so far in Speedweeks, two-car tandems are dominating the running order. Two-car drafts run much faster than the multi-car lineups we've seen in the past and that has the potential to radically alter the finishing order of this year's Daytona 500 just like it did this past weekend with the Budweiser Shootout.

These tandems have been clocked going as fast as 206 mph, necessitating rule changes by NASCAR designed to slow them. Artificially slowing the field might create large drafting packs since it levels the playing field, but the intent of the aero changes is to allow the cars to still have enough acceleration to break apart from one another -- and that is probably going to leave the two-car tandems intact. If that happens, you will be watching a high-speed game of leapfrog and the last man standing will be the winner.

NASCAR Live

NASCAR.COM got ahead of the game, however. Literally.

One of its games this year will use a strength-based scoring system. NASCAR Fantasy Live (http://fantasygames.nascar.com/live/) will employ a scoring system that not only rewards a driver's finishing position, but also will award points for how well he ran during the race. This will eliminate some of the annoying turnabouts of traditional scoring, such as when a dominant driver crashes with a handful of laps remaining or when races devolve into gas-mileage contests and it's going to change the way you set your lineup.

Even more exciting, this game will feature live timing and scoring, so once you sign up and set your roster, you will be able to track your team in real time during the running of the race each week. We're excited about it, and are certain you will be, too.

The best news is, strength is how I basically have handicapped racing all along. The Power Average chart that you reference each week looks at various strength-based categories and assigns a finishing order to them. 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 a race. That chart will become your best reference tool on a given week.

The Favorites

Picking a favorite on the superspeedways always has been a bit of a crapshoot. During the past three years, less than a handful of drivers have swept the top 10 at Daytona each year and since 2007, only two drivers have swept the top 10 at Daytona and Talladega combined. Jeff Gordon performed that feat in 2007 and Kevin Harvick was perfect last year, but they also have had their fair share of hardship. After earning his four consecutive op-10s on plate tracks, Gordon finished outside the top 25 in four of his next five Daytona attempts. Before his perfect sweep last year, Harvick finished worse than 20th in three of the four plate races in 2009.

One of the factors we normally consider on plate tracks is laps spent at the head of the pack because the assumption has been that the fewer cars there are ahead of you, the fewer drivers there are to make mistakes. This week, our three favorites will come from those drivers with the most laps spent among the top 10 during the past three years at Daytona. Kyle Busch has experienced a lot of bad luck during the past two seasons at Daytona, but that doesn't mean he hasn't continued to run well. During the past three years, he has spent 71 percent of the possible laps (including the Gatorade 150 qualifiers) racing inside the top 10 before accidents in the 2009 Daytona 500 and 2010 Coke Zero 400 sent him to the showers with 40-something finishes. When he's kept his nose clean, he finished in the top five in four of five races from 2006 through '08, which includes a victory.

Jeff Gordon also has been star-crossed in recent years. With six victories on this track, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that he can contend on the plate tracks, but he has a tendency to try and make something happen with inopportune passing attempts. The two-car draft will eliminate that factor to some degree and regardless, he has managed to spend a lot of time at the head of the pack. His 717 top-10 laps is nearly two-thirds of those contested during the past three years, and that amount of time in the front of the field is going to earn you points under NASCAR.COM's new system. He's one of only two drivers who knows where he will start on Sunday before the Duel qualifiers are run and his outside front-row position is going to allow him to get a jump on the field with the right drafting partner and pad that statistic.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. inherited his father's ability to draft and for several years he was unstoppable on the plate tracks. His reputation and mystique has taken a beating in the past few years, but it's notable that he still has spent a lot of time in the top 10. His total of 712 laps is only slightly less than Gordon's. He won the pole Sunday, but a wreck in Wednesday's practice will send him to the rear of the field in a backup.

Daytona


Our experts make their picks for the Daytona 500.

Dark Horses

Dark horses abound at Daytona and it appears that will continue to be the case this week. While Hendrick Motorsports dominated the front row in time trials, the third- and fourth-fastest qualifiers are just as interesting. Rookie Trevor Bayne, in the famed Wood Brothers' No. 21, and Paul Menard aren't guaranteed to keep their starting positions for race day since the lineup will be set by their finishing position in their respective Duel, but they already have shown they have fast cars. Bayne could very well be one of the fastest rookies NASCAR has seen in the past few years and he has a traditional stock-car background with wins on local short tracks and in the K&N East and USAR series. Menard has found new life with Richard Childress Racing, which dominated the plate tracks last year with wins by Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

Bill Elliott is another driver who needs to be watched closely. While he might not spend as much time with the lead pack as the favorites, the old dog has a trick or two up his sleeve and is just as likely to finish in the top 15 as any other driver in the field. Car owner James Finch has recent victories and top-10s on the plate tracks with veterans like Mike Bliss and rookies like Brad Keselowski and that means that the team is the total package. Elliott won't race every weekend, so now is the time to take advantage of his experience.

Underdogs

Steve Wallace has a guaranteed start in the Daytona 500 courtesy of the owners' points from the No. 77 Penske Racing team from 2010 and he's going to get tossed into the deep end of the pool to make his Cup debut. One way or another, it's going to be exciting. While his speed in this past Sunday's time trials was well down the order, the draft is the great equalizer and he will try and find a comfortable place to ride. He knows that he is inexperienced in NASCAR's elite division, so he will most likely take on the role of pusher in a two-car draft. If he stays patient for the first three-fourths of the race, that could give him some track time with the leaders. Unfortunately, Wallace has a propensity to be crash-prone in the Nationwide Series, but we're willing to gamble an incident won't happen until the final frenetic laps.

Two other well-known drivers could be considered Underdogs this week because of their temperament and external pressures. Juan Montoya can be mercurial in the cockpit of these full-fendered stockers and when his temper gets the best of him on unrestricted, intermediate speedways, he is liable to initiate contact that all-too-often wrinkles his own fenders. In the draft, however, he holds a steady wheel and usually stays out of trouble. Last year, his greatest success was at Talladega where he earned a pair of third-place finishes, but he also crossed the line 10th in the Daytona 500.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Restrictor-plate tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos. Driver PA*
2.Kyle Busch8.44 17.Martin Truex Jr.17.04 32.Trevor Bayne27.00
3.Denny Hamlin11.28 18.Mark Martin17.42 33.Marcos Ambrose27.16
4.Kevin Harvick11.81 19.Carl Edwards17.99 34.A.J. Allmendinger27.55
5.Jeff Gordon12.79 20.Brad Keselowski18.28 35.Regan Smith27.79
6.Juan Montoya12.80 21.David Reutimann18.38 36.David Gilliland28.53
7.David Ragan12.82 22.Casey Mears19.39 37.Joe Nemechek31.15
8.Jeff Burton13.31 23.Greg Biffle19.63 38.Derrike Cope32.00
9.Brian Vickers13.64 24.Jamie McMurray20.51 39.J.J. Yeley32.77
10.Matt Kenseth14.04 25.Paul Menard21.04 40.Terry Labonte33.05
11.Kurt Busch14.40 26.Steve Wallace21.33 41.Dave Blaney33.31
12.Jimmie Johnson14.75 27.Ryan Newman22.56 42.Bill Elliott34.44
13.Clint Bowyer14.87 28.Travis Kvapil23.56 43.Michael McDowell34.47
14.Tony Stewart15.16 29.Michael Waltrip24.13 44.Robert Richardson34.68
15.Joey Logano16.51 30.Bobby Labonte25.03 45.Kevin Conway35.15

Rookies aren't supposed to run strong on the plate tracks because veterans don't like drafting with them, but David Ragan earned a top-10 in his first attempt on this type of track in the 2007 Daytona 500 and from the 2008 spring Talladega races through that same event last season, he rattled off five results of sixth or better and a worst finish of 17th in nine consecutive plate races.

%>