Parity among auto racing’s top teams has been a challenge for NASCAR fantasy players for several seasons, but last year was one of the most competitive on record. Thirty-three drivers scored at least one top-10 finish, and of those, 27 scored at least one top-five. Those strong runs were not limited to the wild-card restrictor-plate superspeedways as bargain-basement drivers in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game such as Sam Hornish Jr., Aric Almirola and Regan Smith also ran well on some of the toughest unrestricted, intermediate speedways.
Even when they failed to finish with the leaders, some less expensive drivers provided great value. Travis Kvapil scored one top-10 at Talladega in the fall that contributed to his being the fourth-highest points earner that weekend, but he was nearly as impressive in two of the remaining three plate races because of NASCAR.com’s unique points structure. Primarily because of challenges in qualification for this lightly funded team, and since the Fantasy Live game awards points for finishing better than a team starts, Kvapil continued to impress. He also was a top-10 points earner at Michigan, Kentucky and Texas.
The NASCAR Fantasy Live game proved in 2012 that picking winners was only half of the equation. Players also needed to determine who would run better than expected, and in that regard, this contest matches the sport. There are 43 drivers in a NASCAR event and only one reaches Victory Lane. Each week, the roster must be filled by five drivers -- and given salary-cap restrictions, it is difficult to have the five best racers every week. However, as long as exceptional bargains can be found, it is not impossible, and that was the key to winning in 2012.
It was somewhat ironic that even though parity defined the season, dominance meant quite a bit to a fantasy player’s success in 2012.
If one was lucky enough to have Jimmie Johnson activated when he won the FedEx 400 at Dover in the spring, they earned 241.5 points. Jeff Gordon finished 14th in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 in April at Martinsville, but the 231 points he earned were the second-most of any driver during the season. By comparison, the average top earner in each race scored about 138 points.
The NASCAR Fantasy Live game rewards a driver’s strength in addition to winning the race. And in 2012 the key to success was perfectly matching the driver to the track. The disparity between the top performers and the remainder of the field was greater on some tracks, such as those featuring 500-lap affairs, and much less on tracks with relatively few circuits. At Watkins Glen, Brad Keselowski earned maximum points, but he contributed only 69 points to a player’s year-end total. The average points for the Finger Lakes 355k at the Glen was only 23.9, so the biggest benefit was in selecting dominant players in longer events.
More than one-third of the full-time drivers last year earned maximum points at least once, which adequately spread the wealth among the field and made fantasy players’ job a challenging one. Those 14 racers ranged from Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who each scored maximum points only once during the season, to Johnson, who claimed the honor seven times.
In retrospect, the overwhelmingly dominant runs came at expected times. Johnson is a master of Dover, Gordon is legendary at Martinsville and Denny Hamlin is among the best there has ever been on short flat tracks, so the 220.5 points he scored at New Hampshire -- which was the fourth-most of all drivers during the season -- should not have been much of a surprise.
Managing the salary cap was tricky on occasions as the top performers typically were drivers that commanded the greatest price tag. However, there were some bargains to be had during the season, and it's a good time to reflect on when those deals could be had and which drivers were less valuable to the overall bottom line.
Top Points Earners
The battle for the 2012 championship came down to Johnson and Keselowski, so it will come as no surprise that they were among the most productive in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. What may be a little shocking is how much of an advantage the No. 48 had within the 2012 points structure for the game. Johnson averaged 71.7 points per weekend and did that without necessarily earning very many place differential points -- the difference of where a driver finished in reference to his official qualification effort. He qualified uniformly well with 13 top-five starts and he earned a lot of television time by running with the leaders all afternoon. Johnson scored the most points in NASCAR.com’s salary-cap game on seven occasions and these came on a wide variety of tracks, including the high banks of Dover, the flat corners of Martinsville and Indy, similarly configured, 1.5-mile tracks of Chicagoland and Texas, plus the Too Tough to Tame Darlington Raceway. If casual fans are tired of Johnson’s dominance, that could play into gamers’ hands and they should put emotion aside and ride his wave of momentum.
It is too soon to say Keselowski is a notoriously bad qualifier, but he finished better than he started in 27 of last year’s 36 races. Eight of his 13 top-fives in 2012 came after he qualified 13th or worse, and most of those strong runs came when he was forced to line up on the grid in the 20s. However, two of his best points days came when he qualified among the top 10 and won the Food City 500 at Bristol and the Quaker State 400 in Kentucky after starting on one of the first four rows. This is a young driver for whom the book is still being written, but week after week during the Chase he charged through the field. Keeping that level of strength in 2013 will be a challenge, but a lot of players lost a lot of points last year by underestimating Keselowski.
However, as strong as he was, Keselowski was not the second-highest points earner in 2012. That honor went to Denny Hamlin with an average of 58.7 to Kez’s 57.3. Raw points are only useful, however, if a fantasy player can calculate when they will be earned, and the No. 11 team was a much better value overall because it was more predictable. During his career, Hamlin has become known as a flat-track master and three of the five occasions when he received maximum points in the salary-cap game came on a short, flat track. Hamlin was the top earner in both New Hampshire races and in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond, but he also had solid performances at Atlanta and Daytona. If this team can become mistake-free in 2013, it should contend for the championship.
Elliott Sadler was originally scheduled to take the part-time role in the No. 55 in those weeks when Mark Martin was not behind the wheel -- at least for all but the road courses. When Sadler's Nationwide series owner Richard Childress balked at having him drive for a rival manufacturer, Brian Vickers seized an opportunity that led to one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Vickers came out of the gates strong in his first attempt. He finished fifth in the Food City 500, and since that was his first race of the season, he could be had for a bargain-basement price. Compounding his worth, he overcame a 25th-place qualification effort and earned 20 of his 140 points for that accomplishment. Vickers was so good in each of his short-track efforts that Michael Waltrip Racing turned the Toyota over to him on the road courses as well, where he continued to be impressive at Sonoma with another top-five. He blew an engine on the warmup laps at Watkins Glen and never got a chance to show his strength, but with that single dissenting race removed from his record he was just as strong as Hamlin and Keselowski.
Michael Waltrip Racing was strong across the board, and Martin Truex Jr. was probably its best fantasy value if you picked him on the right week. There were only two time periods when he managed to string together more than two consecutive top-10s, which kept his salary-cap number from spiraling out of control, but with 26 total top-15s, he was rarely a bad value. He did have a tendency to drop backward through the field when he qualified particularly well and conversely some of his strongest runs came on the heels of mediocre time trial efforts, but once fantasy owners identified that pattern, he was consistent enough to use on a regular basis.
There’s always 2013
In terms of raw finishes, Trevor Bayne was not all that bad in 2012. He finished 22nd or better in approximately half of his efforts and that should have made him a good value. Unfortunately, under NASCAR’s 2012 rules that locked in the top-35 in owner points, he was forced to put a lot of effort into qualification and that almost guaranteed he would fall back through the pack in the majority of his starts. Bayne finished worse than he started in 10 of 16 races and dropped so precipitously that he scored negative points on three occasions because of the unproductive pass differential. The top-35 rule goes away in 2013, but the Wood Bros., will still need to concentrate on qualification with the new procedure. Bayne will continue to improve as a driver, but it will take a few races before fantasy owners know whether to trust him.
The 2012 season had the potential to be difficult for Joey Logano. With his contract running out and Matt Kenseth looking for greener pastures, the former Rookie of the Year drove under a lot of pressure. He rose to the occasion a number of times and scored 12 top-10s, but it was difficult to predict when those would occur. He won the Pocono 400 by #NASCAR after sitting on the pole and needed to be aggressive in the closing laps to claim victory, but every time it appeared he was getting some momentum, it stalled. Logano posted back-to-back top-10s only four times, and he was able to earn three consecutive top-10s only once, which made it practically impossible for players to predict his strong showings. In the middle of the season, AJ Allmendinger was suspended for failing a random drug test and later released by Penske, which created an opportunity that might not have existed otherwise. Logano should be better in 2013, but he still could suffer through some growing pains.
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