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Kraft’s Korner: 10 NASCAR Fantasy Live rules to set rosters by (2019 edition)

With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season fast approaching, it’s time to get set for the 2019 NASCAR Fantasy Live game. There are a few tweaks to this year’s game but nothing too big. Leagues are open to sign up and you can set your lineup picks today! fantasy expert RJ Kraft has some guidelines for you to keep in mind while setting your fantasy roster weekly. Some of these carry over from last season, while others are new based on lessons learned from the 2018 campaign. Will these guidelines guarantee you league superiority? Hopefully, but not every situation is as cut and dried as “leave the gun, take the cannolis.”

On a weekly basis, Fantasy Fastlane will provide insight into each race weekend. But before we get into that, having a code or guidelines can be helpful in building out a roster, especially at the start of the year, so here are 10 helpful nuggets for playing.

RELATED: Sign up for Fantasy Live right now! | Fantasy FAQ: How to play the game

As you read, listen in to our first episode of the Fantasy Fastlane podcast.

1. Have a routine and stick with it
When I am plotting out my fantasy roster for the week, I typically set it initially on Tuesday when the week changes over. Then, I circle back after qualifying and practices while evaluating 10-lap averages to set my final roster and bonus picks. You don’t have to do it that way, but the point is to get into a pattern — based on that weekend’s schedule — where setting your roster and making changes becomes a habit. NEW THIS YEAR: Rosters will carry over from the previous week – meaning it’s on you, the owner, to make changes ahead of the next race unless you want to burn through the uses of your initial lineup.

2. Scripting out certain driver usage is advisable
With a cap on using drivers for 10 races, owners need to be judicious about how certain drivers — namely how the big point scorers like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick — are used. For example, you want to devise your strategy to take advantage of the natural speed that a team like the No. 4 of Harvick has right off the truck every weekend. For me, that means keeping him on the bench for the Daytona races and Talladega, as well as races where strategy may see drivers pit before the stage break and forgo stage points like we saw at Sonoma and Watkins Glen in 2018. By the same token, you want to know where to avoid certain drivers as well. In the case of Kyle Busch, who’s good nearly everywhere, those tracks would be Talladega, Michigan and Daytona.

Martin Truex Jr.
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3. Don’t hoard all of your uses for the very end
I got a little burned by Martin Truex Jr. in the 2018 game. I built a strategy around him being in my lineup for all 1.5-mile tracks and was too rigid on moving off of it. That cost me two really good fantasy days from him at Auto Club and Pocono last season. And then, as a result of my conservative usage of him early, I had four uses left in the last six races of the game. Through a series of circumstances – pitting a few laps before the stage ended at Pocono in the summer and some so-so results, I had Truex at my disposal for Indianapolis. That was all fine and well until he wrecked out 41 laps in, forcing me to put him in the garage and essentially leave a use of Truex on the table. For a driver that was one of the top three to have in the regular season, that’s a wasted opportunity for me in Fantasy Live.

Las Vegas test
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4. Be prepared to veer from the script, especially with the new rules package
While we like scripting out driver usage, sometimes life is like a Bruce Springsteen concert where the set list changes on the fly and ad-libbing and audibles are called. The real wild card here is the new rules package – in which we could see some unexpected teams and drivers find early success if they hit on something right away. This is an unpredictable variable that could see plenty of comers and goers in a race if the Las Vegas test was any early indication. In the same vein, a driver might start to get on a roll and you need to adjust to take advantage of that. With the number of young drivers coming into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ranks in the past few years, it will be difficult to rely on track history. Owners will need to rely on the eye test, lap times, speeds and more. Doing that will require being willing to drop the script like it’s hot in favor of who looks particularly strong over a consistent stretch.

5. Get ready to go to the garage
The garage driver feature is back for 2019! If a driver in your main lineup has trouble or gets in a wreck, no problem: Just go to your garage and swap him out. If you play other fantasy sports, consider this your bench for the given race. However, unlike other sports you can dip into the garage mid-race to make a change if you so desire due to performance or an incident/wreck by one of your starters. Last year, I used the garage for two main purposes: to either 1. hold someone in reserve that I was trying not to use but thought could be really good in a particular race or 2. stash somebody who looked good during the weekend on lap times but I wasn’t as certain on. The latter strategy will be my plan to start this season. There’s a host of intriguing drivers with something to prove or strong candidates to bounce back from disappointing 2018s like William Byron, Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez, among others. Utilizing the garage play means having your finger on the pulse of what is happening in a race. This is an application that can pay big dividends on your roster over the course of the season.

6. Going bonkers for bonus points
Bonus points are an added way to earn points in the game. In addition to selecting the race winner (NEW THIS YEAR: 10 points for the correct pick) and winning manufacturer (10 points for correct pick), players can now select a pole winner (five points for correct pick) and Stage 1 and 2 winners (10 points for correct pick). The race winner bonus point total is decreased from last year, which means using that spot to put someone you want to roster but maybe don’t because of usage issues isn’t as advantageous for players. A tip for qualifying picks: Teams typically do a run in qualifying trim at some point in an early practice session. Qualifying picks have to be set ahead of the qualifying session as picks should lock about five minutes before it starts. Selecting Stage 1 and Stage 2 winners is far from an exact science, but it’s usually solid reasoning that the cars that look strongest in practice with solid starting points can be expected to be up front in the end.

7. Scoring stage points should be a priority
With the scoring mirroring how drivers earn points in races, stage points should be something fantasy owners target. Stage points are a valuable added benefit for fantasy plays to target. Strategy plays can shake up the order in a race — especially at short tracks, road courses and Talladega and Daytona — but using last year’s stage point totals can also serve as a bit of a guide early on in the season.

Chase Elliott
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An example of this comes from last year’s Sonoma race. It was the 16th race of the season so by that point the playoff picture was taking shape and drivers and teams had a pretty good handle on if they needed a win to make the playoffs or if scoring stage points and having a solid points day was enough to keep their head above water in a quest to make the postseason. Strategy at Sonoma saw drivers like Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer bypass stage points in a quest for a race win. On the other hand, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Denny Hamlin went hunting for stage points to better their position to make the playoffs. I will certainly be looking for drivers in need of a points boost for this race in 2019. This is an example of knowing what factors drivers and crew chiefs are considering and taking into account how past races have played out to make the best informed decisions when it comes to your lineup.

8. The not-so secret sauce
It’s one thing to look at speeds from practice, but those do not tell the full story for the race weekend. 10-lap averages paint a more complete picture of what could be in store for the race. The 10-lap averages are an invaluable fantasy tool to measure longer run speed over 10 consecutive laps of practice. These stats are more frequent for the last two practices of a three-practice weekend and give a solid indication of who are the drivers that should have the speed to be factors in the race. These numbers tend to have little importance at Daytona or Talladega but carry major value at the intermediate tracks.

9. Go with your gut
I am fan of the TV show “NCIS” and the lead character, LeRoy Jethro Gibbs, is known for following his gut while working on cases and investigations. And that is my closing message to you, the fantasy player: Follow what your gut tells you. Your intuition is usually right. I get myself in more trouble than it’s worth when I start to overanalyze and second-guess every aspect of my roster on race day morning.

10. You can’t control everything
There is nothing you can do to prevent someone on your roster from getting disqualified in post-race inspection, so don’t drive yourself nuts trying to anticipate that. The points hit — any disqualified driver will receive last-place points while the rest of the finishing order moves up — will hurt your lineup if it happens, but there is literally nothing you can do about. Worrying about a post-race infraction when setting your lineup is like stressing over who may have an engine failure or be involved in a wreck. You can’t control it. So as Frankie says, “Relax.”