The Sprint Cup Series season is finally here after three long, cold months. It’s out with the old, and in with the new – literally. Jeff Gordon is retired to the television booth, and his replacement, Chase Elliott, is the youngest driver on the pole for the Great American Race. He’ll be joined on Row 1 by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth, who was just edged out by the rookie Elliott. Elliott’s father, Bill Elliott, has the two fastest pole speeds at the Daytona 500, including a 210.364 mph speed in 1987.
The Elliott’s certainly know about speed at DIS. The Daytona 500 will have a new look, too, as will every race this season. Instead of a field of 43 cars, there are just 40 in the starting lineup due to the new rules. Wood Brothers driver Ryan Blaney locked up his spot in the Daytona 500 field as the fastest open car, qualifying on speed. He and Matt DiBenedetto are among the non-charter team drivers set for the Super Bowl of Racing. As such, those two will be sleepers for Fantasy owners across the board.
The gold standard at restrictor-plate tracks is Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. According to NASCAR’s Loop Data, he leads all active drivers with a 104.4 Driver Rating over the past eight starts at Daytona International Speedway. He has led 182 laps, while running inside the Top 15 in 78.4 percent of his laps. He has dominated at the track, rolling up an Average-Finish Position of 5.8. He also leads all drivers with a 12.7 AFP in 32 starts, winning four times at the track while turning in 13 Top 5s, 19 Top 10s and 24 Top 20s, while leading 578 laps, more than any other driver in this season’s field.
In Yahoo! Fantasy leagues you only get nine starts per driver, but it’s prudent to use him right off the bat. Right on Little E’s heels is JGR’s Denny Hamlin, who has posted a 101.1 Driver Rating over the past eight runs at DIS, running 75.0 percent of his laps inside the Top 15 while rolling to an 11.8 AFP. He has won the Sprint Unlimited three times, including this past weekend, but he has never claimed checkers in the Daytona 500 or the summer race. However, the No. 11 has 11 Top 20s in 20 starts and only one DNF, so he is a safe play in NASCAR’s Fantasy Live game as well as DFS. Hamlin’s teammate Kenseth has been a productive driver at Daytona over the years, posting two wins with 20 runs inside the Top 20 in 32 career starts while compiling an 18.0 AFP. While he has a rather marginal 74.9 Driver Rating over his past four starts at the superspeedway, he will start on Row 1 and is an attractive Fantasy play across the board.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick is also a very dependable driver when it comes to restrictor-plate tracks. He is fourth among all active drivers with a 15.8 AFP, winning at DIS twice while posting 13 Top 10s in 29 starts. He has also led 178 laps, which is very important for DFS players on DraftKings.com. Harvick’s teammate Kurt Busch has never won at Daytona, but he ranks sixth among all active drivers with at least two starts at the track, posting a 17.1 AFP with 15 finishes inside the Top 10 in 29 starts. He might have no burnouts at DIS, but he runs up top more often than not. Somehow he has avoided the big one, too, posting just one DNF. Kurt’s brother Kyle Busch, the defending Sprint Cup Series champ, hasn’t always fared well at the Florida stop. He has a rather mediocre 18.9 AFP in 21 career starts, winning just once while posting only six Top 10s with five DNFs. It hasn’t been all bad, though, as his aggressiveness over the years has paid off with 329 laps led, a solid percentage based on his 21 starts. However, there are much better options for plate tracks than Rowdy, especially given his ultra-high salary based on last season’s overall success.
Penske Racing’s Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 last season, and he proved he is a threat to win on any type of track. Over his career, however, restrictor-plate tracks haven’t been his speciality. In fact, statistically Daytona is the fifth-worst track of his career, as he has posted a marginal 18.6 AFP with the lone win last year, just three Top 5s and four Top 10s while bombing out with two DNFs in 14 career starts. Logano is a big overpriced across all formats. Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, has not run well at Daytona in 13 career starts, posting a dismal 22.3 AFP with only three finishes inside the Top 10, a total of just 37 laps led and four DNFs. He is not a recommended Fantasy play in any format for the first race of the season.
Like Kes, JGR’s Carl Edwards just hasn’t seemed to be able to find a rhythm at Daytona. In 22 starts at DIS he has never won, while posting just eight finishes inside the Top 10. It clearly isn’t one of his better tracks. The same holds true for Ryan Newman, posting just one win and a dismal 20.5 AFP in 28 career starts with five DNFs. Martin Truex Jr. has also been terrible, failing to post a Top 5 finish in 21 career starts with an awful 23.2 AFP and five DNFs. This triumvirate will be very dependable from a Fantasy perspective down the line, even as soon as next week. Just avoid them right now, especially in Yahoo! where you have a limited amount of starts per driver.
If you’re looking for sleepers, Blaney and DiBenedetto are locked into the field, so start there first. DiBenedetto ($6.00) is particularly attractive in NASCAR’s Fantasy Live, as including him in your starting five will allow you to squeeze at least three high-priced studs into your lineup, as well as the pole sitter Elliott ($17.00), if you so choose.
Brian Vickers will be behind the wheel of the No. 14 for the injured Tony Stewart, and he is also a decent mid-tier Fantasy Live value at $13.00. He has nine Top 20 finishes in 16 career starts at DIS while leading 34 laps. He could be a nice No. 3 or 4 Fantasy driver Sunday. Austin Dillon has also had a lot of success over his career at Daytona, posting a 13.2 AFP in five starts, posting three finishes inside the Top 10 while leading nine laps. He has only finished outside the Top 20 once. At $20.00 he is a solid No. 3 driver in NASCAR’s Fantasy Live, while also serving as a tremendous sleeper at DraftKings with a $7,600 salary. Paul Menard is another lower-tier driver who could surprise. In 17 career Daytona starts he has nine Top 20 finishes.
SHR’s Danica Patrick is the only female to sit on the pole at the Daytona 500, and she has proven she can bring it at plate tracks. In seven career starts at Daytona she has never finished inside the Top 5, but she does have two Top 10 finishes with three Top 20s. Of course, she has also been collected in ‘The Big One’ twice, while leading a total of just seven laps. She is a risky play as a No. 4 or 5 driver, but she could also pay big dividends if she is able to avoid trouble.
FIVE THINGS TO REMEMBER
— Seven of the 57 Daytona 500’s have been won from the pole, while 26 of the 137 points races at Daytona have been won from the front row. That bodes well for Elliott and Kenseth, but there are certainly no guarantees. Last season’s winner Logano started from the fifth position.
— The worst starting spot to win at Daytona is 42nd, when Stewart went from near-worst to first back on July 7, 2012.
— The No. 43 car has been to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 more than any other number, winning seven times. However, it has been since 1981 since the checkered flag was seen hanging out the window of the 43. Can Aric Almirola end the drought?
— A Toyota has never been to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with 23 wins, followed by Ford at 14, including last season.
— Clint Bowyer has the highest Average-Finish Position (15.2) at Daytona International Speedway without any victories. In 20 career starts he has finished with three Top 5s, 10 Top 10s and 15 Top 20s with 152 laps led, but he has never won at the track.