It’s time for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and there are a pile of contenders for this year’s championship. Not many were picking Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick as the title winner in the preseason last year, but he outlasted the field for his first-career championship.
In this installment of the track analysis, part one of two, we will look at the trends, NASCAR Loop Data, driver ratings and recent history to better prepare you for the Fantasy season, not only on Draft Day, for those picking drivers from week-to-week at restrictor-plate tracks, as well as road courses. In the second part, we’ll look at those Fantasy standouts (and busts) from intermediates/tri-ovals, as well as short tracks and flat tracks.
The season kicks off Feb. 22 at Daytona International Speedway for the first of two races on the SCS schedule. The first race would be difficult enough to handicap, as we simply haven’t seen any of the drivers since last November, some teams have new pit crews, chiefs, etc. and other have changed teams altogether. Toss in the fact it is a restrictor-plate run, which gives more drivers a chance to ride to Victory Lane, and it is a free-for-all for Fantasy players.
A quick look at Team Averages from DIS is super shocking. Since the 2013 season, Germain Racing leads all teams with a Top 5 finish and three Top 10 finishes at Daytona, leading the way with a 13.0 Average-Finish Position (AFP) in four races. They’re followed by Go FAS Racing, with a 15.5 AFP in two races. It is Team Penske, with two Top 5s and two Top 10s in eight runs to lead the so-called ‘Big Boy’ teams, followed closely by the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut, which also happens to have claimed victory in three of the past four races. The only other car aside from a Hendrick Chevrolet to claim checkers at Daytona is Richard Petty Motorsports, when Aric Almirola punched his ticket to the Chase last summer in his Air Force scheme No. 43 machine.
Looking at the career numbers, however, the cream certainly rises to the top. Hendrick’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads all active drivers with a sparkling 13.4 Average-Finish Position in 30 career starts, posting three wins, 11 Top 5s, 17 Top 10s and one pole, while posting a DNF (did not finish) just three times. He has led 450 laps at the plate run, and is considered the gold standard on such tracks. At Talladega Superspeedway, the season’s other plate run, Little E is second among all active drivers with five wins while also ranking second among active drivers with 832 laps led in 30 career starts, 14 fewer races than teammate Jeff Gordon who has 847 laps led.
Youngster Austin Dillon, who drives the No. 3 car made most famous by the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr., has shown tremendous ability at Daytona, posting a 15.0 AFP in three career starts with one pole already under his belt, as well as a Top 5 and two Top 10s. And never count out MWR’s Clint Bowyer, who has not made it to Victory Lane like his teammate Almirola, but he does check in third among active drivers with a 15.9 AFP in 18 career starts, posting three Top 5s while finishing outside of the Top 20 on just five occasions, three times collected in the ‘Big One’ for a DNF.
It’s no surprise Jeff Gordon leads the way with six victories at Daytona, and as mentioned he is the active leader in laps led at ‘Dega. Wouldn’t it be a storybook finish for the No. 24 to pull into Victory Lane in his final start at the Daytona 500 as a full-time driver? He has 44 career starts at the historic track, posting 13 Top 5s while claiming three poles, 623 laps led and 20 Top 10s. He has crashed out six times, but again, he has six wins at DIS and 12 victories in 88 career restrictor-plate starts.
On the flip side, there are guys who have been terrible at Daytona and Talladega, and you’re going to want to stay away. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray has been to Victory Lane twice in his career at Daytona, but he also has just three Top 5s, five Top 10s and a whopping eight DNFs in 24 career starts, posting a 23.5 AFP. We hear the Fantasy term ‘Boom or Bust’ frequently in other sports, especially in Daily Fantasy, but Jamie Mac is the quintessential boom or bust candidate in Fantasy Racing. He has the skills to negotiate his way to the front of the pack at plate runs, as is evidenced by his two Daytona wins and two career Talladega checkered flags, but he also seems to get collected in the wreck mess quite frequently.
Speaking of wrecks, Danica Patrick made history becoming the first female driver to earn the pole position at Daytona in 2013. However, she was unable to take advantage of that lofty position in the starting grid, posting two Top 10s and just three Top 20 finishes in five career runs at DIS, settling in for an AFP of 21.6. At Talladega, she has just one Top 20 finish in four career starts, posting one DNF and a 26.8 AFP.
Sam Hornish Jr. is also back this season for a full-time ride with RPM, but shy away from him at plate tracks. In seven career Daytona starts he has cracked the Top 20 just once, a 15th-place showing, while averaging a 28.4 AFP. If you’re searching for a Fantasy sleeper, David Gilliland generally has qualified well on the plate tracks, and he has one Top 5, two Top 10s and five Top 20 finishes in 13 career starts at Daytona, as well as a respectable 20.7 AFP in 15 career starts at Talladega, posting two Top 5s and four Top 10s in his career at the Alabama superspeedway.
Road courses are often very challenging for Fantasy owners, especially in leagues which limit starts to a certain number. You’re going to want to sprinkle your lineup with ringers, or those drivers who specialize in road courses and make a limited number of starts, while also going with a top-name driver or two. When dealing with salary considerations in Fantasy leagues, the top names are often times overpriced based on their performances at other track types. Don’t be afraid to use some of the names you might not know as well.
Marcos Ambrose has been a road course stud, but he has left Richard Petty Motorsports to return to Australia, a damaging blow to savvy Fantasy owners who remembered him each season. Still, Juan Pablo Montoya lurks, and will run a limited scheduled for Team Penske, and if he is in the field at either Infineon or Watkins Glen International, you will want JPM as part of your squad. He has 14 career road courses starts in Sprint Cup, claiming his only two Cup victories. He has nine Top 20s on road courses and an Average-Finish Position of 14.9, eighth among all active drivers.
Furniture Row Racing is not an outfit we think about first for Fantasy studs, but Martin Truex Jr. has shown tremendous ability on the road courses, posting a win, four Top 5s, seven Top 10s and 67 career laps led on the multi-turn courses in 18 career starts. He ranks 10th in AFP among all active drivers, and is a solid sleeper to remember on road courses. A.J. Allmendinger is another sleeper at road courses, winning ones with 10 Top 20s in 12 career starts.
Among the big names, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart has always been a threat at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. He owns seven career victories in 30 starts on road courses, second only to Gordon (nine). Stewart has a 10.3 AFP, which ranks first among all active drivers with at least 15 career starts, and he has finished inside the Top 20 in all but five of those 30 races.
Surprisingly, Carl Edwards ranks second among all active drivers with an 11.3 AFP, although he has just one win in 20 career road course starts. Still, he is careful, has 17 Top 20s and he has never recorded a DNF. That will make new team owner Joe Gibbs happy.
We mentioned ringers, and often times Boris Said is called upon to start at road courses. However, in 29 career starts on the short tracks, he has a 22.9 AFP and just one Top 5 while posting six DNFs. At one point he was considered a must-have ringer, but the luster has certainly rubbed off his once bright star.
Matt Kenseth is obviously a super Fantasy option at most tracks, but he is road courses are his kryptonite. He has 30 career starts between Infineon and Watkins, but zero Top 5s and just six Top 10s with an AFP of just 18.6. You also want to bother with the No. 88 for Fantasy purposes at road courses, as Earnhardt Jr. has zero career wins with only three Top 5s between Sonoma and Watkins Glen, posting three DNFs and an awful 21.3 AFP. Like Little E, Almirola is worth consideration at plate runs, but on road courses he is terrible. He has eight career starts and zero Top 10s with a 25.9 AFP.
TOP TIER BEST BETS ON PLATE RUNS
Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski
SLEEPERS ON PLATE RUNS
Austin Dillon, David Gilliland, David Ragan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brian Vickers (when healthy)
STAY AWAY ON PLATE RUNS
Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Martin Truex Jr.
TOP TIER BEST BETS ON ROAD COURSES
Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart
SLEEPERS ON ROAD COURSES
A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr.
STAY AWAY ON ROAD COURSES
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth