Daily Fantasy NASCAR: GEICO 500 Track Preview

What do we need to know about Talladega before filling out daily fantasy NASCAR lineups for the GEICO 500?

One of the unique challenges with daily fantasy NASCAR is that every track is different. Not only does this mean that certain drivers will perform better at one place over another, but each track will have different scoring tendencies than the previous one. That means we need to alter our strategies from one week to the next.

Each week here on numberFire, we're going to dig into the track that's hosting the upcoming weekend's race to see what all we need to know when we're setting our lineups. We'll have a separate piece that looks at drivers who have excelled there in the past; here, we just want to know about the track itself. Once qualifying has been completed, we'll also have a primer detailing which drivers fit this strategy and should be in your lineup for that week.

This week, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is heading on down to Talladega for the GEICO 500. It's a 188-lap, 500-mile race at the circuit's biggest track, and it is a place where a driver's qualifying position will be vital to his appeal for DFS. Let's dig in and discuss why.

Track Overview

For those of you who are new to NASCAR, Talladega is one of two tracks (Daytona being the other) where the cars run with restrictor plates on their engines. This limits the flow of air to the engine, cutting down its horsepower. Most importantly, that means the cars run in giant globs the entire race.

This has a couple of different implications that will alter the way we plan for DFS.

First, it's easy for a driver to start in the back of the pack and finish near the front. The driver who finished second in that clip above, Jamie McMurray, started 23rd. Jimmie Johnson finished 8th after starting 30th. Given that we get fantasy points for place differential, you're going to want to key in on drivers who start at the back but could finish at the front. More on that in a bit.

Second, because they run in giant packs, it's rare for one driver to dominate the race and lead a bunch of laps. The most laps led by a single driver in a race over the past four Talladega races was Brad Keselowski leading 90 in the fall of 2016. That means he received nine points on FanDuel for laps led, the equivalent of 18 place-differential positions. And that's the maximum over the past four races. No other driver has led more than 60 laps in that span.

The real kicker here? Keselowski finished 38th in that race and scored just 8.4 FanDuel points.

This makes sense not only because of the nature of pack racing but also because there are only 188 laps total in the race. Even if a driver were to lead every single lap, they'd still receive just 18.8 points for laps led. And good luck predicting which driver will lead those laps. Add this to how easy it is to pass, and you can see why drivers starting in the back carry plenty of allure.

Along with the big packs, though, come big wrecks. And it doesn't matter where you're running; "The Big One" can get anybody.

It can happen at the middle of the pack...

Or all the way at the front.

Nobody is safe from this nastiness, and we do need to account for that in our lineups.

If a driver starts at the front and is involved in The Big One, his place differential will be grotesquely negative. That's going to kill pretty much any lineup. It means we should be wary of drivers starting in the front half of the field, especially in cash games.

Additionally, this is going to lead to extremely high variance in the finishing positions for drivers each time the series comes to Talladega. Unless the driver is a stone-cold stud starting all the way in the back, we're going to want to limit our exposure to him so as to protect ourselves in case they do wind up being involved in a crash. This is more of a concern here than at almost any other track on the circuit.

Historic Scoring Trends

Given all of this, it should be pretty obvious that drivers starting at the back of the pack will have a slight edge on those starting at the front. We can see a similar thread in looking at historic scoring trends at the track.

Let's go back to the past four races at Talladega. This should give us an idea of which starting positions hold an advantage over the others.

The chart below shows the FanDuel point output of each driver in these four races, based on their starting position.

FanDuel Points at Talladega by Starting Position

This looks like a big blob of nothingness, and it should. The correlation between FanDuel points scored and starting position at this race a year ago was 0.155, meaning there was a very weak relationship between the two, and drivers' expected scoring output would go up the further back they started. We can still learn from this chart by breaking it down a bit more in depth.

At the far left-hand side of the chart, you'll see that drivers who start at the front of the pack haven't had much upside in these four events. Only two drivers starting in the top five have topped 60 FanDuel points. One of them -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -- got there because he won the race. The other -- Joey Logano -- led 59 laps. You need a great race from these drivers in order to justify selecting them at that slot.

So, which ranges should we be targeting instead?

Here's a look at the average FanDuel point output over these four races by starting position in intervals of five. This should make the trends easier to see than with the chart.

Starting Position Average FD Points
1st to 5th 31.67
6th to 10th 41.07
11th to 15th 35.91
16th to 20th 37.42
21st to 25th 39.94
26th to 30th 44.60
31st to 35th 39.30
36th to 40th 37.25

The scoring of drivers starting in the top five plays out here, too. They're not great for tournaments due to the lack of upside, and their average scores leave plenty to be desired for cash games. They're big risks that we should be wary of trusting.

What's the difference, then, between them and the drivers starting 6th through 10th? There isn't a huge difference, but they have produced more high-upside performances.

The table below shows how often drivers starting in each range have produced 60-plus FanDuel points over the past four races at Talladega. There have been 24 total drivers to hit that mark in these four races, and not many of them started near the front.

Starting Position Drivers to Score 60+ Points
1st to 5th 2
6th to 10th 5
11th to 15th 0
16th to 20th 3
21st to 25th 5
26th to 30th 5
31st to 35th 3
36th to 40th 1

Of the 24 drivers to score 60 FanDuel points, only 7 started in the top 15 for that race. Only 10 were in the top 20. A majority of the high-upside days came from drivers starting 21st or lower.

Does this mean we shouldn't use a driver starting in the top 15? It certainly depends, but we shouldn't rule them out altogether.

For cash games, all of these drivers will be risky propositions. If they get in a wreck, the downsides in place differential are greater for them than for drivers starting near the back. You need to correctly identify which drivers will finish near the front, and that's no easy task here.

Instead, we should be focusing on that middle-to-back section for cash games. This is where the scoring averages were highest, and they also produced the most 60-point days. The blend of safety and upside is exactly what we should want in that format.

For tournaments, we have a bit more flexibility. Although a good chunk of our roster should come from the middle of the pack or lower, we can certainly plug in a guy starting toward the front.

Over the past four races, the fifth-highest scoring performance overall came from Keselowski last fall. He was the highest individual scorer in that race. He did that despite starting the race in seventh position. Kyle Busch scored the second-most points in the fall 2016 race after starting 10th. These drivers can post big point totals; they're just not as likely to do so as those starting closer to the back.

As such, we should be willing to take stabs at drivers starting closer to the front in tournaments. However, when we do so, we have to make sure it's a driver capable of both leading laps and winning the race. If that's not the case, then they won't provide enough upside to justify a spot on our roster. Additionally, we should likely limit ourselves to one such driver per lineup, and we should still be willing to skip over that group entirely.

If you're playing multiple tournament lineups, this is where you can diversify your lineups, and mix and match a bit. While you should have a core of drivers starting between 21st and 30th, you can plug in various drivers starting near the front to see if you can correctly identify which guy will have the big day. You should have lower exposure to that driver, though, than you have to those starting further back for the reasons discussed above.

Because of these strategies, it is very likely that your team will wind up leaving salary on the table. You could get four drivers who you like into your lineup and have a ton of salary left for your fifth driver. Don't feel compelled to pay up for that final slot. It's absolutely fine to come up short with your salary allocation here because there will be cheap drivers who finish among the top scorers of the week.

It's certainly uncomfortable, but everything about Talladega is uncomfortable. It's best to just embrace that and trust that the historic scoring trends will carry over into this week.