Daily Fantasy NASCAR: First Data 500 Track Preview

The third round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs gets underway Sunday at Martinsville. What do we need to know before filling out lineups for the First Data 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 than another, but each track will have different scoring tendencies than the previous one. That means we need to alter our strategies pretty drastically.

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 opening the third round of the playoffs in Martinsville, a paperclip-shaped short track, the shortest spot the series stops. What do we need to know before filling out lineups for the First Data 500? Let's check it out.

Track Overview

And then, there were eight.

With only four races left in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the playoffs enter the penultimate round, a three-race slate that will decide which four drivers advance to the championship race at Homestead. Sunday's race at Martinsville is just the first in that sequence, but you can't question its importance.

If a driver wins one of these three races, they automatically advance to the final round. With the trio of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. entering with a major edge in points, winning a race may be the best outlet for advancing for some of the other drivers still alive. That could lead to some aggressive racing this week, and a short track will do nothing to curb that mindset.

That short-track mentality is going to play a big role in our DFS process this week, as well. Because Martinsville is so small, they will run 500 laps in Sunday's race. That amounts to 50.0 points available for laps led on FanDuel, which is the most we will get for any race this entire year. If you don't get those points on your roster, you'll be falling way behind.

Over the past 5 races at Martinsville, 11 different drivers have led at least 100 laps with at least 2 drivers hitting that mark in 4 of the 5 races. The lone exception was the 2016 spring race in which Kyle Busch led a whopping 352 laps, amounting to 35.2 FanDuel points from that alone. Busch also led 274 laps in last year's spring race, and Clint Bowyer led 215 this year en route to victory.

Even in that dominant Busch outing in 2016, Kevin Harvick also managed to lead 72 laps, which is still a solid bump from a scoring perspective. The 2016 fall race and 2018 spring race both had multiple drivers lead more than 140 laps.

This is all just a long-winded way of saying that you need laps led on your roster, even if it means you have to get a bit creative in the process.

The most likely scenario is that we have multiple drivers lead a bunch of laps in Sunday's race. If you build a roster that has just one driver capable of racking up those laps led, you're going to have no chance to win in any format. This is more of an emphasis at Martinsville than it will be at any other race the entire year.

Most often when we see tracks where laps led are at a premium, it means we have to jam in drivers starting at the front. That's not necessarily true in Martinsville.

Because Martinsville is such a short track, it's tougher for the cream to rise to the top in qualifying, making things a bit more random. The past 5 pole-sitters here have an average finish of 12.6, and only 1 of them has led more than 100 laps.

Instead, the laps led can come from a bit of a wider range. When Busch led 352 laps, he started that race in 7th. He also led 274 laps from 10th, Bowyer led 215 laps from 9th, and both Busch and Matt Kenseth led more than 175 laps while starting outside the top 10.

This isn't to say that we should penalize drivers starting toward the front. That's not the case at all. Rather, we should be willing to use drivers starting outside the top five as long as we have reason to believe that they'll be contenders to win the race. Their upside will not be capped simply because they're not starting directly at the front.

Even with this adding a bit more work to the equation, it doesn't mean we'll be making complete guesses. There will be two practices on Saturday, and because laps at Martinsville are so quick, we should have 10-lap average speed data for every relevant car in the field. During practice, the broadcast will also likely show average speeds on longer runs, giving us a good idea of which drivers are likely to compete and rack up those laps led.

In this year's spring race, Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Bowyer were second, third, and fourth, respectively, in 10-lap average speeds during final practice. They all wound up finishing within the top four spots in the race. We can lean heavily on this data, especially during final practice as weather conditions there will be most similar to what they'll be during the race.

One wrinkle we'll have to deal with is that Martinsville is an impound race. This means that inspection will not take place until after qualifying, and any driver who fails inspection will lose their starting spot and begin the race in the rear.

At the most recent impound race -- Talladega -- only one driver failed inspection, making it look like teams are ensuring they don't lose their starting spot. But how should we handle a driver who winds up failing inspection? Let's take a look at some historic scoring trends at the track to try to find out.

Historic Scoring Trends

If a driver fails post-qualifying inspection (which will not take place until Sunday morning), their official starting position will be all the way in the back. Normally, we'd hop all over that because it would be huge for place-differential points. That equation changes a bit, though, with the heavy emphasis on laps led.

Let's get a broad overview of this first by just scoping out what drivers have done at Martinsville based on where they've started the race. The chart below shows that for the past five races here.

FanDuel Points by Starting Position at Martinsville, 2016 to 2018

From a pure upside perspective, none of the nine highest scores in this sample came from a driver who led fewer than 92 laps. But the next four scores all came from drivers who started 19th or lower and failed to lead a single lap.

This actually does help us formulate a strategy for this weekend that depends on what game type you're playing.

Let's say that a top-end driver -- Busch, for example -- fails inspection and starts at the rear. He's going to be a really solid play for cash games.

By starting in the back, Busch is able to avoid the pitfalls of a negative place-differential day, which increases his floor. But he'll also have enough upside via those place-differential points to move the needle and be a valuable piece of a cash-game roster.

The bigger question revolves around his viability in tournaments. There, we need ceiling, and we haven't seen many drivers starting all the way in the back generate that.

With that said, we also haven't seen any driver with the strength of "The Big Three" qualify that far back in our sample. The deepest any of Busch, Kevin Harvick, or Truex has started at Martinsville since 2016 is Harvick in 20th, which brings a bit less upside to the table from a place-differential perspective. So we simply don't know what they can do.

As such, it's time to do some math. Bear with me here.

A driver starting 36th (if we assume that's around the area where one of the top-end guys would wind up) would have a maximum of 17.5 points to gain based on place differential alone, assuming that person winds up winning the race. You would then add in 43 points for his finishing position and 50 points for running the full allotment of 500 laps.

Once you do that, you're at 110.5 FanDuel points, which would be the sixth-highest mark of any driver in our five-race sample. That's assuming they lead zero laps, which isn't happening if they win the race. If they lead 50 laps, we're up to 116.5 FanDuel points, which ranks fifth in our sample.

A driver who does this won't lead the 352 laps that Busch led in 2016, which means their true ceiling will be lower than that of someone starting up at the front. But they could still very well wind up being the highest-scoring driver on the slate, which means they're worthy of investment in tournaments.

As such, if you believe the driver who fails inspection has a legit chance at winning, you can still use them. If they're a cheaper driver from whom you're not expecting laps led, you can also use them because you don't need as many points out of that type of play. It's more in the mid-range where things get a bit groggy.

A mid-range driver isn't one who will possess the same win odds as a driver like Busch at this track. That lowers both their place-differential and finishing-point upside. But they also won't be as cheap as the lower-end drivers who may find themselves further back, increasing the opportunity cost of plugging them in. As such, we don't need to prioritize a mid-range driver who starts in the back as much for tournaments. If you can get them in without sapping your roster of laps led, then it's absolutely okay to do so. But overall, in that scenario, we'd want to put a higher premium on snagging those laps led closer to the front.

Again, though, the odds of getting a bunch of drivers in the back via a failed inspection appear lower than they were earlier in the year. Because of that, let's shift focus to trying to identify where we can snag our lower-dollar plays.

Martinsville is a track where equipment matters less than the driver, which means good drivers in bad equipment are more viable here than other places. They're also capable of picking up big points via place differential when they qualify poorly.

Included among the drivers who racked up a bunch of points without leading a lap are Trevor Bayne and A.J. Allmendinger. Those drivers are both typically priced around $7,000 on FanDuel because they tend to run poorly at faster tracks. But Bayne finished 6th after starting 34th in last year's fall race, and Allmendinger finished 6th after starting 30th that spring.

This shows us that a driver starting further back is a desirable asset if we believe they can finish toward the front (again, assuming we're not losing out on laps led elsewhere as a result). So both elite drivers and cheap drivers are fully viable in the back; it's the mid-range that would take a slight hit, unless we just wind up being able to afford them.

When we're in this pricing range, we're not expecting the drivers to get us points via laps led. We just want finishing and place-differential points. Because of this, it makes sense to narrow our scope to look at drivers who have scored well without leading the pack at all.

In our five-race sample, 26 drivers have scored 85 points without leading a single lap. Here's where those drivers started.

Starting Position Score 85+ FD Pts, 0 Laps Led
1st to 5th 2
6th to 10th 3
11th to 15th 3
16th to 20th 5
21st to 25th 9
26th to 30th 2
31st to 35th 2
36th to 30th 0

Whew. Look at that bump in the middle of the pack.

Based on this, it should be pretty clear how we want to play things with our lower-cost plays. If they're starting in the back but have the ability to finish well, we should be all up in their business. But we'll most likely be peppering that mid-range from 16th to 25th, searching for drivers who will net us that sweet, sweet combination of both finishing points and place differential.

All the data mentioned above seems to set up a pretty clear roster construction for Martinsville.

First, we need to get in two high-priced drivers with upside. This will most often mean they're starting somewhere near the front and capable of leading a bunch of laps, but they can also be starting in the back if we believe they've still got a shot at winning. You can post a big score from both spots if you're good enough.

Second, we need to pepper cheap drivers starting 16th on back who have the ability to post a good finish. Plenty of cheap drivers for the slate should have respectable histories at Martinsville (which will be discussed more in the driver preview), making this a doable task. If these drivers start in the back, they'll also be solid plays.

Once we get in our stars and our scrubs, we see what we have left. If we have money to pluck a mid-range guy starting toward the back, great. They'll bring a solid floor, and that's always desirable. But if they come at the expense of additional upside elsewhere, then we're likely best suited avoiding them.

Finally, it's worth noting that the attrition rate at Martinsville is lower than at a short track like Bristol. In this year's spring race, 37 of 38 cars in the race ran at least 480 of 500 laps, and 26 cars were within 5 laps of the leader. Because the speeds here are so much slower than they are at Bristol, a lot of cars with damage will at least be able to continue racing afterward. As such, we can allow ourselves to have a bit higher exposure to individual racers here than we would at other short tracks.