Daily Fantasy NASCAR: Can-Am 500 Track Preview

Sunday's race at Phoenix will decide which drivers will advance to the Cup Series' championship race. What do we need to know before filling out NASCAR DFS lineups for the Can-Am 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 will set the field for the championship race in the final event of the third round at Phoenix. Two spots are left for the four-person championship race, and those drivers will be determined on Sunday. What do we need to know before filling out lineups for the Can-Am 500? Let's check it out.

Track Overview

For the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, it doesn't get much bigger than this.

Sunday's race in Phoenix is the penultimate race of the year, meaning it will determine which drivers are competing for the championship next weekend in Homestead. Two spots are already locked in with Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick advancing to the final round via wins the past two races, but two are still up for grabs.

(Note: Since this posting, Kevin Harvick's win at Texas has been ruled encumbered, meaning he is no longer locked into the final race at Homestead. Harvick is now just three points ahead of Kurt Busch for the final spot.)

Thankfully, there's not a lot of ambiguity here. For Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, and Clint Bowyer -- the four drivers currently beneath the cut line -- it's essentially win or go home. They're all at least 25 points behind Martin Truex Jr. for fourth, and that'll be hard ground to make up on points alone. But a win automatically punches their ticket.

For Truex and Kyle Busch, they have some degree of safety. If none of those bottom four drivers wins, and Busch and Truex run a relatively clean race, they're likely to advance. But if one of those other four does win, that'll leave just one spot between Busch and Truex, and with only three points separating those two, things would get wild in a hurry.

This will be something to consider when filling out lineups. Guys like Almirola, Elliott, and Kurt Busch are likely going to go all out, which may increase the variance in their performances. But for Logano, his focus is likely already on Miami. Harvick could potentially sleepwalk to a victory at this joint, so his having clinched likely isn't a big concern. Be sure to keep all of these variables in mind while filling out lineups.

As for the track itself, Phoenix is not classified as a short track because it is exactly a mile in length, but it absolutely races like one.

At short tracks, drivers with somewhat lesser equipment can pop up and win races as they're at a slighter disadvantage than they would be in other spots. That was evidenced last year with Ryan Newman winning the spring race. And back in 2016, Alex Bowman -- who was not yet a full-time driver in the Cup Series -- led 194 laps and finished 6th in the fall race. We can get some wonkiness here, which allows us to check out some cheaper drivers who normally may not be in play.

Outside of its official classification, the other way in which Phoenix is not a short track is in the number of laps in the race. While we'll get either 400 or 500 laps at Martinsville, Richmond, and Bristol, there are just 312 scheduled this weekend in Phoenix. That leaves us 31.2 points available for laps led on FanDuel, which gives us a bit less upside via laps led for drivers who start at the front.

On top of that, you don't need to start up front to lead a bunch of laps at this track. In the past five Phoenix races (since the field was trimmed to a maximum of 40 drivers), there have been six drivers who have led 100 or more laps; only two of those drivers started within the top six spots. Kevin Harvick led 139 laps from 18th in 2016, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott both topped the 100-lap-led barrier from 7th, and Busch also led 114 laps from 9th in 2017. It doesn't hurt to start up front, as evidenced by the 194 and 193 laps, respectively, led by Bowman and Denny Hamlin from the front row, but it's not a prerequisite for dominance.

That, of course, is not to say we should ignore all drivers who start at the front. Eighteen of the 25 drivers to record a top-five finish here in the past five races started that race in the top 10, and only three of them started outside the top 20. It's moreso to say that if you think a driver has a shot to win, you should not ignore him simply because he's not on the front row.

The other thing preventing us from just stacking the back here is that there is generally a low attrition rate at Phoenix.

Whenever there's a multi-car crash, that allows drivers running in the back to move up a couple of spots, boosting them in both place differential and finishing points. Phoenix is a slow track, so that doesn't happen too often.

In this year's spring race, 34 of 37 drivers ran at least 300 laps. That was 33 of 40 in last year's fall race and 33 of 39 in last year's spring race. You can make up ground here if your car is good enough, but you're not getting those spots for free.

This creates a bit of a dilemma with regards to roster construction. We have fewer laps to be led than at other short tracks, but we also don't get the boost in finishing position via chaos. So where do we turn when we're looking for upside? We'll get into that in just a second.

First, it's worthwhile to discuss similar tracks we can look at when trying to judge who will perform well here. The first Phoenix race was the fourth of the season, and plenty has changed since then. We can still look at it, but we'll likely get more relevant data from more recent races at tracks with similar characteristics.

The best spot to look is likely Richmond, where the Cup Series raced at during the playoffs in September. Both Richmond and Phoenix are slower, flat tracks, which means the drivers who did well there are likely to do well here.

The other race worth checking out is the July New Hampshire event. Like Phoenix, New Hampshire is a one-mile track that is flat and slow. It's further back in the season than Richmond, but even that one will likely provide us with better data than the first race at Phoenix.

We'll also be able to lean pretty heavily on 10-lap averages from practice. In the spring race, Kevin Harvick had the fastest 10-lap average speed in final practice; he won the race. Chase Elliott was second in that session, and he finished third. The second-place finisher, Kyle Busch, was sixth in 10-lap average in that practice. We should have 10-lap data from multiple practices, and that will give us a good indication of which drivers have the best equipment entering the race.

Historic Scoring Trends

The profile of Phoenix leaves us without a definitive roster construction based on the starting spot of drivers for the race. So let's take a look back at some historic scoring trends to see what they tell us.

The chart below shows the FanDuel-point output by drivers here in the past five races based on where they started the event.

FanDuel Points by Starting Position at Las Vegas, 2016 to 2018

The highest point total -- by a wide margin -- came from Harvick in that aforementioned 2016 race. When you lead 139 laps after starting 18th, you're going to post a bonkers score, and Harvick has the field cleared by 10.2 FanDuel points. The dude is an animal here.

The starting positions by themselves don't show it, but the true key to upside here is leading laps. Of the five highest scores in our five-race sample, four of them led 114 or more laps. The other was Newman in 2017, who led just 6 laps but won the race from 22nd.

Of the 11 highest scores in the sample, only one driver failed to lead at least 30 laps or win the race. That was Busch in 2016, finishing 2nd after starting 19th without a single lap led. Even though there aren't as many laps to be led here as at other short tracks, they clearly still need to be a focal point in our process.

In the five-race sample, each race had multiple drivers lead at least 50 laps, but only one race had multiple drivers lead more than 75 laps. That was the 2017 spring race, when there were actually three drivers who led more than 80 laps.

There's a big difference between getting 10 points for laps led and getting just 5. And there weren't many instances in this sample in which multiple drivers got a ton of upside via laps led.

This creates a pretty sizable issue for our roster construction. The top-end scores make it clear that laps led matter, but we don't often get multiple drivers who get slate-changing upside via laps led. So how many lap leaders are we supposed to get per roster?

Another way to look at this is by viewing the top five scorers in each individual race. This is what a "perfect" lineup would look like if we didn't have a salary cap, essentially.

The table below looks at those "perfect" lineups in the five-race sample and how many laps each driver who cracked the lineup led in that race. The "1st" column shows the laps led by the driver who scored the most FanDuel points, and so on.

Laps Led by Top Scorers 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
2018 Spring 128 28 0 0 33
2017 Fall 62 34 0 0 0
2017 Spring 6 114 0 0 0
2016 Fall 194 58 0 0 0
2016 Spring 139 34 65 75 0

Now we're starting to get some answers.

The big key here is to look at the two races in 2017. Both races had three drivers in the "perfect" lineup who failed to lead a single lap. Given what we saw before, why is that?

As mentioned before, Phoenix isn't a track with a high attrition rate. But it has bitten drivers with great cars.

In the 2017 spring race -- again, the only one in which three drivers had led more than 75 laps -- Joey Logano finished 31st after leading 82 laps. Elliott finished 12th after leading 106. The finishing points tied to those numbers weren't enough to land them among the top-five scorers.

In the second race that season, Denny Hamlin had a dominant car. He led 193 laps and seemed to be on his way to a huge day for DFS. But then a feud with Elliott that started a few weeks before cut that day short.

When drivers who lead a bunch of laps have trouble and finish poorly, it changes the dynamic of the race from a DFS perspective. When Hamlin led 193 laps and then crashed, there went from being 31.2 points available for laps led for contenders to being just 11.9. That's going to skew things toward drivers who have upside via place differential, which is different than how the race started.

This is going to influence the way that we build our rosters. If we assume the race is "clean" and all the lap leaders wind up finishing well, we're going to want two drivers on each roster capable of leading a bunch of laps. There are enough laps available here to justify that strategy, and we have seen the highest-upside days come from drivers who got points in this department.

But if we're building multiple tournament lineups, it's clearly all right to build some that rely on just one lap-leader. The "perfect" lineups for each of the past three races have had just one driver who led more than 34 laps, so clearly, this strategy can also pay off, especially if there winds up being some craziness at the front.

The larger point here is that we should be varying our roster construction while building multi-entry tournament teams. We should build some around the assumption of a "clean" race and others that can fare well if things get a bit wild. The "clean" race build seems to have the anecdotal edge at the track, but both can clearly pay off.

As far as where we want to find our cheaper drivers, it should not shock you that this is where place-differential points will come into play.

In the past 5 races, 28 drivers have scored 65 or more FanDuel points without leading a lap, likely the archetype of driver we'll need in the cheaper range. Here's where those 28 drivers started the race.

Starting Position 65+ FD Pts, 0 Laps Led
1st to 5th 5
6th to 10th 5
11th to 15th 6
16th to 20th 5
21st to 25th 4
26th to 30th 3
31st to 35th 0
36th to 40th 0

And if we up that number a bit to the 12 drivers who scored 70 or more points, here's where they started.

Starting Position 70+ FD Pts, 0 Laps Led
1st to 5th 1
6th to 10th 1
11th to 15th 2
16th to 20th 2
21st to 25th 3
26th to 30th 3
31st to 35th 0
36th to 40th 0

The highest-upside drivers who didn't lead laps tended to come from outside the top 20. We could still get respectable output, though, from those starting a bit higher in the order, giving us some wiggle room in case qualifying doesn't present a bunch of place-differential opportunities.

It's also reassuring that not all of these drivers who accomplished this feat were guys who would have cost us a bundle. Among those to exceed 65 points were Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ty Dillon, Aric Almirola (before he was with Stewart-Haas Racing), and Austin Dillon. As mentioned at the top, this track is one where drivers with lesser equipment can compete, giving us outlets for spending down without sacrificing finishing points.

With the cheaper drivers being able to score points, we should be able to get in at least two expensive drivers for each roster. Those expensive drivers may be laps-led candidates at the front, but as we've seen with Harvick, you can lead laps from further back, as well. The overall thought process is to get two drivers you think have a shot to win the race, whether they're starting on the front row or a bit further back.

Once you've done that, then you pick out your cheaper drivers, who likely should be guys capable of getting place-differential points. The range from 21st to 30th has been fruitful in the past, but if qualifying doesn't grant us top-tier options there, then the range directly above that seems to have enough juice to squeeze, as well.