Daily Fantasy NASCAR: Ford EcoBoost 400 Track Preview

How should we handle the championship contenders this week in NASCAR DFS? And what can we learn from past races at Homestead as we fill out lineups?

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 wrap up the 2018 season with its championship race in Homestead-Miami. What do we need to know before filling out lineups for the Ford EcoBoost 400? Let's check it out.

Track Overview

This is it. Sunday is the final race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the one that will decide who gets to hoist the trophy as the season-long champion. It's for all the marbles.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the format of the NASCAR playoffs, Sunday's race is the championship race. Whoever finishes highest among the four remaining eligible drivers -- Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Joey Logano -- is the champion. There can still be a maximum of 40 drivers in the field, and someone else could win the race, but one of those four will be the 2018 champion.

Clearly, this is going to impact the way we view the race from a DFS perspective. Four drivers have extra motivation on the line, and the others are looking forward to 2019. So how big of an impact does being part of the final four make?

For starters, the winner of the race has a decent shot of being one of the final four. NASCAR shifted to this style of playoffs (with only four drivers being eligible to win the title) in 2014. Since then, championship contenders have won all four races. The others have generally finished toward the front, as shown in this table with the performances of the four drivers in the championship hunt at Homestead.

Year Wins Top-5s Top-10s Laps Led
2017 1 3 4 122 of 267
2016 1 2 3 57 of 268
2015 1 2 3 99 of 267
2014 1 2 3 104 of 267

They haven't necessarily dominated the laps led, and that does matter for DFS, but they get wins and log top-fives. That also is relevant to our cause.

Because of this, we have to give a bump to Harvick, Busch, Truex, and Logano entering the week. But they would have been good plays without this because you don't qualify for the championship four without being among the top drivers in the sport. So while it's appropriate to give them a bump, we do still need to account for how fast they look in practice and other factors.

We'll circle back to the championship contenders in the scoring trends discussion, but first, let's take a broader look at Homestead.

There are 267 laps scheduled for the race, allotting 26.7 FanDuel points for laps led. That's the same number as we have seen at other recent races at 1.5-mile tracks in Las Vegas and Kansas, and Homestead sets up similarly to those two races.

This isn't as many laps as we've had the last couple of weeks, but it's still enough where we need to target potential lap-leaders for DFS upside. In the past four races here (since the playoff format shifted), a single driver has led 86 or more laps in each race. Those 8.6 points can go a long way to help separate your lineup from others.

The laps led have also been fairly concentrated. In the four-race sample, 13 drivers have led 40 or more laps; no other drivers have led more than 10. Once you get the lead here, you can hold it for a good chunk of time, which means quite a bit for DFS.

Not shockingly with this being the case, most of the lap-leaders have been drivers who started near the front. Of the 9 drivers to lead 50 or more laps, 8 of them started within the top 8 spots. Four of them started on the front row. The only exception was Kyle Larson in 2016 when he started 24th, led 132 laps, and finished 2nd. Dude's real good here.

Just because laps led come from the front doesn't mean that you can't make passes here. Here's a look at where top-10 and top-five finishers over the past four races here started.

Past 4 Races Top-10s Top-5s
1st to 5th 15 7
6th to 10th 7 3
11th to 15th 8 4
16th to 20th 5 3
21st to 25th 4 3
26th to 30th 1 0
31st to 35th 0 0
36th to 43rd 0 0

Yes, it's advantageous to start at the front, both from a finishing perspective and a laps-led perspective. But it's not a prerequisite for a good finish.

In order to identify both lap-leaders and potential place-differential candidates, we're going to need to know which drivers are in line to contend during the race. Practice times and current form can help us there.

In last year's race, the top four drivers in the first practice were the top four finishers during the race. Those four drivers also ranked among the top five in 10-lap averages during final practice. Homestead is a fast track, meaning the cream will rise to the top whenever drivers are on the track, allowing us to put plenty of stock in what practice times tell us.

With current form, we've also got a robust sample on what to expect at 1.5-mile tracks. This will be the 11th race of the year at a track of that length, and you can see how drivers have performed at those tracks using Racing Reference's fantasy tool. If you want to see how drivers have done only in the most recent races at 1.5-mile tracks, reduce the sample to the past three races, which includes only these types of races that have occurred during the playoffs.

Once you combine practice data with a look at who has done well at these tracks, you should be able to identify who's in line to compete on Sunday. But what do we need to consider from a roster-construction perspective? Let's look back at past races here to see what type of takeaways we can get.

Historic Scoring Trends

Because the Cup Series races at Homestead just once a year, we have to dip back a bit further in order to get an adequate sample for scoring. As such, we'll look at the past four races, dating back to 2014.

In doing so, we're including races before NASCAR trimmed the maximum drivers in the field to be 40 drivers instead of 43. As such, when referencing starting and finishing positions from here on out, any position worse than 40th has been adjusted to be exactly 40th so as to account for FanDuel's current scoring rules.

Once you make that adjustment, here's how drivers have scored here over the past four races based on where they started.

FanDuel Points by Starting Position at Homestead, 2014 to 2017

That dot way at the top is Larson. Again, he's stupid here. But with the rest, there doesn't seem to be a ton of separation.

Larson scored 91 FanDuel points in that 2016 race. The following year, he scored 81.2. Then the next 10 highest scores are all within 6.5 points of each other. Unless someone leads a ton of laps or has an amazing car starting in the back, the scoring here is relatively flat.

In three of the four races in our sample, the highest scorer for the race and fifth-highest scorer were within 13 or fewer points of each other. It was just 6.9 points in 2015 and 7.8 points in 2014. When Larson popped off, that gap got a bit wider, but overall, the gap between the top and the rest is pretty small.

This does have a pretty significant impact on the way we want to build our rosters.

When there is a heavy degree of separation between the top-end scores and the rest, punting becomes more viable. If you're sacrificing a bit on the low end in order to pick up a ton on the high end, it's a worthwhile exchange.

Here, you don't seem to gain much by jamming all of the highest-end scores into your lineup. That makes punting far less attractive.

Additionally, as you can see on the chart above, most drivers starting toward the back tend to score poorly here. A driver starting worse than 25th has never scored more than 65.8 FanDuel points, the 24th-highest score in the sample. A driver starting deeper than 30th has never scored more than 57 points. Those are the drivers we'd be looking to punt with, and they just don't tend to get the job done, pushing us toward more balanced rosters.

This is not to say we should ignore quality drivers who start in the back. As Larson has shown, you can make passes here if your car is strong enough. As such, if a quality driver -- one who is fast in practice and has respectable current form -- qualifies poorly, we should feel great about plugging them into our lineups. But those bottom-dwellers who rely on calamity to move their way up the order likely won't cut it this weekend.

Even with the lack of separation, though, it is still advantageous to look for upside. We want the highest-scoring drivers on our team, even if that won't necessarily ensure us success if we pair them with a dud.

As such, the table below shows the starting positions of the five highest-scoring drivers in each of the past four Homestead races. In parenthesis are the number of laps that driver led. If there is an asterisk next to that number, it means the driver was one of the four contending for the title that year.

20177th (145)2nd (78)*3rd (43)*18th (0)19th (0)
201624th (132)14th (3)*1st (79)13th (6)*15th (0)
201513th (46)*8th (86)3rd (41)*23rd (2)2nd (72)
20145th (54)*21st (0)*16th (0)19th (0)1st (161)

As you can see, there are typically around two drivers in the top five in scoring who started in the top 10 spots. This -- again -- shows the importance of laps led in getting those high-end scores.

Championship contenders have accounted for two of the top four scorers in each of the four years since the format was changed. The highest-scoring driver has been part of the championship four twice, and in 2014, the top two scores came from those in the title hunt. Again, this is to be expected with how good a driver has to be to qualify for the final four, and the data backs it up.

But, as mentioned before, the difference between the second-highest score and the fifth-highest score doesn't tend to be that large. Knowing that the championship four drivers are bound to be priced up -- and that we want to have balanced rosters -- can we still manage to fit two into each lineup?

Here, it likely boils down to how qualifying shakes out and how much value we can find without selling our souls.

In the past four races at Homestead, 20 drivers have scored at least 60 FanDuel points without leading a single lap, the likely archetype of driver we want out of a value play. Here's where they started the race.

Starting Position Drivers With 60+ FD Pts, 0 Laps Led
1st to 5th 2
6th to 10th 2
11th to 15th 5
16th to 20th 5
21st to 25th 3
26th to 30th 3
31st to 35th 0
36th to 43rd 0

Based on this, it seems as if our most likely range for finding a value play is between 11th and 30th. That's a wide range, meaning we should be able to find something palatable. But we also have to consider the other factors discussed before.

We may get value-priced drivers who start in our ideal range. Once we get that, though, we have to both check out their practice times and dig into their current form. If they haven't been showing speed in practice, or their finishes recently have been poor, it's hard to feel great about them for DFS.

Additionally, our range for value plays is actually a bit smaller than it appears. Among drivers who likely would have been cheap had FanDuel been offering contests for these races, they tended to come from the range of 15th through 28th rather than 11th to 30th. That tightens the clamp even more.

If we wind up jamming two high-priced drivers into our lineup, we're likely going to need three salary-savers to round things out. Based on what we've seen historically at Homestead, that could be a difficult task.

However, it's certainly not impossible. As such, if qualifying and the salary gods grant us such a gift, we should be willing to take advantage. The high-priced drivers figure to score well; we just need the flexibility to afford them without rostering a dud.

If not, we should try not to force it. As mentioned, the scoring structure here is relatively flat, meaning we want to try to be balanced with our rosters. This becomes easier if we can get a mid-range driver with the potential to lead laps, but even without that, it does seem -- barring something strange going down in qualifying -- as if the one-stud lineup will be our best bet.

The overall thread, though, is to take what qualifying and practice give you. If there are a number of cheaper drivers starting in our ideal range who show life in practice, then it's absolutely viable to go a bit more top-heavy. That just hasn't happened often in the recent history at Homestead. But if you're comfortable with what you see and think you can get to a second stud, then it's best to keep an open mind and adjust strategy accordingly.