Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Pennzoil 400
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 heading to Las Vegas for the Pennzoil 400. What do we need to know about the track before filling out our NASCAR DFS lineups? Let's check it out.
Last week in Atlanta, we got a taste of NASCAR's new aero package, dipping our toes into these uncharted waters.
In Vegas on Sunday, we get the whole caboodle. Gird your loins, friends.
For the first time in a points-paying race, the Cup Series will be using both smaller tapered spacers and aerodynamic ducts designed at slowing the cars down and creating tighter racing. They wanted a better product on the track, and on Sunday, we'll see if they were successful in that endeavor.
Naturally, this is going to create a lot of guesswork on our parts for DFS. If the racing is tighter, we'll have more passing (i.e. more room for high place-differential totals), and it'll be tougher for one driver to dominate (spreading out the points tied to laps led). As such, if the package has its intended consequences, we'd want to focus on drivers starting a bit further back who have the potential to finish well.
Luckily for us, it's not all guessing. We've got a couple of things we can turn to in order to get a better grasp on what we may see on the track on Sunday.
The first is a test that NASCAR conducted with this new package at this very track at the end of January. NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck of JeffGluck.com was on hand and took a video of the drafting sessions. The third session is below with the action turning up at the 3:35 mark.
Drafting Session 3 is live! https://t.co/oYonLjIQPv
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) February 1, 2019
It wasn't quite the large-pack drafting we've seen in the past at Daytona and Talladega, but there's no denying that the cars were bunched together. And again, this is the package they'll be using on Sunday.
The other time we saw a variation of this package was in last year's All-Star race at Charlotte. Because it's an All-Star race, the field was smaller. But we still got a good sampling of what to expect from the racing. You can watch the full race here, but even watching a small snippet should tell you most of what you need to know.
In that clip above, Kevin Harvick restarted sixth and was leading two laps later. There was tight action, passing, and lead changes. It may not be fully what we've seen at Daytona and Talladega, but there are definite ties.
Based on both the test session and last year's All-Star race, we should enter Sunday assuming that we'll see a lot of close-quarters action and a lot of passing. What does this mean for us from a DFS perspective?
Let's start by discussing lap leaders. There are 267 laps scheduled Sunday for Las Vegas, which is a mid-range number. It means there are 26.7 points available for laps led on FanDuel, down from the 32.5 we had last week. That by itself puts a slight cap on the upside of drivers starting at the front.
There have been instances in which drivers have controlled the laps led at Vegas in the past. Harvick led 214 laps in last year's spring race, and Martin Truex Jr. led 150 the year before. Outside of those two, though, no other drivers have led more than 100 laps in the past four Las Vegas races. Contrast that with Atlanta, where drivers have now done so in five straight races with Kyle Larson joining the list last week.
This means we'd be putting a bit less emphasis on laps led to begin with relative to last week. Add in that the package will lend itself to more drafting, and you can see why we'll be focusing heavily on finding drivers who can get place-differential points.
The other factor at play is that passing was possible at this track even without the new package. Of the six drivers to lead 75 or more laps at Vegas within the past four races, three of them started 10th or lower in the race. That includes Truex leading 96 laps this past fall after starting back in 10th.
If we look at the 10 drivers who have scored more than 70 FanDuel points at Las Vegas in the past four races, only four started within the top nine spots. Instead, there were five drivers who started between 10th and 13th who worked their way forward, finished well, and got place-differential points in the process.
Before we break down what this all means for building lineups, we should likely discuss the role practice sessions will play for this weekend, as well. Because drafting allows cars to get big-time runs on cars in front of them, single-lap speeds for Saturday's practices have the potential to be misleading. As such, we need to take them with a grain of salt.
Instead, we should be putting most of our focus on 10-lap averages. That one solid run isn't going to over-inflate a driver's totals over a 10-lap period, meaning this will be a far better indicator of which cars actually have the speed to compete during the race itself.
But even the 10-lap averages do come with a word of caution. If a driver chooses not to race in a larger pack during practice in order to preserve their equipment, it's possible their lap times will suffer. This seems unlikely given that they'll likely want to see how their cars perform in the draft, but it's very possible it could happen. As such, it's wise to watch practices on Saturday if you can in order to spot which cars may have tainted practice data and in which we can put some faith.
Another thing worth noting from a process perspective is that we should be a bit skeptical of what a driver has done at this track historically. Last week in Atlanta, the usual players still pushed for a win, and that could very well happen again in Las Vegas. We just need to acknowledge that this is essentially a different track with the new aero package, meaning that older data may not fully represent the strength we'll see from a driver once Sunday rolls around.
Based on our discussion above, it seems clear that we'll want to target drivers in position to get place-differential points. But how should we balance that with finding drivers capable of leading laps?
To start things off, those two traits are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As mentioned, you don't need to start on the front row to lead laps here, meaning we can get a bit of double-dip action. So you're not necessarily ignoring laps led by targeting drivers starting further back.
After acknowledging that, though, we can circle back to a similar strategy to what we discussed prior to Daytona: making assumptions.
If a driver wins the race, they get 43 points for finishing on FanDuel. No matter where they start, that's going to lead to a good day for fantasy. You want that driver on your roster.
As such, whenever you build a tournament lineup, you want to make an assumption. Find a driver you think will win -- whether based on practice times, their current form, their bookmaker win odds, or anything else -- and put them on your roster. Then, you fill in the rest from there.
For the rest of your roster, you have to ask yourself, "Can this person score well if the person I'm penciling in as the winner does, in fact, win?" If they're starting further back and in position to get place-differential points, the answer will be yes, assuming they have the car to move forward. But if the driver you're assuming wins is starting up front, it will be harder for other drivers in the front to score well. As such, your answer to this question will depend on the starting spot of the person you're assuming will win the race.
That's the formula that was used at Daytona. There, Denny Hamlin won the race from 10th spot. He was the only driver among the top nine in scoring who started inside the top 20. If you assumed Hamlin won and then stacked the back, you likely had a good day.
In Las Vegas, we won't be going that far. There are 67 more laps in Vegas than there were in Daytona, and the draft won't play as big of a role as it did there. But we can go with a modified Daytona process.
Instead of targeting drivers starting 30th on back, we should be looking for those starting roughly 15th or worse who have the equipment and the drivers to compete for a win. If we get a quality driver starting lower than that, then we should jump at the opportunity to add them to our roster. We just don't need to force it if those drivers aren't available.
NASCAR is keeping the qualifying format the same this weekend as it has been in the past, meaning drivers will be able to draft during qualifying. This has the potential to hurt drivers who don't get as good of a draft, which could lead to quality cars starting poorly. If that does happen, we should happily accept the place-differential upside and use those drivers.
If we get a good number of drivers starting in the second half of the field, it's possible you'll have rosters that will closely resemble those at Daytona, fading the front of the field entirely. This would be especially desirable for cash games as we know the drivers starting deeper in the pack -- again, assuming they have competent equipment -- will have higher floors.
The other reason to target drivers starting further in the back in cash is that the close racing of this package could inflate the number of crashes we see during the race. In last year's fall Las Vegas race, 28 of 40 drivers finished within five laps of the leader. In the spring, it was 30 of 37. If those numbers go down, and a driver in the front winds up crashing, they're going to give you a big negative number in the place-differential column. If they start further back, a crash is less damning. This is another area in which we'll likely see an overlap with the old restrictor-plate races.
As a result of both the crashes and the uncertainty around the new rules package, we'll likely want to be a bit conservative with our exposure levels if we're rolling out multiple tournament entries. As much as we can hypothesize about the effects of the new aero package, we still haven't seen it in action for a field of 40 cars yet. There's still some unknown, leaving a wider range of outcomes than usual. Crashes also increase that range of outcomes.
Lowering our exposure levels to each driver allows us to safeguard ourselves from that volatility. We don't need to abandon using a core by any means, but if you have a driver on 90 percent of your rosters, and he winds up hitting the fence, it's going to be tough sledding the rest of the way.
The drivers to whom we should have the highest exposure would be the ones with the higher floors starting further back. We'll be better able to predict who can score well from there than we'll be able to predict who will lead laps, and that has value. It's best to build around a core of drivers starting a bit further back and then cycle through drivers starting at the front who you assume will either win or lead laps.
Throughout this piece, we've discussed the value of targeting drivers starting further back, and it's something we'll want to do often. It's worth noting, though, that doesn't mean you need to completely ignore the front.
As mentioned, we'll want to skew more toward the front in Vegas than we do in Daytona. But even in the 2018 Daytona 500, two of the five highest-scoring drivers started in the top 10. The same was true for the 2016 July race in Daytona. It's very possible we'll get two drivers who score well after starting in the top 10.
Instead of avoiding the front entirely, what we'll want to do is be wary of going too hard at the front. There's a decent chance the winning lineups on Sunday will have two drivers who started in the top 10. It's just unlikely it'll be more than two drivers. As such, we'll likely want to cap ourselves at two front-starters per lineup before dipping back.
This is another area in which you'll want to vary the way you build lineups. Just like you change which drivers you use, you'll want to filter through different constructions based on where drivers are starting. For one lineup, use two drivers starting closer to the front, hoping they gobble up most of the laps led and finish well. For another, fade the front entirely and hope that the package lives up to its billing.
Finally, just like at Daytona, we should be a bit more willing to use drivers with lesser equipment than we have been in the past at Las Vegas. The drafting in the race will allow them to better maintain pace with the pack than they could before, potentially leading to a solid finish. Even without the drafting, Chris Buescher piloted a team with lesser funding to a ninth-place finish last week in Atlanta. This package seems like it will even the playing field a bit, meaning punting is acceptable as long as you believe the equipment is good enough to push the driver to a quality finish.
Across the board, things are going to feel a lot like Daytona this week. We want to assume the winner and then target place-differential points while capping our exposure levels and being willing to punt. Those things are all in place for DFS at Daytona. The two won't be 100 percent similar, and we'll likely need to target drivers starting closer to the front than we usually would at Daytona, but Las Vegas represents a radical change for the Cup Series; we need to adjust our thinking for DFS in order to account for these changes and get ahead of those who fail to acknowledge the differences from past races.