Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard

How will this weekend's schedule at Indianapolis affect our plans for filling out daily fantasy lineups? And what strategies should we deploy within those 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 is entering its final race before the playoffs with the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. What do we need to know about the track before filling out our NASCAR DFS lineups? Let's check it out.

Track Overview

There's a lot going on this Sunday when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series hits the track for the Big Machine Vodka 400 in Indianapolis. And most of it's going to have an impact on our weekends for DFS. So let's lay out all the particulars right now.

Chiefly from a real racing perspective, it's the final race before the playoffs, meaning drivers on the bubble have one final chance to lock themselves into the 16-car field for a shot at the big trophy. Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman are all within eight points of each other with only two spots up for grabs, but Jimmie Johnson is also lurking a bit further behind, and anybody deeper than that could clinch a playoff berth by getting a win. Things are mighty tight on the bubble.

That one matters a bit for DFS because it could influence which drivers we prefer. But the more impactful aspect for us is the schedule.

For the first time all season long, NASCAR will hold qualifying the same day as the race. It's due to start at 10:35, meaning we likely won't know who's starting where until right around 11:30 am Eastern. Good thing there's nothing else going on this Sunday, right?

Qualifying always matters for DFS because it lets us know which drivers are in position to lead a bunch of laps and which can snag us some place-differential points. It matters even more at Indianapolis, though, because it's just a 160-lap race. In those shorter races, we want to skew even further toward the back as there's less upside to be had via running up front. But we won't have any idea about our options in that department until 2.5 hours before the green flag.

The one (mild) saving grace is that the race does not start until 2 pm Eastern, which gives you a one-hour window after the lock of Week 1 NFL contests to crank out some NASCAR lineups. This schedule, though, does require a lot of planning.

If you want to fill out optimal lineups for Sunday's race, you're going to have to wait until after qualifying to do so. As such, you're going to have to make sure you have a window of time between 11:30 am and 2 pm in which to lock everything in. This is a bit easier if you're not tinkering with NFL lineups, and it's certainly not impossible, but it's something to keep in mind before we dive too deep into strategy.

The reason that qualifying is so important is what we alluded to before: there aren't many laps to be run. There are only 16.0 FanDuel points available for laps led, meaning the highest-upside plays are -- largely -- going to be the drivers who start further back.

In the past four Indianapolis races, only three drivers have led more than 40 laps. One of them was Kyle Busch, who led 149 laps in 2016, but he's the lone driver to top 100 laps led in this time. There may be one driver who moves the needle by leading laps, but getting multiple is unlikely unless they split them right down the middle.

The problem with this is that Indianapolis is a big track where speed matters. As such, the cars that are fast in the race were likely also fast in qualifying. In theory, that should make it difficult to find drivers who will qualify poorly but race well.

That hasn't necessarily been the case in recent races at Indy. Let's dig back into those races to see whether we can actually bank on place-differential for upside and what our ideal roster construction should look like this weekend.

Historic Scoring Trends

At tracks where qualifying is highly predictive of finishing order, you'll often see a grand majority of the drivers who finish in the top 10 be those who started in the top 10. We haven't really seen that at Indianapolis. The table below shows the starting range of each driver to get a top-10 or top-five finish here in the past four races, and they've been pretty scattered throughout the grid.

Starting Range Top-10s Top-5s
1st to 5th 8 4
6th to 10th 11 8
11th to 15th 9 5
16th to 20th 5 3
21st to 25th 3 0
26th to 30th 2 0
31st to 35th 1 0
36th to 40th 1 0

Getting more top-10s and top-fives out of drivers starting 11th to 15th than those in the top five is uncommon, especially at such a fast track. This would seem to hint that finding drivers who can make up ground is not as daunting as it seems.

There are a couple of significant caveats with this, though. First, the 2017 race was a demolition derby featuring 14 different cautions and only 21 drivers finishing the race. Only three drivers who got top-10s that day started in the top 10, meaning a lot of the risers in the table above came from that single race.

Second, the drivers who win do tend to start up front. Kasey Kahne's win in that wild 2017 race is the only one from a driver to start outside the top 10 since 2011. Starting position does seem to matter, especially if you're looking for someone with the upside to win.

So, it's worthwhile to view the chart above with a bit of skepticism. That doesn't mean we should throw all the data out, though.

Although the 2017 race was definitely an outlier, it's not as if Indianapolis is a wreck-free environment. The 2018 race also featured 10 cautions, and each of the past four Indianapolis races have had at least eight natural cautions (not counting those for stage breaks).

Those cautions create opportunities for drivers to make up spots. They can differentiate their strategy from the field and make up ground that way, or they can have a big restart and dice through the pack in a hurry. A race with a large number of cautions will be far more conducive to finding place-differential upside.

The big question is whether we'll see those cautions again this year. This will be the first time the Cup Series has run their higher-downforce package at Indianapolis. This package keeps the cars more stable and could lower the number of single-car spins that bring out cautions.

There have been five races this year at non-pack-racing tracks that are two miles or longer (Indianapolis is 2.5 miles in length). Here's a look at those five races and the number of cautions in them this year compared to those same races in 2018.

Race 2018 Cautions 2019 Cautions
Fontana 5 4
Pocono 1 6 8
Michigan 1 8 7
Pocono 2 7 7
Michigan 2 8 6
Average 6.8 6.4

Cautions have been down overall, but it's not by a super-wide margin. And given how many cautions Indianapolis has had in recent years relative to those three tracks, it's entirely possible we still see the yellow flag waive a decent number of times.

This is why we shouldn't assume that we won't get potential place-differential drivers in Sunday's race even though Indianapolis is a big, fast track. Qualifying was rained out for last year's race, meaning there was no opportunity for drivers to slip in qualifying, but there were still three drivers who started outside the top 15 and landed top-10 finishes. You can make up ground at Indianapolis, and finding drivers capable of this is a big key for DFS.

Because of this, our approach for Indianapolis is going to be similar to what it has been at places like Pocono and Michigan: play the "assumption game," and accept place-differential candidates when you can find them.

The "assumption game" is where you pick an assumed winner in each lineup and plug them into your roster. It doesn't matter where the winner of the race starts; they'll likely be in the perfect DFS lineup no matter what. You will want them on your team whether they're starting 3rd or 23rd.

As mentioned, the winners do tend to come from the front of the pack, meaning that even when we prioritize place-differential, you'll likely have one driver starting toward the front in most lineups. Last year, Brad Keselowski won the race, and he was the only driver who started higher than 10th who wound up in the perfect lineup.

Once we've picked our winner, we look for drivers who can score a lot of fantasy points without getting a win. More often than not, those drivers will be those starting a bit further back. Here's what the perfect lineup looked like after Keselowski in last year's race.

Perfect Lineup Salary Starting Position Laps Led
Brad Keselowski $11,700 6th 9
Denny Hamlin $11,500 10th 37
Erik Jones $10,200 13th 0
Matt Kenseth $8,200 29th 5
Jamie McMurray $8,100 21st 0

Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin finished second and third, respectively, giving them great finishing points. They also picked up some place-differential points along the way, making them solid plays. Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray got top-12 finishes after starting outside the top 20, so their inclusion here is not a surprise.

The other thing to note from last year's perfect lineup is how balanced it is. There weren't any major punt plays who popped off with no driver with a salary lower than $7,000 finishing better than 17th. This is where the speed of Indianapolis should factor into our decision-making process.

At faster tracks, it's harder for underfunded teams to keep pace with the titans of the sport. And if a driver can't get a top-15 finish, it's unlikely that they'll wind up paying major dividends for DFS. This makes punting more unattractive at Indianapolis than it would be elsewhere.

Additionally, our need to punt should be lower here than it would be other places. With so few laps to be led, the difference in scoring between the driver who scores the second-most points and the driver with the fifth-most points should be smaller than it is at other tracks. In other words, there figure to be fewer "must-have" plays, which lowers our need to jam in all the studs we can handle. Unless there are multiple hyper-expensive drivers who lag in qualifying, we shouldn't need to go hard at these lower-salaried options, skewing more toward a balanced roster.

The easy way to determine whether a team has the equipment to keep pace on Sunday is by looking at what they've done at the tracks discussed above in Fontana, Pocono, and Michigan. Fontana is less relevant because that race was all the way back in March, and the tire wear there is different from what it figures to be in Indianapolis. But there have been four races between Pocono and Michigan since the start of June, giving us tons of relevant data there. If a driver ran well at those tracks, then they're more likely to run well on Sunday. If they struggled, we're best suited looking elsewhere, even if they are starting at an ideal spot in the order.

The other potentially useful data point we might get this weekend -- that we didn't last year -- is practice. Last year, both practices were rained out, depriving us of additional looks at which cars were fast. This year, there are two practices scheduled for Saturday, and those figure to be worthwhile.

Rather than looking at single-lap times, which could be influenced by the draft, you'll want to focus on five-lap averages. NASCAR's Race Center is now publishing lap averages at various intervals from practice, giving us a better idea of which cars are actually fast and not which happened to benefit from the draft on a single lap. Because Indianapolis is so large, we're unlikely to get 10-lap averages from all the drivers in the field. However, five-lap runs seem likely during Saturday's sessions, and they should be able to help us determine who has the juice to compete on Sunday.

If you can't find drivers starting further back who were fast in practice or who ran well at Pocono and Michigan, you'll have to target drivers starting a bit higher in the running order. Finishing points matter a lot, and you'd at least want to get those rather than wasting roster slots on drivers who won't finish well. But at least based on recent history, we should get a handful of drivers who lag in qualifying but have the requisite speed to push for a top-10 during the race.