Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Federated Auto Parts 400

Passing numbers have been down at tracks similar to Richmond in 2019. What does that mean for DFS strategies in the Federated Auto Parts 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 continues the first round of the playoffs with the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond. What do we need to know about the track before filling out our NASCAR DFS lineups? Let's check it out.

Track Overview

Last week, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was in Las Vegas. Vegas is one of the many 1.5-mile tracks on the schedule, which means we know what's going to happen when the series goes there. It's a comforting feeling.

Sneakily, we're getting something similar this weekend in Richmond. This will be the fifth race of the season at a short, flat track, and that's a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions. We should know what's coming on Saturday night.

The other tracks we can look to -- outside of the race in Richmond back in April -- are Phoenix, Martinsville, and New Hampshire. Specifically, we want to look at passing numbers at those tracks. The new rules package has increased passing at the 1.5-mile tracks because it has made the draft a bigger factor. That hasn't been true at the shorter tracks, and Richmond certainly qualifies as such.

Here's a look at the passing numbers at tracks like Richmond this year compared to where they were in 2018. For each race, we're looking at just the first race in that given year (ignoring the second races at Richmond, Phoenix, and Martinsville) so as to account for differences in where those races fell within the schedule. The data has very much aligned with the narrative.

Track 2018 Green-Flag Passes 2019 Green-Flag Passes
Phoenix 1,810 1,349
Martinsville 966 978
Richmond 1,822 1,238
New Hampshire 2,144 1,552

On average, green-flag passes have been down 24.1% from where they were the year before, representing a fairly seismic shift. It doesn't mean we should throw out all data from older Richmond races, but we should definitely put the heaviest emphasis on what happened here back in the spring.

That race really fleshed out how important it is to find drivers who will lead a bunch of laps. There are 400 laps scheduled for Saturday's race, which equates to 40.0 points on FanDuel. They won't go to just one driver, but we'll want to get exposure to the drivers who control the largest helping of that pie.

In the spring race, both Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch led more than 100 laps with Truex playing the pied piper for 186 circuits en route to a win. Not shockingly, he was in the perfect lineup, though Busch was not because he drifted back to an eighth-place finish.

In the past five Richmond races, 11 drivers have managed to lead 89 or more laps. We're very likely to get two drivers who lead a difference-making number of laps, and those drivers are very likely to wind up on successful DFS lineups.

Most of the drivers who manage to do this are likely to start within the first three rows. Nine of the 11 drivers to lead 89 or more laps started sixth or higher, including both Truex (fifth) and Busch (fourth) from this spring. With how difficult passing has been, we should expect that to remain the same this weekend.

That doesn't necessarily mean we have to have multiple drivers starting at the front in every lineup, though. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, Richmond is a short track, and some weird things can happen. Of those 11 drivers who led at least 89 laps, five finished outside the top 10, and when you finish that low, you're probably not paying off for DFS no matter how many laps you lead. That's something that's fully within the range of outcomes, and we saw it again this spring with Busch slipping to eighth at the end.

Second, inspection for this week will not take place until after qualifying. It'll likely finish up around three hours prior to the green flag, meaning the final starting order will not be set until about 4:30 pm Eastern time.

If a car fails post-qualifying inspection, they will be sent to the back of the pack, and their official starting spot will be somewhere in the 30s (unless a bunch of cars fail inspection). That influences their place-differential points and clearly alters our DFS strategy. We could have quality cars starting all the way in the back, and that matters a lot.

The other implication is that -- if you want to build optimal lineups -- you'll need to account for these potential failures. As such, if you're planning on playing NASCAR DFS this week, it's a good idea to set aside time Saturday night between 4 pm and 7 pm Eastern to either set or tweak lineups.

If you recall the conversation about passing, this point may be a bit weird to you. If passing is so tough, why do we care about who fails inspection? Won't those drivers likely be mired in the back all race and unlikely to pay off?

Thankfully, the spring race gave us answers as it was also an impound race. So let's dig into that one again to see how we should attack this.

Historic Scoring Trends

In that race back in April, there were eight drivers who failed post-qualifying inspection, shuttling them to the back of the pack. Even with that, there were still fewer passes in that race than there were the year before, which would lead you to believe that they had trouble generating good finishes.

It didn't matter, though. Because of the fantasy upside generated by starting in the back, two of them managed to make the perfect lineup for the race.

Perfect Lineup Salary Start Laps Led
Martin Truex Jr. $12,700 5th 186
Denny Hamlin $12,500 30th 0
Jimmie Johnson $10,000 34th 0
Ryan Newman $7,500 24th 0
Paul Menard $6,700 9th 0

Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were the two who failed inspection, and Ryan Newman also worked his way forward and paid off despite starting in the back.

This is not to say that those drivers made coming up through the pack look like a breeze. Hamlin was the only driver who failed inspection to finish better than 12th. Chase Elliott was 15th in a competitive car, and Aric Almirola -- who had a top-10 average running position in both 2018 races at the track -- mustered just a 23rd-place finish. It was a pretty clear detriment to start in the back if you're trying to predict strictly finishing position.

There are a couple of takeaways we should have from looking at this. First, we do need to make sure we're weighing where a driver is starting when making decisions. In Las Vegas last week, both Truex and Joey Logano shredded their way through the field with ease and had two of the better cars with Truex getting the win. We're unlikely to see something like that on Saturday night. When you're looking for drivers to lead laps or get a good finish, their starting position should be a prime consideration.

Second, we can be a bit picky about which drivers we use if there are several who fail inspection. If someone like Kyle Busch fails, that's one thing; he'll be good enough to work his way through in a hurry, and his finishing upside will be great. But if it's a mid-tier driver who you have questions about, they may not necessarily be a must-use asset in tournaments.

Even a middling driver is going to get a boost by starting all the way in the back because it inflates both their floor and their ceiling potential. But there's a difference between getting a boost and becoming a "must-use" driver, and we have to ask ourselves whether that driver has the ability to churn out a top-15 finish after starting in the back.

Plenty of fluky things can happen during a race to quickly push a driver up the running order, so as long as the driver isn't a true back-marker, you'll want exposure to them if they fail inspection. But given how difficult passing has been, they won't be someone you need to jam into every lineup unless you think they're strong enough to overcome the passing difficulties.

The other implication of all of this is that drivers starting at the front are going to have quite a bit of upside.

Back in the spring, both Truex and Busch led more than 100 laps after starting inside the top five. If Busch hadn't slipped later in the race, it's very possible they would have both been in the perfect lineup, which would have made it more top-heavy than it wound up being. But that's still within the range of outcomes.

Because of this, we should likely take two separate approaches to building lineups this week: one where we target two lap-leaders at the front and one where we stick with just one.

The double lap-leader lineup allows us to take advantage both of the number of laps in the race and the difficulty drivers have had with passing on this track type. If we correctly pinpoint the two drivers who control the race, we'll have a pretty serious leg up on the crowd with all the points available for lap-leaders.

The single lap-leader lineup allows us to account for the unknown. As mentioned, guys who lead a bunch of laps in Richmond aren't guaranteed a good finish, and if they don't end up at the front, they probably won't be in winning lineups. This also better positions us to take advantage of any drivers who fail post-qualifying inspection.

That's how we can handle the studs. For the value plays, it's a bit of a different discussion.

This is abundantly obvious, but when a driver has a lower salary, they don't need to score as many points to pay off for DFS. This opens up a couple avenues for us with value plays.

Chiefly, it means they don't need to finish as well to come through in DFS if they start near the back. Last year, David Ragan made the perfect lineup despite a 23rd-place finish because he started 40th and had a salary of $4,500. For a mid-tier play, you need them to be capable of finishing somewhere between 10th and 15th. For a value play, we really need them to finish somewhere between 15th and 20th, which is a more realistic ask given the difficulties of passing.

The second part of this is that value plays can pay off for DFS simply by finishing well; they don't really need a second source of points in order to help you. We saw that with Paul Menard this spring as he made the perfect lineup despite starting ninth. He finished 10th, meaning he actually lost half a point for place-differential, but the finishing points alone were enough to make him a profitable investment.

Because of this, you don't need to disregard a lower-salaried driver just because they're starting at the front. As long as you think they can also finish up there, they're absolutely on the map for DFS. We should look first for values starting deeper in the order because it gives us a lot more wiggle room, but if you think they have finishing juice, you can give them a squeeze.

When trying to assess a driver's finishing upside, you'll want to focus on how they've performed at the tracks we mentioned above.

When the teams are in a spot like Las Vegas, they're consistently on the throttle for most of the race. This means that teams with the best equipment are likely to generate the top-end finishes as it's harder for the smaller teams to keep up.

That's not the case at these flatter, shorter tracks. Those spots have plenty of off-throttle time, which allows better drivers to make up for a lack of quality equipment. So we should put more stock on what we've seen at races in New Hampshire, Richmond, Martinsville, and Phoenix than what we saw at places like Indianapolis a couple weeks ago.

We'll also get great data from practice. Because Richmond is a shorter track, drivers will run more laps in each session, meaning we should have 10- and potentially 15-lap averages from a good chunk of the field. This will show us who can consistently lay down a fast lap and give us a good idea of which cars are faster than their salaries would indicate.

Combining the practice numbers with what we've seen at other flat, short tracks will help us make the judgements mentioned above about whether or not a driver will be able to make their way through the pack. If they have strength in those areas and are starting further back, we can likely trust them even in the new package. If things are a bit more murky, the package gives us an out to simply ignore those drivers and drift a bit closer to the front.