Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Big Data 500

Martinsville is a unique track where passing figures to be difficult on Sunday. How does this impact strategy for NASCAR DFS?

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 starts the Round of 8 with the First Data 500 in Martinsville. What do we need to know about the track before filling out our NASCAR DFS lineups? Let's check it out.

Track Overview

No race this year has better represented the issues with the Cup Series' new rules package than the spring race in Martinsville. It was a passless affair devoid of action, and Brad Keselowski unleashed a butt-whoopin' on the field.

It's hard to expect anything different this Sunday.

At single-groove tracks in 2019, passing has been nearly impossible, leading to stagnant action and a lack of movement in the running order. This matters for daily fantasy because if passing is tough, it's going to narrow the pool of drivers who can lead laps. In a 500-lap race with 50.0 points available for laps led on FanDuel, this is where our research needs to start.

Keselowski scooped up 44.6 points in the spring for laps led alone. It was a wire-to-wire slaughter of the field, and if Keselowski wasn't on your roster, your lineup was just as dusty as the rest of the field.

Clearly, this means we're going to have to put an emphasis on laps led this weekend. That was true even before the new rules package went into effect at Martinsville, but it's amplified even more now.

Across the past five Martinsville races, 11 drivers have led at least 100 laps. This spring was the first time there weren't two drivers to hit that mark, but that's because Keselowski hogged all the upside to himself. Two of the races in this sample had three drivers lead at least 100 laps, and if you could identify three drivers who hit that mark this weekend, it'd be able to erase a lot of sins elsewhere on your roster.

So we need laps led. That's obvious. Where do we find them?

Keselowski started the spring race in third, but not everyone who has dominated in Martinsville has started that high in the order. Of the 11 drivers to lead at least 100 laps, only four started within the first two rows, and four started ninth or lower. They all started within the top 14 spots, so it's not as if they were coming from the back, but you didn't necessarily have to be on the front row.

But we also have to remember that those other races were using a different rules package, and the difficulties of passing could funnel things closer to the front of the pack. So it may be more worthwhile to look at other races in 2019 to see what we should expect here rather than older Martinsville races.

This Sunday's race will be the sixth of the year at a flat, shorter track. This is the track type that has seen the biggest downsides of the new package, meaning a deeper dive into them should tell us what to expect.

The table below shows the starting spots of the two drivers who led the most laps in each of the first five races. Not surprisingly, it's a lot of guys who started within the first few rows.

Starting Position of Lap-Leaders Led Most Laps Led Second Most Laps
Phoenix 4th 1st
Martinsville 3rd 7th
Richmond Spring 5th 4th
New Hampshire 2nd 23rd
Richmond Fall 4th 8th

Outside of a big day from Denny Hamlin in New Hampshire, all of the lap-leaders have been drivers who have started within the first four rows. Additionally, the driver to lead the most laps started in the top five each time. It appears we have our target range.

Martinsville is a different track from those other venues, and that is very much worth mentioning. But it does seem like passing here will be just as difficult as it is elsewhere, and that pushes us toward targeting drivers starting within the top eight or so spots.

During the spring race, our strategy for Martinsville was to go with a "waves" approach. We would pick a driver right at the front who would lead laps early and another a bit further back who would lead laps late. Technically, that would have worked with Chase Elliott leading the second-most laps from seventh spot, but we need to ditch that strategy this weekend.

Instead, we should opt for targeting at least two drivers within the first eight or so spots, whether they're starting at the high end or low end of that range. If your two favorite drivers of the week are both starting on the front row, then lock them in. If they're starting second and fifth, that works, too. But you should have two drivers who you think can lead laps and are starting near the front in almost every lineup.

The "almost" phrasing there isn't a hedge. It's because this weekend is the final race of the year where drivers could have their qualifying times vacated due to inspection taking place after qualifying. If that happens, they would start all the way in the back, giving them big place-differential upside. How should we handle things if that were to happen? Let's get into that next and then sort through value plays.

Roster Construction and Strategies

Before we get too deep into the weeds, it's worth mentioning this could all wind up being moot. The most recent impound race with inspection after qualifying was in Richmond, and only one driver failed inspection there. We've had races this year where no drivers failed inspection. So it's possible none of this matters. But let's prepare just in case it does.

Even with how hard it is to pass, we shouldn't worry too much about the driver making up spots while coming from the back as long as their car is strong enough. Bubba Wallace was the one driver who failed inspection in Richmond, and he worked his way up to 12th after starting 37th. Alex Bowman started shotgun on the field in New Hampshire and finished 14th for a race in which he was the 16th-ranked driver in my model. It's a long race, and drivers who start back there will have enough time to work their ways forward if they have the speed.

That's why we should be pretty jazzed about any cheaper drivers who fail inspection. They give you good place-differential upside, and they can still get a good finish. So if it's a value driver or someone in the mid-range, failing inspection is attractive.

The dilemma occurs when it's an expensive driver. Usually, if we roster an expensive driver starting in the back, it means we're passing up the opportunity to roster a driver who can lead laps. Not many cheaper drivers dominate races, so most of our lap-leaders are going to come with a high salary tag. If we're also using an expensive driver starting in the back, it'll put a lid on the number of laps led we can squeeze into our roster.

Deciding whether we want to target a driver starting in the back is a bit of a math problem. Because we know the scoring rules on FanDuel, we can play things out in our head and determine if it's worth it.

Let's use the first Richmond race this year as an example. There, Hamlin was $12,500 and failed post-qualifying inspection, meaning his official starting position was 30th. But there were also 400 laps scheduled for that race, meaning we did have to decide if we wanted to go with Hamlin or drivers who had better odds to lead laps.

Prior to qualifying, Hamlin graded out as the second-best driver in my model. If Hamlin were to finish second, he would have gained 14 points via place-differential (28 spots different from where he started and then divided by two, per FanDuel's scoring rules). That's equivalent to the points we get from 140 laps led, which is a pretty significant number.

With Richmond being 400 laps, the math made sense to trust Hamlin as a place-differential play even though he was starting in the back. In reality, Hamlin finished fifth, which was still enough to land a spot in the perfect lineup for the race, even though there were two drivers who led more than 100 laps.

We should take a similar approach when weighing these decisions for Martinsville. Try to generate a projected finishing position for the driver in your mind, and see whether that driver can pay off if they wind up in that range. If they can, then you can lock them in. If the upside there isn't enough to offset the loss in laps led, then it's okay to look elsewhere.

Of course, if you're multi-entering for tournaments, you'll still want to get exposure to that person regardless. Drivers out-perform expectations all the time, and we need to account for that. Just figure out the odds that they do so and use those odds to decide how often you should use them.

Using a driver in the back won't always bleed your lineup of laps led. We can get mid-range drivers who are at the front and fast enough to lead laps, and we can punt and roster a couple of cheap drivers in order to squeeze in more costly assets. But it's best to keep that opportunity cost in mind.

Punting was a successful strategy back in the spring race at Martinsville, as was targeting cheaper drivers deeper in the pack. Keselowski and Elliott were basically locks for the perfect lineup given that they led almost all the laps and finished in the top two spots. The other three were all drivers who started outside the top 15.

Perfect Lineup Start Salary Laps Led
Brad Keselowski 3rd $13,700 446
Chase Elliott 7th $11,900 49
Ryan Blaney 17th $11,600 0
Austin Dillon 29th $7,700 0
Bubba Wallace 26th $4,500 0

Having Wallace come through at just $4,500 allowed us to squeeze in an expensive Ryan Blaney without sacrificing the upside for laps led. That's a key thing to keep in mind for this weekend.

When you're trying to decide which drivers will have the ability to work their way forward as the day goes along, that aforementioned Martinsville race will be a nice crutch. It was a race at this specific track in this season, meaning that each relevant driver was with their current team. Martinsville is also unique enough where a driver's history at that track matters more than usual.

In general, track history is the segment of my model that grades out the worst, almost invariably. But in the first Martinsville race, it graded out as having a higher correlation to average running position than current form, and it was the fourth-best mark the track history segment has had all year long.

Anecdotally, this makes sense with Martinsville being shaped like a paperclip and wildly different from all other tracks on the schedule. So track history matters a bit more than usual, and we have data at this track from 2019. That means the spring race will help give us a pretty good idea of which drivers are likely to run well on Sunday.

We'll also get good data from practice, where most drivers should have at least 10-lap averages we can check out. That'll show us which cars have speed that specific weekend, and that matters, too.

Combine this with what we saw in the spring (and a sprinkle of what we've seen more recently), and we should be able to discern which cars have the speed to compete and which are lagging. Then we can go back to the strategies discussed before.

This is the data we'll want to lean on in deciding which cars we should target when seeking out laps led. If a driver was good here in the spring, is fast in practice, and is starting near the front, then there's a good chance they'll be a lap-leader we can lean on. Then we pick our second lap-leader and go from there.

Additionally, these will give us signals about how much confidence we should have in the drivers starting further back, whether they're a value play or a stud. If they've got good marks in our key areas, then they're likely someone we'll want to seek out. But if they have some red flags in one of the departments, it's necessary to proceed with caution. You need to be a lot faster than the car in front of you to make passes in this package, and if the driver hasn't shown the necessary giddy-up prior to the race, we're probably going to want to look elsewhere.