Daily Fantasy NASCAR Driver Preview: Pennzoil 400
The sight of Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend will be a welcome one.
Every track on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit is dangerous in a way given that drivers are strapped into 3,400-pound rockets traveling at speeds tickling 200 miles per hour. And they'll be hitting those speeds again this weekend. But nothing compares to the risks of Daytona and Talladega, as we saw this past weekend. A return to relative comfort is necessary with everyone's thoughts still focused on the health of Ryan Newman.
As mentioned in this week's track preview, we've got freedom in Las Vegas to target drivers starting anywhere in the pack. As long as you're fast enough, you can score just as well from 2nd as you can from 22nd. You don't need to target drivers starting in any specific range.
You will still want to account for practice times in making your selections, and we'll address those later in the week with a post-practice primer. But until then, which drivers should we have on our radar for daily fantasy NASCAR in the Pennzoil 400? Let's run through some of them now.
Kevin Harvick (FanDuel Salary: $13,500): Whether you're looking at Las Vegas, specifically, or 1.5-mile tracks with the current rules package, one name sits at the top for dominating races and logging laps led. That guy is Kevin Harvick, and it makes him the place we should start the discussion for this weekend.
Harvick didn't win either Las Vegas race in 2019, the two races here under the current rules package. But he did lead 88 laps in the winter and 47 in the fall. When you add that do a dominant performance back in 2018, he has led 363 laps in the past four Las Vegas races, 100 clear of all other drivers. He also led 176 more laps than any other driver in the 10 races at 1.5-mile tracks using this package last year, helping propel him into the Championship Four.
That's the good with Harvick, and it's significant. Leading a ton of laps is huge for DFS. The bad is that this is Harvick's age-44 season, and drivers generally peak at age 39, according to David Smith of The Athletic. Despite all the laps led last year, Harvick's average finish fell 1.2 spots from 2018, and he won four fewer races. There was some decline there, and there could be even more in 2020. That's not enough for us to cross Harvick off our lists, but we will need to keep a close eye on him early in the year to see whether things start to slide.
Ryan Blaney ($10,500): The driver entering the weekend ranked fourth in my model ranks just eighth in salary and ninth in win odds. That means Ryan Blaney is someone we should be looking to buy.
Part of the reason Blaney grades out well is that he has a plus history in Las Vegas. In four races with Penske Racing at the track, he has three top-five finishes, and he had a third-place average running position in one of them. He also had a pair of top-10 runs while he was still with Wood Brothers Racing, a satellite operation of Penske.
Additionally, Blaney helped himself with impressive runs at 1.5-mile tracks down the stretch of the season. Starting with that fifth-place finish in Las Vegas, Blaney's average running positions at these tracks in the playoffs were 10th, 7th, 13th, and 8th. He didn't always parlay that into a quality finish, but the speed was obvious.
Penske cars have been dominant of late in Las Vegas, winning two of the past three and four of the past eight races here. Blaney has that equipment and has shown an ability to convert on it. Even at $10,500, Blaney seems to be the slightest bit underrated for this weekend.
Kyle Larson ($10,000): In the old rules package, Las Vegas was Kyle Larson's play place. The final two years at the track, Larson finished no worse than third and had a top-five average running position twice. The transition to the new rules last year, though, seemed to throw Larson for a loop at 1.5-mile tracks, and that downtick translated to Vegas, as well.
Larson definitely wasn't bad here in 2019. He was 12th in the first race and 8th in the second, which is fine. But his average running positions were 18th and 11th, respectively, showing he was never really in contention for a win. Across the full season, Larson had just two top-fives in this package at 1.5-mile tracks and four top-10s, demonstrating a lack of upside that's hard to swallow in this salary tier.
Now, the Chevrolets have a redesigned body for the 2020 season, meaning something will be different for this year. As such, Larson -- and his teammate, Kurt Busch ($9,300) -- is a driver we should monitor closely in practice. Because Larson tends to run higher on the track, his raw practice times are less predictive of his finishing position than other drivers. That's worth keeping in mind. It also means that if he does pop in practice despite that, it likely indicates he has a really fast car. So watch practice if you can, and if the broadcasters start to talk up Larson, that could be an indication that the equipment is good. If you can't watch, look at the speed charts and try to determine if there are legit signs of life. If there are, then it may be an indication we should buy in with the new body on the car.
Aric Almirola ($8,300): With how strong Harvick has been in Las Vegas, it should be no surprise that his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates have run well, too. Aric Almirola has been the team's other big noteworthy name in Vegas.
Almirola has raced in Vegas four times since joining SHR. He has three top-10s in that time with four top-15 average running positions. His lone finish outside the top 10 was a 13th in last year's fall race, and even then, his average running position was ninth.
In general, it has been the Fords who have done the most damage on this track. That's big for the studs, but it should also push us to hunt out mid-range and value plays who could benefit from the camp's speed. Almirola has fit that mold in the past, and with his salary at $8,300, he stands out as a potential target once again.
Joey Logano ($13,000): We very easily could have put Joey Logano in the track history section. He won the winter Vegas race and led 105 laps in the fall rendition. The more interesting angle on Logano, though, centers around what he has done since he started wearing glasses while driving back in the fall.
Logano first donned the new specs at Talladega, saying they helped him see things that were far away. In seven races since, his average running position has been ninth or better in all but one race, and two of the plus races were on 1.5-mile tracks. He hasn't always converted those runs into solid finishes, but he's laying down fast laps and running up front. Even if this isn't directly related to the glasses, that's an impressive level of consistency, and this track has brought out the upside.
Logano has eight straight top-10s in Las Vegas, has led at least 40 laps in six of those races, and has had a top-six average running position six straight times. Once you add all of this together, it becomes clear that Logano needs to be near the top of our lists both for DFS and betting this weekend.
Erik Jones ($9,600): Last year's two Vegas races didn't go all too well for Erik Jones. He was 13th in the first race, and a wreck in the second led to a 36th-place finish. Outside of that, though, Jones mopped up at 1.5-mile tracks.
In the other eight races with this package, Jones had four top-fives and seven top-10s. His seven top-10s were tied for most in the sport, and his four top-fives trailed only Logano and Jones' teammate, Kyle Busch ($14,000). The lone other blemish was a last-place finish in Charlotte after he blew a tire 22 laps in.
Jones' calling card in the Cup Series is volatility, and that showed up on the 1.5-mile tracks with only one finish between 10th and 36th. But he showed he could hit the high ends of that volatility, including a third-place finish in the season-ender in Homestead. You won't find many drivers below $10,000 with the upside to actually win one of these races, but Jones very much belongs on that list.
Alex Bowman ($9,000): Out of all Chevy drivers in 2019, nobody had more top-10s at the 1.5-mile tracks using the current package than Alex Bowman. He had six of those, one of which was his first career win in Chicago. Even with plenty of love (deservedly) going to the Fords entering the weekend, Bowman is at least worthy of some buzz.
In addition to the win in Chicago, Bowman had a pair of other top-five runs. He was runner-up in Kansas, nearly out-dueling Brad Keselowski ($12,000) there, and then he notched a fifth-place finish at Texas during the playoffs. Bowman was strong on this track type all year long, and he flashed some upside, too.
Bowman has flexed some muscle in Las Vegas, specifically. He had an 11th-place average running position here in the fall of 2018 and followed it up with finishes of 11th and 6th in the two races last year. He doesn't have the same upside of Jones in this same range, but Bowman's still a decent bet to grind out a quality finish, which you'll happily take for $9,000.
Chris Buescher ($7,200): Chris Buescher's re-debut with Roush-Fenway Racing was almost memorable for all of the right reasons. Instead, it ended with his teammate, Ryan Newman, in the hospital. Buescher still managed a third-place finish, though that's clearly an afterthought with all that happened to Newman.
Buescher's strong showing at Daytona is no shock given how his predecessor in the seat, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($6,000), ran there while with RFR. Stenhouse's performance can also give us some hope for Buescher this weekend. Stenhouse was sixth in the first Las Vegas race last year, and he followed it up with a fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, another 1.5-mile track. In all, Stenhouse was 12th or better in five of 10 races at similar tracks last year.
Even while in lesser equipment, Buescher also proved he was capable on this track type in 2019. He had three top-10s while using this package and added another in Atlanta, which had a modified version of the package. Buescher was top-20 in all 10 races, meaning he's bringing stability that Stenhouse couldn't offer. If Buescher can tap into some of the upside that Stenhouse showed, he could be a value yet again at $7,200, and you may want to give him a sniff in betting markets, as well.
Cole Custer ($6,600): With Almirola, we discussed the appeal in targeting cheaper Fords who could benefit from the manufacturer's success on this track type. Not only does Cole Custer get you that, but he's even driving for the same team as Harvick and Almirola, so you know he'll have some giddy-up under the hood this weekend.
Custer flexed some muscle on 1.5-mile tracks in the Xfinity Series last year, even if it wasn't quite on the same level of fellow Cup Series rookies Christopher Bell ($7,000) and Tyler Reddick ($6,200). Custer won in both Chicago and Kentucky while finishing runner-up in Atlanta and Homestead. At Las Vegas specifically, Custer led 47 laps in the first race before finishing ninth and was then fourth in the fall trip.
The advantage that Custer has over the others is that his team should have more race-day speed. Reddick's Richard Childress Racing team struggled with race setups last year, and Bell's Leavine Family Racing car lagged at tracks with additional on-throttle time. Bell's worth watching thanks to an increased alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but of the rookies, Custer has the equipment edge. If you want to buy into the youth while exploiting the speed of the Fords, Custer is shaping up to be your guy.
Tyler Reddick ($6,200): Despite the concerns laid out above, Reddick is still interesting for this weekend, especially if he manages to slip a bit in qualifying.
Reddick really mopped up on this track type last year in the Xfinity Series, winning a circuit-leading three of 10 races. One of those wins came in Las Vegas, and then he claimed the championship with a win in Homestead, as well. He was runner-up twice and third in another, giving him a podium finish in six of 10 races.
Reddick's team at Richard Childress Racing has the juice for top-10 runs at these tracks. Reddick, himself, got a ninth-place finish in a one-off Cup Series race in Kansas, and Austin Dillon ($7,600) had top-10s in Chicago and Homestead. The issue is that they don't really have race-winning upside, and you need that if the drivers manage to qualify well. So, Reddick is someone to monitor this weekend. If he qualifies well, his odds of burning down lineups are high. But if he qualifies in the middle of the pack, he has the speed to push for a top-10 finish, and at a salary of $6,200, that would go a long way toward giving you a tournament-winning lineup.