Daily Fantasy NASCAR Driver Preview: FanShield 500
There's a slight element of unknown entering this weekend's FanShield 500 in Phoenix.
As noted in our track preview, the NASCAR Cup Series is running a different rules package this week in Phoenix than it used on this track (and ones like it) last year. That definitely impacts our roster-construction strategy. We just have to decide if it also alters our driver selection.
The package changed the style of racing that we saw on the track, but it was still the same Phoenix they had run at previously. So, can we trust track history data from this venue and tracks like it, or should we toss it all out entirely?
That question is one we can't answer right now, and it likely means we're going to have to lean more on practice data than we otherwise would. But with the information we have now, which drivers should we monitor most closely in NASCAR DFS? Let's check it out.
Kyle Busch (FanDuel Salary: $14,000): For the second straight week, the Cup Series is at a track where Kyle Busch traditionally cleans up. And for the second straight week, we have concerns entering the weekend about the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing. Let's start, though, with Busch's stellar record at Phoenix.
For Busch, it doesn't matter whether the drivers who were strong last year were dependent on the new package. He was great at this course before then, too. He has finished fourth or better in eight of the past nine Phoenix races, and he has led at least 114 laps in four of the past six. This used to be Kevin Harvick's ($12,500) play place, but he seems to have passed that torch over to Busch.
Phoenix will be a welcome sight for Busch and the rest of JGR because the first two non-Daytona races this year have been unkind. Although Busch finished second in Fontana, his average running position was just ninth, and he needed a couple of contenders to falter to climb up that high. The plus here is that this package is also different than what they've used the past two weeks, which could help push the JGR cars back up the ladder. We'll just have to check out practice times on Friday to see if they can revive that speed they had all of 2019.
Given that this is a different package and a track type where the team mopped up last year, we should enter the weekend giving Busch and company the benefit of the doubt while allowing ourselves to shift that opinion if they lag in practice.
Denny Hamlin ($13,000): Denny Hamlin's long-term numbers at Phoenix aren't as dazzling as Busch's or Harvick's. The speed has been there recently, though, and that matters quite a bit.
Hamlin started his Phoenix tear in the fall of 2017. There, he started second and led 193 laps before a run-in with Chase Elliott ($11,000) took him out of contention.
That was a disappointing outcome, but Hamlin carried the gains there into the following years. He has three top-fives in four races since, including a dominant win in the fall in which he led 143 laps.
Hamlin was superb on the flat, short tracks last year, holding a top-six average running position in all four races in the second half of the season and leading 100 laps in New Hampshire in addition to Phoenix. The concerns around JGR from Busch hold for Hamlin, as well, but there is legit reason to believe Busch, Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. ($13,500) could all get back on track this weekend.
Clint Bowyer ($8,400): As mentioned, earlier in his career, Harvick was borderline unbeatable at this track. He seems to have passed those insights to his teammates as several of the cheaper Stewart-Haas Racing drivers have perked up in recent Phoenix races.
We'll start with Clint Bowyer, who has been 13th or better in five of six races since joining SHR in 2017. That includes a sixth-place finish in 2018 and an eighth-place run last fall. That was one of five 2019 races at short, flat tracks where Bowyer had a top-10 average running position, including a fifth-place mark in Richmond, his best of the year. With Richmond likely being the track that best correlates to Phoenix, that provides a solid boost to Bowyer's projection.
Bowyer hasn't necessarily lit things up to start 2020. He was on the pole in Fontana but never showed much speed during the race, and he was simply an acceptable 12th in Las Vegas. This is also his age-41 season (drivers tend to peak in their age-39 season), so some falloff should be expected. Still, Bowyer's strength on tracks like this last year should at least put him on our radar.
Aric Almirola ($8,100): Another SHR driver, Almirola has been a bit more lively than Bowyer to start the season. A poorly timed caution hurt him in Las Vegas, and he came out of Fontana with an eighth-place finish. He carries that into a track that has been a bright spot for him even before he joined SHR.
In Almirola's final Phoenix race with Richard Petty Motorsports -- the fall of 2017 -- he finished ninth, an impressive run for such lackluster equipment. In four races here with SHR, Almirola has two top-fives and three top-10s. One of the top-fives came in last year's spring race when he led 26 laps and had an eighth-place average running position.
Although Almirola wasn't quite as feisty on the short, flat tracks as Bowyer last year, we still might want to be higher on Almirola entering the weekend. He's on the other side of the aging curve with this being his age-36 season, and he has proven in the past that this track is favorable for his skills. Regardless of which SHR driver you put higher, it's clear both are worth monitoring Friday during practice.
Austin Dillon ($7,600): The recent finishes for Austin Dillon in Phoenix aren't all that impressive. He has been outside the top 15 in three of the past four races here. Digging a bit deeper, though, makes things look much rosier.
The one plus race for Dillon in that stretch was an eighth-place finish back in 2018, which you'll happily take at this salary. He also had a 12th-place average running position in last year's spring race before slipping at the end and finishing 21st. Despite not having the finishes to show for it, he does have a top-15 average running position in three of the past four here.
Dillon's best finish for the entire 2019 season came in Richmond when he was sixth with a ninth-place average running position. He has shown some strength to start 2020, as well, finishing fourth in Las Vegas with a 13th-place average running position. Dillon's not necessarily a massive value, and his outlook isn't as optimistic as that of Bowyer and Almirola, but he has shown in the past that he's capable of a quality finish at tracks like this.
Ryan Blaney ($11,000): Three races into the 2020 season, Ryan Blaney has already pushed for three victories. He has come up short each time, but he's clearly knocking on the door of victory lane.
In Daytona, Blaney was a couple feet from a win. In Las Vegas, it was an ill-timed caution that cut him down. Then in Fontana, he was on his way to a second-place finish before he cut a tire and had to pit with just a couple laps left. Blaney's average running position has been fourth or better each of the past two weeks, and you could argue that his form is the best of anybody in the field when you look at just this year.
We shouldn't expect that success to come to an end this week. In seven races at short, flat tracks last year, Blaney had five top-five finishes and five top-seven average running positions. He led 94 laps in the first Phoenix race en route to a third-place finish, and he followed it up with another podium run in the fall. There may be a point where we can pump the brakes on Blaney, but that time shouldn't come this weekend.
Alex Bowman ($10,500): The only guy whose form can rival Blaney's right now is Alex Bowman. Nobody was even in his stratosphere from a speed perspective last week.
There, Bowman swept both practices, led 110 laps, and won the race by 8.9 seconds. That's the type of performance that makes you ditch your priors in a hurry. It also came a week after he was chasing down Blaney for the lead in Las Vegas before a caution jumbled the field. This doesn't seem to be a one-race fluke.
The only difference between Blaney and Bowman is that Bowman was wretched on the short, flat tracks last year. He never finished better than 14th, and his average running position was 15th or worse in each race. That could force us to jump off the Bowman bandwagon this week. But Jimmie Johnson ($10,000) was strong in Phoenix last year, and Bowman, Elliott, and William Byron ($9,500) showed plenty of life on this track type under the old package in 2018. We should enter the weekend high on the Hendrick cars unless they struggle in practice.
Jimmie Johnson ($10,000): As mentioned, Johnson was decent at Phoenix last year, notching an eighth-place finish in the spring. He also was top-12 in both Richmond races. More importantly, the Hendrick revival has included Johnson in the past two weeks.
Johnson -- like Bowman -- pushed for a win last week in Fontana. He had a fourth-place average running position and finished seventh. He also had a 10th-place average running position in Las Vegas. This comes a year after Johnson had a top-10 average running position in just 7 of 36 races, so seeing him hit that mark twice in a row necessitates a reevaluation.
We should still be skeptical about Johnson despite the recent success. He hasn't had more than four top-fives in a season since 2016, and he's past his prime in his age-44 season. This puts a potential lid on his upside that some others in this tier don't have to deal with. But if Johnson can have more runs like the one he had last week, we might need to tweak our expectations of what he's capable of doing.
Matt DiBenedetto ($8,000): There are a couple things working in Matt DiBenedetto's favor this weekend, and we'd be wise to view him in high regard, similar to the aforementioned Bowyer and Almirola.
The first thing -- and likely the biggest -- is that DiBenedetto proved his worth on tracks like Phoenix last year. He had a top-15 average running position in all four second-half races at short, flat tracks, and he even cashed one in with a top-five finish in New Hampshire. He was 13th in the second Phoenix race. When you consider the equipment he was in, that's impressive.
The second is that we know DiBenedetto's in capable equipment for this track. His predecessor, Paul Menard, finished one spot ahead of DiBenedetto in the fall Phoenix race and had a ninth-place average running position in the spring Richmond race. Blaney's strength in Phoenix and Brad Keselowski's ($11,500) showing on short, flat tracks means DiBenedetto's going to have the equipment necessary to compete. His performance last year showed the driving skills should be there, too.
Christopher Bell ($6,300): Just as Menard's competence on this track type bodes well for DiBenedetto, DiBenedetto's success at spots like this is a good omen for Christopher Bell.
Bell's first few races in DiBenedetto's old seat haven't gone well with back-to-back finishes outside the top 30. But DiBenedetto struggled on those tracks last year, too. The team just didn't have the speed to keep up. There was hope that things would be different this year with additional funding from JGR, but that hasn't appeared to be the case as of yet. Things were different when there was more off-throttle time and the driver had more control, which will be the case this weekend in Phoenix.
Bell also proved his worth on similar tracks in the Xfinity Series. He led at least 65 laps in each of his final three Phoenix races in that series, notching a win in the 2018 playoff race. He also won three times in Richmond, including the fall 2019 race where he led 238 of 250 laps in an all-out romp. It's fair to be down on Bell after his first couple races, but don't be shocked if he's able to spring back to life now that speed isn't as much of a necessity for success.