Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Darlington 400 and 500k
It's finally race week, baby.
Well, technically, it's plural. Races week with two Cup Series rendezvous at Darlington coming, one this Sunday and another the following Wednesday as the sport returns from its COVID-19 layoff. Things -- as they should -- are going to look a little different.
In order to decrease the amount of time teams spend at the track, NASCAR will nix both practice and qualifying for the two Darlington races. Qualifying will be set by a mixture of owner points and a random draw for Sunday's race, and there will be a field inversion for Wednesday. More on that in the section on each race.
Cancelling practice is certainly prudent on NASCAR's part, but it does give us less data than we'd usually have while filling out our DFS lineups. We're going to start things off today by detailing the impact of that on our lineup construction process. Then, we'll outline strategies for Sunday's race before touching on Wednesday's encore.
The Impact of No Practice
For the entire 2019 season, there were zero races in which cars didn't log any practice prior to the race. For all 36 events, we had at least some idea of who was likely to be fast entering the weekend. We can still have some grasp on who will compete, but we're working with incomplete data.
That's going to add an extra element of randomness, and we'd be wise to account for that randomness within our lineups.
When you have a firm read on things and are multi-entering in tournaments, it's permissible and wise to have super-concentrated exposure levels to the drivers you like most. This way, you are in line to benefit if they have the type of race you expect.
This weekend, we're not going to have that firm read. With randomness going up, it's harder to take an ultra-hard stand on an individual driver knowing that their setup may suck at the beginning of the race. This is more pertinent for the Sunday race than the one on Wednesday, but with teams potentially using different cars for each outing, they're going to be going in blind each time.
As a result, if you're multi-entering in tournaments, you'll want to have lower exposure limits to each driver than you'd have in almost any other race the entire year. You don't need to completely spread things out (and absolutely shouldn't as that's just poor roster management), but it's still wise to modify our approach from how we'd tackle a race where we do have that practice data.
With practice being out the window, we're going to want to put a heavy emphasis on current form, even with some caveats in place.
Last year at Darlington, the current form segment of my model had a higher correlation to each driver's average running position and their finish than the practice segment did. Both current form and practice tested better than track history, which makes sense. Even though Darlington is a weird track that requires a unique skillset, the Cup Series (usually) goes there just once per year. Our data on relevant track history is simply more limited than what we have in looking at current form.
This is why what drivers did before the layoff and at the end of 2019 should be our main guiding light in filling out rosters. We do have to keep a couple of things in mind, though.
The first is that all teams have had a long layoff. It has been two months since the checkered flag dropped in Phoenix, which has given teams chances to alter their setups and cars from how they ran in that opening stint. The Joe Gibbs Racing cars, specifically, had a major dropoff from their performance level in 2019; we may not want to assume that those losses will carry over into Darlington, especially with JGR or affiliated cars having won five of the past seven races at the track.
The second is that only one of those first four races came on a track type similar to Darlington's. Daytona is a pack-racing track, Fontana is two miles long, and Phoenix is short and flat. Las Vegas is the only race we've seen thus far with drivers in their current equipment at a track that figures to race even somewhat similarly to what we'll see this weekend.
So, yes, current form is going to be our best data for making decisions with practice out the window. We should lean heavily on it. But even that is imperfect, which further drives home that we need to spread our exposure out more than we usually would.
The Darlington 400
There are two key differences between Sunday's race and Wednesday's. Those differences are the lengths and the procedures for setting the starting lineup. Both will impact how we build lineups, so let's outline the implications for Sunday's race first.
On Sunday, the Cup Series will run 293 laps in Darlington. That gives us 29.3 points available for laps led on FanDuel, which is about in line with what you'd expect for an intermediate track.
This is, though, a decrease from previous Darlington races. The Cup Series hasn't had a race at Darlington that was shorter than 500 miles (367 scheduled laps) since 2004. This throws our data on lap-leaders at this track out the window.
We can still learn, though, from what happened last year, the lone Darlington race using the aero package that will be in place both Sunday and Wednesday.
In that one, three drivers led at least 75 laps, which equated to be about 20% of the total length. That means three drivers gained at least 7.5 FanDuel points from laps led alone, so targeting lap-leaders was certainly a key.
What's most interesting is where those drivers started the race. Kurt Busch ($9,400) led 94 laps, and he did so from the fourth starting spot on the grid. That's about what you'd expect.
But the two other heavy lap-leaders -- Erik Jones ($9,800) and Kyle Busch ($14,000) -- started 15th and 33rd, respectively. In order to find lap-leaders in that specific race, you didn't need them to start right at the front of the field.
That's something to keep in mind for both Sunday and Wednesday. Even when we're trying to find drivers who will boast big upside, we don't need to limit ourselves to those at the front of the pack. You can make gains at Darlington, so we have freedom in trying to find our ideal assets.
This is key due to the way the starting order will be set. The top 12 teams in owner points will start in the top 12 positions with the order there being based on a random draw, which will likely be conducted by Friday.
Because this is set by a draw, the odds that our favorite driver for this weekend is starting right at the front are pretty low. Three of the top seven drivers in my model -- Jones, Kurt Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. ($11,500) -- are all outside the top 12 in owner points, meaning they'll start between 13th and 24th. I can plug in those drivers when looking for place-differential points, and we can't count them out from logging some laps led at the front.
This is not to say we should simply ignore what qualifying tells us. There is still an inherent advantage to starting higher in the pack because it leaves you with fewer drivers to pass en route to the front. But there is no specific starting range that we must target or avoid based on the way the track has played out in the past.
Because of this, the overriding strategy for Sunday's race will be to use the drivers who you think are going to have speed. If you want to load up on Truex, Jones, and Busch and get place-differential points, you can do that. But there are also enough laps in the race to justify using drivers starting closer to the front, as long as they have the speed to lead the pack.
For value plays, we will want to give priority to those starting further back, though it's far from being universal.
The advantage of using cheaper drivers starting further back is that they don't need to finish as well in order to pay off. A driver who starts 20th and finishes 12th scores more FanDuel points than one who both starts and finishes ninth. Essentially, you're giving yourself more wiggle room.
The reason this isn't universal is that there are some value plays starting in the top 12 who flashed legit speed early in the season. Specifically, Aric Almirola ($8,000) and Matt DiBenedetto ($7,800) both have the ability to post a top-10 finish, so we can't cross them off the list. They're still in play. We'll just want to actively look for lower-cost drivers starting a bit further back who have the juice to finish better than where they'll begin.
The Darlington 500k
In order to get teams and drivers home quickly on Wednesday, the Cup Series will run a shorter race in the second Darlington act. Instead of 400 miles, they'll run 500 kilometers, which equates to 228 laps. That race length alters our approach and -- thankfully -- plays well with the way the field will be lined up.
With just 22.8 points available for laps led for that race, there's less upside available for drivers starting at the front of the pack. We definitely don't need to avoid them, but it does give us incentive to roster drivers starting further back who can generate big outings via place differential.
The order for Wednesday's race will be set by inverting the top 20 finishers in Sunday's race. In other words, the driver who wins on Sunday will be starting 20th, and the driver who finishes 20th will start first. For once, we are guaranteed to have quality drivers starting at least in the middle of the pack.
We could get even better conditions than that, though. The second half of the field -- 21st through 40th -- is set based on the order of finish in Sunday's race. If a driver finishes 36th, they'll start 36th (unless new drivers enter the race who didn't run on Sunday).
Let's say a fast driver has issues Sunday and finishes poorly. As long as those issues aren't something that should concern us for Wednesday, they're going to be elite DFS options in a bounce-back opportunity. Most drivers will likely run separate cars on Wednesday than Sunday, so the only true concern from Sunday's race would be an overall lack of performance due to a poor race car.
This is going to create lineups similar to the ones we create at pack-racing tracks. There, we stack the back because the drivers starting outside the top 10 have similar finishing upside to the ones starting up front. In this scenario, the drivers starting in the middle of the pack may even have better finishing upside than those in the top 10. We won't get scenarios like this often, and we'd be wise to take advantage of the place-differential upside being offered to us.
There are, though, scenarios in which we'd still want to use some drivers starting near the front. If an upper-tier driver were to finish in the middle of the pack on Sunday and start at the front on Wednesday, they'd have solid appeal. The other drivers starting near them may not have the same strength, allowing that faster driver to hop out front early and rack up some laps led. The limited number of laps does push us toward the back, but there are still enough laps there for us to shoot to the front if we think one driver has the potential to dominate.
The final thing worth mentioning for Wednesday is that we should put a lot of stock in what we see on the track on Sunday.
As mentioned before, Sunday's race is the first we've had in two months. It's going to be a massive signal to us who made gains in the layoff and who may have slid back, and that signal is boosted by having both races at the exact same track. If a driver is blazing along on Sunday, we should expect them to contend on Wednesday.
This is where paying attention on Sunday will be key. Not everybody who has speed will finish well. They could cut a tire late or have issues early, and their speed won't show up in the finishing sheet.
Some of those issues will be evident in the data, which is why stats like average running position will be massive crutches when evaluating the race. However, if you have time to watch Sunday's race, it will give you a leg up in deciding where you want to turn in your lineups on Wednesday.