Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Cook Out Southern 500

The NASCAR Cup Series begins its playoffs Sunday in Darlington with the Cook Out Southern 500. What do we need to know before setting our NASCAR DFS lineups?

We're in a weird spot when it comes to NASCAR DFS this weekend. But it's definitely not a bad one.

Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500 is the third time the NASCAR Cup Series has raced at the track in 2020. Usually, we're lucky if we've got one race of data at the track that season; sometimes, we have to operate on just one race within the past two years.

Not this time. We've got good, relevant track history with every driver running for their current team. Giddy up.

Darlington is also a track where we know what to expect from a strategy perspective. It's 367 laps long, giving us 36.7 FanDuel points available for laps led. That's way up from most recent races and the most we've had for any race since mid-June.

As a result, we're totally flipping our mindset from where it was last week in Daytona. Instead of focusing on place-differential, we need to jam as many laps led into our lineups as we can tolerate. Let's dig into why and what that means for roster construction on Sunday.

Upside for Lap-Leaders

The only small downside of the early-season races is that they were shorter in length. Given the impact of laps on scoring, we have to push them aside (for the most part) when formulating strategies.

Still, there have been three 500-mile races in Darlington since the implementation of stages in 2017. In those three races, one driver has led at least 100 laps each time, and two of them had multiple drivers lead 94 or more laps. In the third race, Kyle Larson hogged all the upside for himself by leading 284 of 367 laps.

Either way, it's abundantly clear that we need to emphasize this within our lineups. We need at least two drivers in each lineup capable of leading laps, and those drivers are likely to carry high salaries. The upsides of that are worth the decreased floor we get with the rest of our lineup.

It doesn't seem to matter too much where those studs start, though. Although it can be tough to pass in Darlington, Kyle Busch led 118 laps in last year's race after starting 33rd. Erik Jones won that race and led 79 from 15th. That was in a different rules package than they'll have this weekend, but the new package is intended to make passing less of a burden.

Because of the new formula for setting the starting order, some studs are scattered throughout the starting order. But as long as you think they'll be fast enough, they should still be able to lead laps on Sunday night.

The one alteration to make is that we can utilize the waves strategy here. If one of the studs you like is starting in the back end of the playoff contenders, it's probably wise to pair them with another driver starting closer to the front. This way, the one starting closer to the front can snag some points for leading laps while the other stud picks their way through traffic.

We saw this method in practice for the second Darlington race this year, which was set by an invert. Denny Hamlin won from 16th, but Clint Bowyer -- who started fourth -- led 71 laps early on. Bowyer didn't finish well, but if he had, having him and Hamlin together would have provided a significant lift to lineups.

This also means we have plenty of leeway to roster multiple drivers starting right at the front. Because of all the bonus points available for leading, if the two drivers on the front row each lead 100 laps, you're not going to need any place-differential points for them to pay off. You should be rostering drivers you think will lead the race regardless of where they start, and you should have at least two of those drivers per lineup.

Beyond the two lap-leaders, place-differential options are absolutely in play.

As mentioned before, Darlington can sometimes carry a reputation as a place where passing is tough. Still, the 2018 perfect lineup had two drivers who started outside the top 20. There were three such drivers in the first race this year, all of whom had salaries lower than $10,000.

The lower-salaried drivers certainly don't have to start in the back. In last year's race, three value plays made it after starting inside the top 20. That could easily happen again this weekend.

But a graph of the upside available here will have two spikes. The first spike is the drivers starting near the front who can lead laps. The second is the drivers starting further back who can scoop place-differential. These are two good tiers to live in for all five spots within our rosters.

Data to Emphasize

In order to discern which drivers stand out in those tiers, you will want to look long and hard at those two Darlington races earlier in the year. Having that data is hyper-valuable when deciding who will be fast on Sunday. There is a big caveat, though.

Namely, those races were still a long time ago. They were the first two back from the pandemic, meaning they were the fifth and sixth races of the season. A lot of things have changed in that time.

As a result, we do still want to put weight on current form. For the drivers who have been pretty steady since then, we can draw value from Darlington. Hamlin and Kevin Harvick won those two races, and they've been dominating ever since. We should expect more of the same this weekend.

But for drivers whose form has shifted since that time, we will want to proceed with caution. Some teams have made legitimate gains the past few months while others have fallen behind. Even with our track history data being as good as it is, it's still important to value current form when making our selections.

Add all of this up, and you get a pretty straightforward race. We should use a blend of the two Darlington races and current form to decide who will be good, we should emphasize getting laps led into our lineups with a pair of studs, and we can afford to look for place-differential elsewhere. Given all the moving parts entering last week, a quick return to normalcy will never be a bad thing.