Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: Bojangles' Southern 500
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 is prepping for its annual throw-back night in Darlington for the Bojangles' Southern 500. What do we need to know about the track before filling out our NASCAR DFS lineups? Let's check it out.
Darlington calls itself the track that's "Too Tough to Tame." And it lives up to the billing with the "Darlington Stripe" being a staple on the right side of cars as they scrape against the ever-lurking outside wall.
This means that if you manage to defy the odds and tame this temperamental beast, you have the ability to put a whooping on the field.
Sunday night's race is scheduled for 367 laps, which is a sizable number for daily fantasy. The reason we care so much about that number is that it gives drivers the ability to generate upside via running out front. The more laps available, the higher the upside.
But with Darlington being such a tough spot to run, those laps tend to be concentrated between just a few drivers. You're going to want those drivers in your lineups.
In the past four races at Darlington, five drivers have led 100 or more laps. That seems like a relatively modest number.
Then you look deeper and see that all five led at least 124 laps, three led at least 196 laps, and Kyle Larson held the point for a whopping 284 laps in last year's race. That's 28.4 FanDuel points for laps-led alone. Whew, doggy.
At a spot like Bristol two weeks ago, it was pretty likely that multiple drivers would run out front and generate decent upside via leading laps. At Darlington, it could be two, but it could also be just one guy laying the lumber. That should play a role in how we fill out our lineups.
Before we make any other decisions on Sunday night, we need to identify who these potential dominators could be. There's a good chance they'll start out front. The three drivers who led 196 or more laps all started on the front row, and five of eight drivers to lead at least 47 laps started there, as well. Denny Hamlin started ninth and led 124 laps in 2017, but for the most part, if you want to lead a ton of laps, you have to start at the front.
That point is applicable more broadly, too, when you're looking merely for a good finish rather than just laps led. The table below shows the starting ranges of drivers who landed top-five and top-10 finishes over the past four Darlington races. Most of them came from drivers starting at the front.
|1st to 5th||14||7|
|6th to 10th||12||7|
|11th to 15th||7||4|
|16th to 20th||4||1|
|21st to 25th||1||1|
|26th to 30th||1||0|
|31st to 35th||1||0|
|36th to 40th||0||0|
Only 17.5% of all top-10 finishers started outside the top 15, and 70% of all top-five finishers started in the top 10. It's hard to pass in Darlington; we should expect to see more of the same on Sunday.
Darlington fits into a mold of track that has experienced difficulties under the new rules package: it's a single-groove, non-drafting track. At bigger, faster spots, drivers can use the draft to help generate runs and pass competitors. But at tracks where the draft is a non-factor, the "dirty air" generated by running behind another car has prevented drivers from getting close to the car in front of them, keeping passing at a minimum.
That's something we saw happen at Darlington even before the larger spoilers were on the backs of the cars. It's hard to imagine things will trend in the right direction now that they're there.
What can we expect this weekend from a DFS perspective, knowing that passing could be difficult both at the front of and in the middle of the pack? Let's take a look back at past Darlington races and see what we can learn.
Historic Scoring Trends
Based on the two threads above -- drivers can dominate, and it's hard to pass -- we should assume we'll want to target drivers who are starting closer to the front of the pack. That's largely true, but it may also over-simplify things a bit.
The way we attack the starting order depends on how we think the race will play out. If it's going to be just one driver who jumps out front and controls the entire race, we're going to want to make sure we have them on our roster. But after that, the drivers who start a bit deeper are going to be the ones with the best upside.
Last year's Darlington race is a great example of this. That's the one where Larson led 284 laps and completely mopped up. It meant that drivers starting at the very front of the pack had less upside to gobble up, leading to this perfect lineup.
|Perfect Lineup||Salary||Starting Position||Laps Led|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||$7,600||25th||0|
Larson's dominance meant the other cars starting in the top five had a narrow path to upside. But Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano finished the race in the top two spots ahead of Larson, giving them a good blend of finishing points along with some place-differential. The single-dominator outcome should often look similar to what we saw last year with one driver who started at the front in the perfect lineup.
That's a pretty likely route, given how often drivers dominate in Darlington, but it's far from being a given. We could also see multiple drivers lead a healthy number of laps. They can swap the lead via legitimate passes, strategy, or stage breaks, so this is still possible even with the expectation being that passing will be tough.
The 2017 race was a good example of this, even if the finish of the race didn't reflect it. In that one, Larson and Martin Truex Jr. both ran out front early on and led at least 75 laps. Both faded by the end, but had they converted those runs into good finishes, you likely would have seen multiple drivers starting in the optimal lineup.
We should account for these two different paths when building our lineups. Both routes include a driver leading laps early, and that driver will likely start within the first four spots. As such, you should have a driver starting there on almost every roster.
In some lineups, you'll want to assume that this driver swaps the lead a couple of times with a partner who also starts up front. If you make that assumption, that other lap-leader will also be a good play, and you'll want to include them, as well.
If you instead assume that the front-starter takes the rest of the field behind the woodshed, then you'll want to take the "waves" approach discussed prior to the Bristol race. After getting your driver who will lead early, you'll want a "second-wave" driver who can lead late -- a la Keselowski and Logano last year -- and push for a top-five finish. This driver could start anywhere from the back half of the top 10 to the back half of the field, but you'll want them to be able to pick up at least some place-differential points en route to a good finish.
Basically, you need to tell a story when building each lineup about how the race plays out. Where you find your second stud will depend on how you see that story unfolding.
Where we find value plays will depend quite a bit on qualifying.
As you saw in the perfect lineup above, both Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had big scores last year without starting at the front. They had to make passes in order to do this, going counter to the narrative about passing being difficult at the track.
This equation is a bit different when there's an obvious speed discrepancy between two drivers. There, they can overcome the ills of dirty air and make a pass. Stenhouse and McMurray were the only drivers with salaries above $7,000 starting lower than 22nd, so it was clear they would move up early in the race. Then some incidents and bad luck for other drivers pushed them further up, and they wound up netting top-12 finishes. That's something that could happen again on Sunday.
Finding value becomes tougher when we don't have these obvious outliers starting in the back. That would mean that drivers starting near each other would be relatively even in speed, in which case passing would be at a premium. In 2016 and 2017, all drivers who got top-10 finishes started within the top 18 spots, meaning there wasn't a ton of place-differential to be had.
This forces us to take a similar approach to what we have discussed at tracks like Pocono and Watkins Glen: take place-differential where it's available, but don't force it if it's not there.
Drivers starting in the back are going to have upside, as McMurray showed during last year's race. But if they can't finish well, it doesn't matter how deep in the pack they start; they still won't pay off for DFS.
When looking for place-differential candidates and value plays, you have to ask whether the driver you're considering has the potential to crank out a top-15 or so finish. If not, then they're probably not worthy of being on a roster no matter how far back they're starting. But if they could potentially do that, they'd be a good option.
To sum it all up, Darlington is a weird track. And a weird track requires us to cobble together some weird strategies.
For our studs, we can go with two different approaches. The first is assuming that the trend of dominance at Darlington holds, leading to our rostering of one driver who will lead laps early and a second-wave driver starting further back who can push for a win late. The second is assuming multiple drivers dominate, in which case we may wind up using two drivers starting in the top five and trying to monopolize all the laps they collectively lead.
For the values, we take the same approach as other tracks where passing is difficult and accept place-differential where it is presented to us without forcing the issue. We don't want to target drivers starting in the back simply for the sake of doing so, but if a legitimately decent car qualifies poorly, we want to be sure to take advantage.
This mindset will require a bit of a longer look at the starting order once qualifying wraps up on Saturday afternoon. We can't go into Sunday assuming that just one strategy will be successful without weighing in the composition of the starting order, so formulating a gameplan for this race may take longer than others. But if we can correctly predict how the race will unfold and which few drivers will work their way forward, we'll be well-positioned to have great lineups by the end of the race.