Daily Fantasy NASCAR Driver Preview: Auto Club 400
At Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, speed is the name of the game.
It's a sweeping two-mile tri-oval where speeds will get almost as high on the straightaways as they will on any other track on the circuit. If you don't have the horses under the hood, you're going to get left behind.
That's going to play a key role in our process this week. There are a lot of drivers we'll be able to cross off before they even turn a lap in practice because their equipment just isn't good enough to hang. And as mentioned in our track preview, it's going to push us to target drivers starting higher in the field than we'd usually like.
Our impressions of which drivers have the necessary speed to compete are going to evolve once we have practice data from Friday, and our post-qualifying primer will account for that. But for now, which cars should we expect to run well this weekend? Let's check it out.
Kyle Busch (FanDuel Salary: $14,000): Only two active drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series have multiple wins in Fontana. One is Jimmie Johnson ($9,500), and although he's viable this week, his best days are behind him. The other is Kyle Busch, and he's still firmly locked into his prime.
Busch has won in Fontana four times, two short of Johnson's six, but three have come in the past six Fontana races. That includes last year's rendition when Busch led a whopping 134 laps and cruised to victory. Busch has led 17.2% of the career laps he has run at the track, which is wild for someone whose first Cup race here came during his age-19 season.
The one drawback with Busch is that he -- and most of the Joe Gibbs Racing team -- had a rough week in Las Vegas. Busch started in the back, clawed his way forward, and was eventually running up in the top 10 before a late wreck pushed him back to 15th. It just wasn't a rousing start to the non-drafting season. As such, we'd be wise to keep an eye on the Toyotas in practice, but Busch's track record here likely means we should be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Ryan Blaney ($10,500): Ryan Blaney has been a force the first two races, coming within feet of winning the Daytona 500 and laps of winning in Las Vegas. We can expect that run to continue in Fontana.
Blaney has rattled off three straight top-10 runs at the track, including a fifth-place finish last year. That run came with a seventh-place average running position, and his two Penske Racing teammates of Joey Logano ($13,500) and Brad Keselowski ($12,000) were also in the top five. Speed won't be an issue for Blaney.
Blaney flexed plenty of muscle on the non-drafting superspeedways in 2019, finishing in the top 10 in four of six races and holding a seventh-place average running position in one of the others. He has a blend of spicy form and track history that should make him a desirable mid-range play with the upside to snag a win.
Erik Jones ($8,800): The actual track history for Erik Jones in Fontana isn't all that strong. He has, though, shown some components necessary for a great run. He just has to put it all together.
In each of his three career races at the track, Jones has had an average running position of 12th or better. That includes a pair of seventh-place average running positions in 2017 and 2018. He cashed one of them in for a seventh-place finish in 2018, but that's his lone top-10 at the track thus far.
A similar trend pops up for Jones when you look at what he did on the non-drafting superspeedways last year. His average running position was 13th or better in all but one, but he had just two finishes better than 18th. Jones' calling card is volatility, and if you roll with him, you're accepting big risk. But he's got speed courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing, so if he bounces back from last week and shows speed in practice, Jones will shape up as a quality tournament play.
Aric Almirola ($8,200): You're not going to get the same winning upside in Aric Almirola that you'll get in someone like Jones, and that definitely matters, especially if he qualifies well. But Almirola's another guy whose speed will not be in question.
Almirola had a great car last year in Fontana, leading seven laps and holding a sixth-place average running position, his second-best mark of the entire year. The only drivers with better average running positions during last year's race were Logano and Kyle Busch.
The Stewart-Haas Racing stable gave Almirola great speed at other tracks like Fontana, too. In the six races at non-drafting superspeedways, Almirola had a top-10 average running position three times. He didn't finish better than ninth in any of those, and that's worth considering if he does qualify well, but a top-10 finish is fully in Almirola's range of outcomes.
Austin Dillon ($7,500): There are a lot of tracks where the Richard Childress Racing cars struggle to produce top-end speed. The non-drafting superspeedways are likely the biggest exception to that, and it should make us high on Austin Dillon.
Dillon enters this weekend with back-to-back top-10s at Fontana under his belt. He was 11th the race before that, and all three runs were legitimized by top-14 average running positions.
Dillon had speed at other similar tracks last year, finishing 13th or better in three of six races. He closed out the year with strong showings in Texas and Homestead, and he carried that over into 2020 with a fourth-place finish and 13th-place average running position in Las Vegas. Dillon's 13th in my model prior to practice and qualifying, the only driver below $7,500 to crack the top 17. The only downside with Dillon is that he's likely to qualify well, but finishing points alone could be enough for him to pay off with the speed he's likely to carry here.
Joey Logano ($13,500): Fontana is the third race of the 2020 season. For each of the first two, Logano has been atop my model prior to practice and qualifying. He's there once again, and with his combo of track history and current form, it's hard to argue with that.
Logano didn't have the strongest car last week in Las Vegas, but he was in the right place at the end and came out with a win. Only Kevin Harvick ($14,500) had a better average running position for the race, and Logano had the best average running position in the field in Daytona, as well. Logano's up to six straight races with an average running position of ninth or better.
The recent speed is the main appeal of Logano. He does, though, have four straight top-five finishes in Fontana, including a runner-up outing behind Busch last year. His average running position has been ninth or better in five straight Fontana races. Basically, this dude's a lock to be in contention, and as he showed last week, doing so means you've got a chance to slip into victory lane. We should continue to buy high on Logano until he gives us reason not to.
Denny Hamlin ($11,000): Las Vegas was definitely a race to forget for Denny Hamlin, and as discussed with Busch and Jones, that was true for all of Joe Gibbs Racing. We shouldn't allow one down race to make us overlook Hamlin in Fontana, though.
Ever since the summer of last year, Hamlin seems to have unlocked a whole new level of dominance. In the second half of 2019, Hamlin won 4 of 18 races and had 12 top-fives. One of the wins was in Pocono, and he was runner-up in Michigan, both of which are like Fontana in that they require massive top-end speed.
Hamlin has never won in Fontana, and he has just two top-fives in 18 career starts. This is not a plus track for him. However, this is his age-39 season, which is generally when drivers hit their peak, and we saw him flash upside on similar tracks last year. Hamlin's firmly in the same bucket as Blaney, where he makes sense both as a high-upside, second-tier DFS play and as a high-quality betting option.
William Byron ($9,200): All of the Hendrick Motorsports cars were wildly impressive in Las Vegas, so with Chevy's new body, we should be upping our priors on all of Chase Elliott ($11,500), Alex Bowman ($10,000), and Jimmie Johnson ($9,500). The cheapest guy in that stable is William Byron, and Byron has been trending up for a while now.
Byron's stretch run wasn't as impressive as Hamlin's, but it definitely deserves our attention. All five of his top-five finishes came from July on, and two of them came on non-drafting superspeedways. He was fourth in both Pocono and Indianapolis, and he added top-10s in the other Pocono race and one at Michigan. We should expect gains for a driver in his age-21 season when he has Chad Knaus as his crew chief, and Byron easily met those expectations.
Byron was tied for the fifth-best average running position in Las Vegas, sitting one spot behind Elliott, even with Bowman, and ahead of Johnson. The Hendrick cars are at least interesting with that big showing, and Byron's our cheapest access to those potential gains. He'll be a driver to monitor not just this weekend but the entire 2020 season.
Matt DiBenedetto ($7,800): There was lots of optimism around Matt DiBenedetto entering the year as he finally had competitive equipment under the hood. It's safe to say he justified the hype last weekend.
DiBenedetto started 19th in Las Vegas and slowly worked his way through the pack. By staying out at the last caution, he restarted third with two laps to go. Even on older tires, he was able to push his way forward and was running second when the race ended under caution. His 14th-place average running position shows that there was some flukiness to the finish, but it wasn't luck.
Now, he goes to Fontana in similar equipment that has us jazzed about Logano and Blaney. DiBenedetto's predecessor in the No. 21, Paul Menard, had a top-14 average running position in three of six races on the non-drafting superspeedways last year, and it's fair to expect more out of the car now that DiBenedetto is the wheel man. Buying high on a driver is fine when there are reasons to expect the surge to continue, and that's where we're at with DiBenedetto right now.
Tyler Reddick ($6,800): Reddick's run in Las Vegas last week definitely won't raise too much attention. He finished 18th and had an 18th-place average running position. But as mentioned with Dillon, these RCR cars have some serious ponies under the hood at this track type.
Last year in the Xfinity Series, Reddick -- also driving for RCR there -- ran four races at the non-drafting superspeedways. He won in Michigan, was top-five in two other races, and was battling for the lead in Indianapolis when this happened.
The talent is there. The speed -- based on what Dillon did at these tracks and what Reddick did in the Xfinity Series -- seems to be there, as well. That's exactly what we want out of a cheaper play for a track that is so equipment-heavy. We should be wary of Reddick if he qualifies well because transitioning to the Cup Series is tough for someone in their age-24 season, but he's one of the cheaper drivers who at least has a path to a top-10 finish.