Daily Fantasy NASCAR Track Preview: GEICO 500
Every time the NASCAR Cup Series goes to Talladega, our strategy for DFS is simple: stack the back.
It's a short race, meaning the upside for drivers starting at the front is limited. Meanwhile, the pack racing makes passing easy, allowing drivers to rack up huge upside via place-differential points. It's a tried, tested, and true way to play things.
This week, though, there's a wrench in our plans. Due to COVID-19 protocols, there will still be no qualifying, meaning the field will -- effectively -- be set by owner points. The cars that have performed the best this year will all be starting at the front of the pack.
Do we still stack the back when this is the case? If so, can we simply afford to ignore all the studs starting at the front?
Let's dig in a bit deeper and find out how we should play things this weekend for the GEICO 500.
Historic Scoring Data
Before we discuss the impact of the starting order, we should show why the incentive to get place-differential points is so high. Otherwise, this would all be moot.
The NASCAR Cup Series has run six races at Talladega since the implementation of stage racing. In those six races, 34 drivers have scored at least 60 FanDuel points. Here's where those 34 drivers started the race.
|Starting Range||Drivers With 60+ FD Points|
|1st to 5th||3|
|6th to 10th||7|
|11th to 15th||3|
|16th to 20th||3|
|21st to 25th||5|
|26th to 30th||6|
|31st to 35th||3|
|36th to 40th||4|
The most voluminous overall range was between 6th and 10th, which certainly isn't the back. But more drivers started outside the top 20 and scored 60-plus FanDuel points (18) than those inside the top 20 (16). There is a serious incentive to drift toward the back.
Perhaps more importantly, the truly elite scores tend to come from the very back. Of the 10 highest scores in that sample, six came from drivers who started 27th or lower, and another driver started 23rd. If there was a "must-have" driver for the race, they were likely to be starting deep in the pack.
That's why we're even having this discussion. There is a legit edge in targeting drivers with poor starting positions. But for this week, that means targeting cars that have performed worse throughout the season, and none of those past Talladega races dealt with a similar issue.
When the starting order is set by points -- and none of the elite drivers can slip in qualifying and start in the back -- we expect there to be a higher correlation between where each driver starts and where they finish. That, naturally, has the potential to limit the place-differential upside in the field.
One thing we can do is look at past Talladega races where this was the case. The past two spring Talladega races have both had a correlation of roughly 0.343 between the drivers' starting spots and where they finished. Here's the perfect FanDuel lineup for the 2018 spring race.
|Perfect Lineup||Salary||Start||Laps Led|
And here's the 2019 spring race.
|Perfect Lineup||Salary||Start||Laps Led|
Interestingly enough, the 2018 spring race had four drivers who started in the top 12, and the 2019 race had three. That goes counter to how we normally play things here, and that's the range where the sport's top drivers will start on Sunday.
This shows to us that we do have the leeway to use drivers who start near the front if we like them enough. You can still have a good FanDuel output when starting at the front; you just need to make sure that driver has race-winning upside.
In the 2018 spring race, the four drivers who started in the top 12 and made the perfect lineup all finished sixth or better. The three higher-salaried drivers who made it swept the top three spots. In the 2019 race, the three drivers who made it after starting toward the front finished first, second, and fourth.
Basically, if you use a bunch of drivers starting at the front, you're hoping to nail a three-driver podium-bet parlay. That can pay off as we've seen, but it shouldn't be our default build.
Even with the way the starting order will be set, there will still be viable options starting outside the top 12. Heck, there will be some even outside the top 24, and they're going to be top-tier options for DFS. That's where our core should lie: with the drivers who draw lower in the order.
We can still get exposure to drivers starting up front. All the drivers currently shorter than 20/1 to win at FanDuel Sportsbook will start in the top 12, so the odds our eventual winner starts up front are high. In tournaments, we can allow ourselves to take stabs at that group and hope we hit it right. We can even use multiple up there at times, hoping we correctly pinpoint the top two finishers. But in cash games -- and in our core for tournaments -- the incentive to drop towards the back will still be there.
This is likely going to lead to us leaving gobs of salary on the table in our tournament lineups. FanDuel did a nice job of upping the salary on some of the drivers starting deeper in the pack, but with a lot of the studs off the table, we'll still often fall short of the $50,000 salary cap. The average perfect lineup in the past four Talladega races has left almost $5,000 on the table, and it was more than $10,000 for the fall race last year.
As mentioned earlier, using a bunch of drivers starting closer to the front is akin to trying to hit a three-driver podium parlay. That's tough in a vacuum. But with the way Talladega works, we can sometimes correctly predict how things will play out by loading up on particular teams or manufacturers.
At Daytona and Talladega, teams and manufacturers will often work together, hoping to push each other toward the front of the pack and give themselves a shot to win. As a result, you'll often see a bunch of similar cars near the top of the leaderboard.
This February in Daytona, five of the top six finishers (and seven of the top nine) were in Fords. The Ford camp also occupied four of the top five spots last fall in Talladega. Hendrick Motorsports had the top two spots in the spring Talladega race and the second- and third-place finishers July in Daytona. The 2019 Daytona 500 was the most extreme example with Joe Gibbs Racing sweeping the top three spots.
If you can correctly predict which team will be the one up front at the end on Sunday, then you can potentially hit that three-driver parlay and take down a tournament. We've seen it in the past, and it could very well happen again this week.
If you're multi-entering for tournaments, this is something you'll want to experiment with at times. Settle on a team, pick the drivers within that team or manufacturer who would have big days if you were to be right, and lock them in.
You can also do this without entirely just loading up on the front. Stewart-Haas Racing, for example, has Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer starting in the top 12. However, they also have Aric Almirola starting between 13th and 24th, and Cole Custer will start from 25th to 36th. You can stack teams while still sticking to the process, and it will often will be optimal to do so. It just gives us a bit extra flexibility to target drivers at the front in some tournament lineups.
The method of setting the starting order definitely complicates our default strategy for Talladega. But it doesn't mean we need to throw all the old data out the window.
Our cash-game lineups and our core for tournaments should still revolve around drivers starting further back. These drivers will always have the best floors, and they don't necessarily have to win the race to have a ceiling. That's what we want in those scenarios.
As a result, we'll want to give a bump up to every driver who draws near the bottom of their starting tier. There is a big difference between starting 1st and starting 12th, and we should allow those differences to be represented in our exposure levels to the drivers who get a worse draw.
The two situations where we can target drivers closer to the front are when we're stacking a team or assuming the driver we're using will win the race. These two go hand in hand because if you stack a team, you're assuming one of those drivers will get the win. But the overall takeaway is that if you're using a driver who does start near the front, you need them to win to pay off.
So, yes, this race is going to make it tough on us for building lineups. We're not going to have no-brainer, must-use, elite options starting all the way in the back. It's going to force us to leave some salary on the table. But the reasons for using drivers starting further back are still in place, and we should still make this our central strategy when filling out lineups.