The Daily Fantasy Impact of NASCAR's 2021 Offseason Driver Changes
It's time to whip out your Magic 8-Balls, friends. The early parts of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season are going to involve a boatload of guesswork.
This is the case every year. A big part of a driver's competitiveness revolves around the equipment in the car they're driving, and it's not easy to separate out the two elements. Whenever a driver changes teams, some hypothesizing is required.
We're just turning that up about six notches this time.
Not only do we have drivers getting big changes in their equipment quality, but there are several new teams joining the fray, and they've got some funding to play with. We have no data on these new teams. We've just got to do our best to make educated guesses about how much juice is under the hood.
That's what we're going to try to do today. We're going to go through each of the noteworthy driver changes from this offseason and outline what they mean for us as daily fantasy NASCAR players. We'll be focusing just on the full-time rides and drivers who changed full organizations. And there's plenty of ground to cover.
Kyle Larson to Hendrick Motorsports
For Kyle Larson, his long-anticipated 2020 free agency was huge for two reasons. Not only would he get a massive payday, but he'd finally slide into top-tier equipment for his first time as a Cup Series driver.
Larson ruined the financial side himself by using a racial slur while iRacing during the COVID-19 layoff. Sponsors rightfully dumped him, stripping him of bargaining power on the market.
The equipment angle, though, did still play out. Larson signed on to join Hendrick Motorsports, making him teammates with the defending champion, Chase Elliott. It's going to force us to change how we view Larson for daily fantasy.
Specifically, the upgrade will come on 1.5-mile tracks. Larson's former teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, Kurt Busch, had a better Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) -- a stat created by David Smith of Motorsports Analytics to account for a driver's equipment -- than every Hendrick driver except Elliott. Despite that, three of four Hendrick drivers had better aggregate average running positions on the flat 1.5-mile tracks, and two of four had better marks on the banked 1.5-mile tracks. Busch was a better driver than Alex Bowman, but Bowman ran at the front more often on those tracks.
Now, Larson will be in Bowman's old equipment as Bowman transitions to take over Jimmie Johnson's old ride in the 48 car. That's going to make him a force on this track type.
We're going to see the impact of this the third and fourth races of the season. They're at Homestead and Las Vegas, respectively, both of which are flatter 1.5-mile tracks. Larson already mopped up in Homestead, leading 130-plus laps twice and notching 3 top-5s in 7 career races. Now, he'll get to try his hand with even more ponies under the hood. He should immediately be one of the favorites for the win.
This equipment change isn't drastic enough where we should throw out all of Larson's old data. It can still tell us at which tracks he was already a force, and that's valuable. However, at the tracks that involve heavy on-throttle time, we should boost our view of Larson from where it has been the past two years, making him a driver to buy into after the series leaves Daytona.
Christopher Bell to Joe Gibbs Racing
Christopher Bell's rookie season wasn't too shabby; he notched two top-fives and seven top-10s while driving for Leavine Family Racing, which has since closed up shop.
Now, he joins arguably the strongest team in the sport. Giddy up.
Although Bell's team had an affiliation with JGR last year, this is definitively an equipment upgrade. It's fairly analogous to the one we saw from Matt DiBenedetto the previous offseason as he moved from LFR to Wood Brothers Racing. DiBenedetto's performance ticked up in a notable way.
|DiBendetto in 2019||3||7||18.3|
|DiBenedetto in 2020||3||11||14.3|
|Bell in 2020||2||7||20.2|
DiBenedetto's average finish with LFR was better than Bell's, but part of that was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With no qualifying, Bell's average starting position was three spots lower than DiBenedetto's. The key takeaway is that they both had similar upside, and Bell's equipment jump will be bigger than what DiBenedetto got. We should expect a sizable improvement.
Bell is taking the seat of Erik Jones, meaning Jones' performance is likely our best indicator of what to expect from Bell. Jones' aggregate average running position was 2.5 spots better than Bell's on the 1.5-mile tracks and 5.3 spots better on the non-drafting superspeedways. So, when you're looking at Bell's marks from 2020, you should be mentally adjusting him up roughly that amount to account for the gap in equipment between the two.
At the tracks with more off-throttle time, the adjustment doesn't need to be as drastic. DiBenedetto was fairly competitive there with LFR in 2019, showing that the equipment wasn't as big of an impediment as in other spots. The car still matters there; it just matters less. So the jump for Bell will be felt most at the spots with the highest speed, and we should adjust our priors accordingly.
The move will also be noteworthy on the pack-racing tracks. There, good teammates are important as they can give you a boost late in the race. Denny Hamlin literally pushed Jones' damaged car to victory in the Busch Clash last year, and JGR cars have won three of the past five races in Daytona. That's a plus for Bell, whose strength isn't necessarily on the drafting tracks. This requires us to bump up Bell for the Daytona 500, and that's followed two weeks later by consecutive races at 1.5-mile tracks. Bell's another guy we should buy into early before salaries adjust for his new equipment.
Bubba Wallace to 23XI Racing
This is easily the biggest wild card of 2021. Not only do we get to see Bubba Wallace away from Richard Petty Motorsports for the first time in the Cup Series, but we also get a whole new team co-owned by Hamlin and Michael Jordan. We may not know how this'll play out, but we do know it'll be fun.
From a DFS perspective, we have to decide both Wallace's skills as a driver and how high we should be on 23XI Racing in its first season. The latter half of the equation might be the simpler part.
23XI Racing will have an affiliation with JGR, similar to what Bell had with LFR last year. The funding here is likely to be much better than what LFR had, so we can bump things up a bit from what Bell did, but that does serve as a good baseline for the equipment.
Wallace is more of an unknown. He has just 9 career top-10s in the Cup Series across 112 races, but that has all come in poor equipment, and 5 of those top-10s came last year. We certainly can't write him off due to that performance.
It helps that Wallace's best runs last year came at driver-centric tracks. All 4 of his top-15 average running positions came at tracks where the driver matters more, and such tracks accounted for 7 of his 10 best average running positions. He also won six races in the Camping World Truck Series back in 2014 -- his age-20 season -- while in good equipment. It's just hard to tell how much stock we should put in that given that it was seven years ago at a much lower competition level.
With Wallace, we're going to have to react fast and be willing to adjust our priors. Entering the year, we should likely view him as being a hair above what Bell did last year, which would make him viable for DFS if his salary remains in the value range. But if he starts running near the front and putting together good races, we'll want to bump him up in a hurry. This situation has a wide range of outcomes, and there are big advantages to buying in before the public does. As such, we should enter the year with an open mind, track Wallace closely early on, and be willing to shift as we get new data.
Erik Jones to Richard Petty Motorsports
If we're bumping up Larson, Bell, and Wallace, somebody has to get pushed down. That guy is Erik Jones.
Jones lost out on the game of musical chairs, getting pushed out the door to make room for Bell. He wound up at RPM, and as you can tell based on the discussion around Wallace, that ain't great.
Jones' average finish last year with JGR was 15.9. Jones was 13 years old the last time an RPM-backed car had an average finish that good for a full season. That was Kasey Kahne in 2009 when RPM was still a four-car organization. Wallace's average finish last year was 21.1, and that was his best mark in three full seasons with the team.
With that said, it's reasonable to view Jones as being an upgrade over Wallace. Jones is entering just his age-25 season, and you don't luck your way into a job with a team like JGR. Jones had a better PEER last year than both Wallace and Almirola, the two most recent RPM drivers, so things might not be as bad here as they have been in the past. It will absolutely be a downgrade for Jones himself, though.
As such, we need to be wary of Jones early in the season. If his history at certain tracks pushes his DFS salary up, he's going to be a tough guy to stomach. His track history matters very little in equipment that is so much worse than what he had before, and it does force us to effectively throw out what he has done in the past.
That's not to say that Jones is a total crossoff, though, once his salary adjusts to his new situation. Wallace made several perfect lineups last year, and Jones has shown talent on driver-centric tracks, specifically Daytona and Bristol. We'll be able to justify him after the market adjusts; we'll just want to be wary until that time comes.
Chase Briscoe to Stewart-Haas Racing
For Chase Briscoe, the team isn't a concern. Stewart-Haas Racing has speed, as evidenced by Kevin Harvick's nine wins last year. Briscoe also won nine races in the Xfinity Series, which would typically put us pretty high on him entering his rookie season. It's just hard to tell the level of competition he had at that level.
There was an exodus of talent from the Xfinity Series entering 2020. Bell, Tyler Reddick, and Cole Custer all graduated to the Cup Series after combining to win 21 of 33 races in 2019. Briscoe won just one race that year. You would expect him to dominate in 2020 given all the departures, and he made good on those expectations.
Helpfully, we do have a pretty direct comp for Briscoe. Not only will Custer be his teammate this year, but the two were also teammates in 2019 in the Xfinity Series. Unfortunately for Briscoe, Custer was the clear higher-upside driver.
|2019 Xfinity Series||Wins||Top-5s||Top-10s||Laps Led||Avg. Finish|
That was Custer's age-21 season, making him three years younger than Briscoe. It's possible Briscoe made big strides last year, but we absolutely need to adjust for the level of competition.
With that said, Briscoe's far from a scrub, and he's moving to a good team. That automatically makes him relevant for DFS, especially at what is likely to be an acceptable salary.
Our expectations for Briscoe should be similar to how we view Custer. They're both young drivers who had success in the Xfinity Series and get to pilot good equipment. As such, we'll want to keep tabs on where markets view Briscoe relative to Custer. If he's a big discount, we should take it. But if the two are similar, then Custer should be our preferred option.
Ross Chastain to Chip Ganassi Racing
When discussing Larson's move to Hendrick, it may have sounded like Chip Ganassi Racing has terrible equipment. That's not the case. They're just not as good as a top-tier time like Hendrick.
For Ross Chastain, a move to Ganassi is a definitive upgrade.
This is especially true when you look at what Chastain did pre-2020. Chastain ran almost the full Cup Series schedule in both 2018 and 2019 with Premium Motorsports, a heavily under-funded team. We need to toss out all data from those races as the equipment just wasn't up to snuff.
Last year, Chastain did have some decent equipment. He drove for Spire Motorsports in five races, and two of those were in cars prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing. He also ran three races for Roush-Fenway Racing, filling in for the injured Ryan Newman. Chastain had no top-15s in those eight races, but it was a small sample with equipment likely a notch below what he'll have this year.
Our best data on Chastain, then, is going to come from his time in the Xfinity Series. He drove for Kaulig Racing, arguably the best independent Xfinity Series team. Kaulig combined to win five races, though none went to Chastain. He did, however, have the best average finish and the most top-10s in the entire series, so the consistency was there. He just lacked upside.
Our views of Chastain should be heavily driven by the equipment until we get a better read on his skills as a driver in a competitive ride. He's unlikely to be as skilled of a driver as Kurt Busch from the jump, but he's also likely an upgrade from Matt Kenseth, who was in his age-48 season as he filled in for Larson last year. Kenseth, Larson, and Busch were all competitive on the big, fast tracks like Michigan, Indianapolis, and Pocono, so we should be receptive to Chastain there. But as mentioned previously, the 1.5-mile tracks weren't necessarily their forte once you account for Busch's talent.
As always, this means our view of Chastain will come down to his salary and starting position. If he's a value, he can be an option, though the question marks would keep him from being a priority. If his salary starts to creep up, though, it might be wise to pump the brakes and see if he can force us to adjust our viewpoint.
Anthony Alfredo to Front Row Motorsports
One of the more shocking moves this offseason was when John Hunter Nemechek announced he would go back to the Camping World Truck Series to race for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Nemechek certainly hadn't been terrible given his equipment in the Cup Series, but he felt he needed to re-establish himself as a desirable prospect.
That opened the door for Anthony Alfredo to graduate to the Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports. We should expect some bumps in the road here.
Alfredo's experience in NASCAR is limited with this being his age-22 season. He has run just 32 races across the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series, and he cranked out just 11 top-10s in that time. It's also tough to put all the blame on the equipment. His ride in the Xfinity Series was with Richard Childress Racing, the team that helped Tyler Reddick win the championship in 2018 and 2019.
This isn't a huge surprise. Alfredo wasn't on Smith's top-50 prospect list at the start of last year and wasn't rumored to be sniffing a Cup ride until the Nemechek news. As such, we should probably expect Alfredo to struggle as a rookie.
His new teammate, Michael McDowell, didn't have an aggregate average running position better than 22nd on any track type last year except road courses, and the skill there is more due to McDowell's abilities than the car itself. The equipment isn't all that competitive, and Alfredo has plenty of question marks around his skill. We should avoid this situation in DFS until given reason to reconsider.
Daniel Suarez to Trackhouse Racing
Wallace has Michael Jordan; Daniel Suarez has Pitbull. Dalé.
Trackhouse Racing is another upstart team, making its maiden voyage this year with Suarez as the driver. As with all new teams, we don't know how good the cars will be. But with Mr. 305 on board as a partner, they're at least less likely to be completely dead in the water. That's one reason for interest.
The second reason is that Trackhouse will have an affiliation with Richard Childress Racing. That's similar to the setup that both Wallace and Ty Dillon had last year, though on separate teams. Both those teams had better aggregate average running positions than Suarez on every track type. The road-course data below is for 2019 through 2020; if we view just 2020, then Suarez's marks were also worse there.
|Aggregate ARPs||Short Flat||Concrete||1.5 Flat||1.5 Bank||Big Fast||Darlington||Pack||Road|
This means we can absolutely deem this as an upgrade for Suarez from what he had last year. Even if his equipment is just on par with that of Wallace and Dillon, he'll be more competitive than he was in that situation.
Suarez has talent, but he's not a massive needle-mover; there's a reason this is his fourth team in four years, and he underperformed relative to teammates with great equipment from 2017 through 2019. But he can also hold his own, which means viewing him similarly to how we viewed Wallace and Dillon last year is the optimal move.
As with Wallace, though, we'll want to be receptive to new data as it comes in. If Suarez is able to impress at Homestead or Las Vegas, we can certainly give him a bump up from how we viewed the RCR-affiliated cars last year.
Corey LaJoie to Spire Motorsports
On one hand, this could be a lateral move for Corey LaJoie. Spire Motorsports has an average finish of 31.6 across its two years in NASCAR.
On the other, LaJoie's equipment can't get much worse. And he actually showed some life last year despite his team's shortcomings.
At one point in the 2020 season, LaJoie was running a 12-year-old chassis for a race at Talladega. That's less than ideal and a demonstration of the lack of funding that GoFas Racing had. Even with that, LaJoie managed an average finish of 25.6 and had a top-30 average running position in all but five races. It's fair to say he exceeded expectations.
Spire Motorsports has technical alliances with both Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, though the extent of those partnerships is unclear. In a Ganassi-prepared car last year, Chastain managed a 22nd-place average running position and 21st-place finish in Charlotte.
If those partnerships strengthen, it's possible LaJoie could become relevant for DFS. He was already at least a consideration on the drafting tracks with all three of his career top-10s coming there, and this should boost his appeal for those. It just remains to be seen if he can carry that to other tracks, as well.
For the early part of the season, we should remain skeptical of LaJoie. This team lacked upside last year, and we need top-20 finishes no matter how low a driver's salary is. But if LaJoie starts to show some speed on the non-drafting tracks, we should at least be open to considering him given the ambiguity around Spire's speed entering the year.