If Las Vegas proved anything, it’s that desperation can play havoc to a fantasy lineup. Well into Stage 2 of last weekend’s Cup race, the top 10 was filled with playoff contenders. But then Kevin Harvick cut a tire and Erik Jones couldn’t avoid Harvick’s car. From that point on, all bets were off.
Seven playoff contenders finished outside the top 20. That contributed to three non-playoff contenders earning top 10s and major points in the revamped NASCAR America Fantasy Live game that requires half of the lineup to come from their ilk.
Short tracks can become wild card events. Drivers are constantly in heavy traffic and small mistakes have major consequences. Add in the X-factor of several playoff hopefuls needing to win in order to get a good night’s sleep between Saturday and next week’s race on the Charlotte Roval and you have a recipe for disaster.
1. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 3.60) Playoff
Hamlin has seemingly been one of the best values several times this year. He hasn’t always lived up to that potential. In an uneven season, his statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, this is the one track he’d want to visit while needing to climb out of the hole he fell into at Las Vegas. He has six consecutive results of sixth or better at Richmond.
2. Joey Logano (three-year average: 5.00) Playoff
Logano has the longest top-10 streak among active drivers at Richmond this week. He has not finished outside that mark in the last nine races on this track. In that span, he has two wins. The most recent of these came in spring 2017 and he nearly added another last fall with a second to Kyle Larson.
3. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 7.00) Playoff
Harvick has not scored back-to-back results outside the top 10 since last October at Dover. That can be viewed two ways. The positive view is obvious: He should easily rebound. However, his 36th at New Hampshire and 17th at Dover came in back-to-back playoff races and no one expected him to stumble then either.
4. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 7.20) Playoff
It’s hard to argue with three consecutive wins, but each of Keselowski’s most recent triumphs came with an asterisk. Great pit stops and strategy contributed to each victory. That is not to say he cannot win again this week, however, because he grabbed a Richmond checkered flag in fall 2014.
5. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 7.40) Playoff
Busch’s victory this spring was his fifth at Richmond. Additionally, he has six more runner-up finishes – two of which came since 2015. He has not been perfect in recent seasons, however; three of his last four attempts on this short track ended ninth or worse. That is not what fantasy players have come to expect from the driver of the No. 18.
6. Kyle Larson (three-year average: 7.80) Playoff
In nine starts at Richmond, Larson has never finished worse than 16th. The biggest recommendation to start him this week comes from last year’s Federated Auto Parts 400 victory and a second in that race in 2016. Three top-fives in the last four races of 2018 certainly don’t hurt his odds any.
6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 7.80) Playoff
Last week, Johnson was one of the drivers who might have benefited from the carnage among the playoff contenders. He climbed through the ranks as the competition was eliminated one by one – until he was also caught up in an incident late in the going. He’s on the outside looking in and hasn’t won at Richmond since 2008.
8. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 8.20) Playoff
All those sixth- to ninth-place finishes in the past couple of months have to look pretty good to Busch after last week’s crash-induced 21st at Vegas. He should be able to rebound nicely, however, because he has six top 10s and an 11th in his last eight Richmond starts.
9. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 9.67) Non-Playoff
Last week, Suarez was the highest finishing non-playoff driver at Vegas. He should be able to repeat at Richmond because he has not finished worse than 12th on this track in three starts. With some luck, he could earn a career-first top five if the attrition is heavy again.
10. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 11.20) Playoff
No one is too worried about Truex fading during Round 1, but as the season progresses and if the No. 78 team loses crew members, he could become a risky proposition. The key to fantasy success is going to be knowing exactly when to jump off his bandwagon for the remainder of the season.
Other Notable non-Playoff Drivers
11. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.40) Non-Playoff
McMurray was prepared to play spoiler to the playoff hopefuls last week. He ran in the top 10 for much of the race until he had a tire go down that sent him into the wall. McMurray entered Vegas with back-to-back top 10s this season. He also has two top 10s in his last four Richmond attempts.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (three-year average: 18.00) Non-Playoff
Stenhouse has been uneven at Richmond throughout his career. He finished fourth in the spring 2017 race there, which is one of only two career top 10s. That is enough to give him the third-best average finish on this track among non-playoff drivers. Fantasy players need to remember that he is not racing against Harvick, Busch or the other marquee picks this week and take whatever points they can.
16. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 18.60) Non-Playoff
Newman finished second in both of his rookie races at Richmond. He won there as a sophomore in 2003. This is a track that has been kind to him often during his career. Forget about his average finish at the moment and concentrate on the third-place he earned in last year’s edition of this race and the seventh he scored in spring 2017.
Pole Winner: The Richmond pole has been swept by a driver twice in the past three years. Matt Kenseth did so last year. Joey Logano swept the pole in 2015. The one year in which it was not swept, the spring race was set by the rule book when qualification was rained out; Hamlin won the fall pole. That suggests Truex is a driver to watch closely this weekend.
Segment Winners: Team Penske has been the dominant force in regard to segment wins at Richmond. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski split the stages in spring 2017. Logano swept the stages this spring. If those two drivers qualify well and have quick 10-lap averages in practice, they should be slotted into the Segment Winners bonus positions.