Handicapping a restrictor-plate NASCAR race is one of the most difficult things to do. The ever-present threat of the “’Big One” crash is only one of the problems faced. The capriciousness of the draft can play havoc with a fantasy roster just as readily because a driver who makes a move at the wrong time can drop from the top five to outside the top 20.
Still, there are a few drivers who manage to find the front with greater regularity than others, so setting this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster does not have to be an exercise in frustration.
The biggest thing to note before the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC) is the absence of the Big 3 among the top 10.
Kyle Busch has not scored a top 15 on this track in his last three starts. Martin Truex Jr. has not finished that well in four starts. Kevin Harvick hasn’t cracked the top 20 in four races. The odds are good that at least one of them will be able to reverse that trend, but fantasy owners who like to play the odds, will find some great dark horses in this week’s top-10 list
1. Bubba Wallace (three-season average: 8.50 in two races)
Before fantasy players discount Wallace’s second place in this year’s Daytona 500, they should note that he finished 15th in this race last year driving in relief for Aric Almirola. Occasionally a driver develops an immediate affinity for a course.
2. Aric Almirola (three-season average: 10.50 in four races)
Streaks are hard to maintain on a restrictor-plate track because of the finicky nature of the draft and the prevalence of “Big One” crashes, so when someone has four consecutive top-15 finishes, fantasy players need to pay close attention.
3. Michael McDowell (three-season average: 10.50 in four races)
Ultimately, it is the finish that matters. The majority of points are paid out when the checkered flag waves, so a driver like McDowell – who may spend a large portion of the race in the back half of the lead pack – is often more valuable to the roster than one who spends most of the race in the middle of a volatile pack.
4. Joey Logano (three-season average: 11.00 in four races)
There are not a lot of marquee drivers in the top 10 this week. None of the Big 3 make the list, so Logano stands out. Anyone can get swept into an accident at Daytona – which is what happened to Logano in this race last year – but otherwise, he’s finished sixth or better since the start of 2016.
4. AJ Allmendinger (three-season average: 11.00 in four races)
Allmendinger tends to be crash-prone at Talladega Superspeedway, but he has been able to stay out of trouble at Daytona. One doesn’t need to know the reason behind this, but if the trend continues, he will be one of the greatest difference-makers in the field.
6. Denny Hamlin (three-season average: 12.40 in four races)
Hamlin makes the list this week based on two stellar finishes in the last three seasons. He won the 2016 Daytona 500 and finished third in this year’s 500. He deserves a spot on one’s roster, however, because of top-10 sweeps in 2014 and 2015.
7. Ryan Newman (three-season average: 12.60 in four races)
Newman has three top 15s in the past five Daytona races. Two of these came in back-to-back races last summer and this spring. The best news regarding the No. 31 is that Newman has been able to stay out of trouble recently and that allows him to be in a position to make late-race moves to maximize his finish.
8. Paul Menard (three-season average: 13.60 in four races)
Menard gained some momentum last week with his Chicagoland pole. That might actually carry over to Daytona this week if it adds to his confidence. Of course, a sweep of the top five last year on this track and a sixth in the 2018 Daytona 500 won’t hurt either.
8. Ryan Blaney (three-season average: 13.60 in four races)
Blaney is capable of scoring strong results when he is able to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, that has not been all that easy for him because he has been involved in at least 11 accidents in his last eight races. He managed to keep his car running on several occasions and score decent results, but starting him is a lot like playing Russian Roulette.
10. Austin Dillon (three-season average: 14.40 in four races)
Dillon’s victory in this year’s Daytona 500 was only his second top five there, but he has been one of the most consistent drivers during his career. Seven of his 10 starts on this track have ended in top 15s and that is about as good as anyone gets on a plate track.
Segment Winners: Kurt Busch and Blaney won the stages in this year’s Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski and Logano won them in last year’s Coke Zero 400, while Kyle Busch and Harvick won them in last year’s 500. A pattern has failed to emerge about who might repeat, but it seems likely that the stage winner will be a driver with a big name and marquee team.