It has long been one of NASCAR’s ironies that the season starts at Daytona International Speedway, and this is especially true for fantasy racing owners. Not only does the series kick off the season with what most people consider to be their Super Bowl, but this is an event that has little to do with the majority of remaining events.
Restrictor-plate superspeedway racing has always played by its own rules and while the massive drafting packs gave way to two-car tandems last week, that fact remains.
NASCAR now enters a time in its schedule that is one of the most diverse fantasy owners will see all season. In Week 2, the series rolls onto a short, flat track in Phoenix and over the course of the next 10 weeks, drivers will be faced with the challenges of three "cookie-cutter" courses, three short tracks, another plate track, the high-banked concrete canyon of Dover International Speedway and a track that defies description: Darlington Raceway.
Those challenging courses make up nearly half of the regular season, in which drivers have to jockey for points’ position in an effort to be poised to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That is especially true after the Daytona 500, where the top 10 was dominated by drivers who in all likelihood won’t be the same ones competing for the championship later in the year.
Under NASCAR’s new simplified points’ system, the penalty for finishing in the second-half of the field is greater than ever during the Modern Era of stock car racing and the only way to overcome the deficit is to finish up front.
NASCAR’s diverse schedule also creates a unique challenge for fantasy owners looking for consistently good values. There are horses for courses. While some drivers excel on flat tracks, others are great on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Still, there are some teams that seem to rise to the occasion everywhere. These are the drivers who will demand your attention in the coming weeks.
Some drivers are strong no matter where the series runs, and one does not become a five-time consecutive champion without excelling on every track type. The combination of driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is deadly for the competition, and until someone steps up and beats them on a regular basis, they should anchor most fantasy rosters.
Johnson does not necessarily win the most races each season, but he whittles away at the competition with consistent top fives and 10s. During last year’s Chase, he was perfect with the single exception of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and prior to that, he closed the regular season with a pair of third-place finishes. That gave him 11 top 10s in the space of 12 races, and there is no reason to believe he won’t pick up in 2011 where he left off last season.
Last year’s runner-up Denny Hamlin is going to be Johnson’s biggest challenger again in 2011 because he has also become a well-rounded driver. At the beginning of his career, Hamlin was relegated to the role of utility driver in fantasy games with his greatest value coming on flat tracks.
Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota has risen to the status of a powerhouse on unrestricted, intermediate speedways as well, however, and Hamlin’s victory at Texas Motor Speedway last fall came with a dominating performance.
Early in the season, his best results are still liable to come on short, flat tracks like Phoenix, Richmond International Raceway, and Martinsville Speedway, but with Texas’ first race on the horizon in a few weeks, he will get off to a strong start.
Winning the last two races of the season turns a few heads, even if it was too little, too late for Carl Edwards to make a charge for the championship. Nearly winning the first race of 2011 means that momentum has been carried forward. Edwards is not a particularly strong plate racer because he has a tendency to be crash prone in large drafting packs.
After missing the "Big One" in the 500 last week, however, it was smooth sailing for the No. 99 in the two-car tandems. Roush-Fenway Racing has a reputation for being their best on NASCAR’s fastest tracks and with the wide open spaces of Auto Club Speedway and the lightning-fast cookie cutter in Texas anchoring the early schedule, Edwards is liable to maintain his points’ lead for a while longer. Last year, he showed considerable improvement on the short, flat tracks as well, which will make him a place-and-hold driver.
Of these other top drivers from 2010, who should be an early-season favorite?
At the risk of sounding like a band-wagoner, Trevor Bayne is one of the drivers that should be watched closely in the next few weeks. Anything can and often will happen on the plate tracks, so his victory in the Daytona 500 alone is not enough to recommend him on other track types, but there are plenty of other reasons to start him—especially in salary cap games where it is going to take some time before his value catches up to his skill.
Bayne is one of the best rookies NASCAR has seen in recent years and that is because he came through the traditional ranks of local stock car racing. Before he ever got to the Nationwide series, he already had victories to his credit in the USAR and K&N East series, and those short track roots are going to make him a solid pick at Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond and Martinsville. The Wood Bros. have a thick notebook of setups on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways, which contributed to a very respectable 17th-place finish for Bayne in his Cup debut last fall at Texas.
Bobby Labonte is another driver liable to fly under your competitions’ radars screens early in the season, but he is going to have a revitalized career in 2011. In the last two seasons the former driver of this team Marcos Ambrose has been on the verge of breaking out, but the chemistry was never 100 percent between him and the crew; Labonte is liable to be a better fit overall and no one would be surprised if he gives the JTG/Daugherty No. 47 its first victory.
Labonte has the experience and skill to run strong everywhere, but his best results are likely to come on track types that have been kind to the team in recent seasons and that will be the short, flat tracks and the concrete ovals of Bristol and Dover.
Kevin Harvick had a surprisingly strong season in 2010, and he was not expected to be one of the championship contenders when the series rolled into Daytona to start the year. That is because he ended 2009 on a sour note with Richard Childress Racing, saying that it might be time to start a new chapter in his career. Driver and owner made up early in the season and Harvick was one of the best values all year, which made him one of the three drivers competing for the Cup at Phoenix with two races remaining last year.
Now that RCR has gone back to being a four-car team, however, the challenges are going to be greater. Harvick is not a driver who thrives on pressure. Once hardship sets in, his mercurial nature makes it difficult for him to communicate with his crew and setups get progressively worse. Luckily, the team never stumbled last year, but finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500 puts them in a deep hole this season.
Teammate Jeff Burton was another consistently good value in 2010, but he should be watched closely in the next few races. He typically closes a season strong and struggles at the start of the year, but in 2010 that trend was reversed. After making the Chase, he scored only two top 10s in playoff races and earned only one other top 15. On the other hand, he finished 20th or worse on five occasions.
Even if he outperforms expectations, he is unlikely to threaten for victories; Burton has a yeoman’s attitude toward racing and his strength is dependability. At his best during the first third of the season, he will log several top 10s, which is not enough to offset the downside of starting him.