Following Denny Hamlin’s second victory of the young 2019 season at Texas Motor Speedway, matching wins with fellow JGR teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series heads north to Bristol, Tennessee for the Food City 500. The half-mile concrete oval, known affectionately as “The Last Great Coliseum”, “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile”, and “The Bullring” among others, is a track unique unto itself in the series calendar based on its length, track surface, pit road(s), as well as banking that ranges from 26-30 degrees creating speeds not typical at other short tracks like Richmond or Martinsville. Thus, creating corollaries for Bristol is a bit of a fool’s errand and in doing so can lead one to have noisy data negatively affecting one’s conclusions as in trying to make an A to B comparison of Phoenix or Martinsville from March. On the flip side, you could make semi-comparisons to highly banked tracks from the 2018 season (Dover, Bristol, Darlington), however, those numbers were done so under the old aero package.
Which leads us back to the starting line like a bunch of dogs who keep chasing a tail not knowing it’s our own.
So… do we have anywhere to start our research process and start making educated prognostications? If you want to use anything from this new package and possibly draw a conclusion I think this is where it begins and ends.
Starting position of the top two lap leaders post Daytona with laps led in parentheses:
ATL: 7th (142), 18th (45)
LV: 1st (88), 10th (86)
ISM: 4th (177), 1st (94)
ACS: 4th (134), 13th (42)
MAR: 3rd (446), 7th (49)
TEX: 16th (66), 1st (60)
— Phill ن (@PhillBennetzen) April 2, 2019
If you look at where the lap leaders are coming from in the first six races using the new aero package you can see a trend that has started. At intermediate tracks, the “dominators” can literally come from anywhere and this makes total sense when you consider the impact of the draft, however, being the pole sitter is still great. And yes before you ride off on your yeah but about Atlanta, just remember that things were gravy for pole sitter Aric Almirola until the mandatory safety caution. However, when you look at the two shorter tracks, the top lap leaders are coming solely from within the top ten making starting position a premium in regards to a driver’s likelihood to lead the race. When you compare this to the historical trends of the Gen 6 car at Bristol, trends line up pretty well…
|Starting Position||Final Position||Place differential||Total Laps Led||Fastest Laps|
In our twelve race subset, seventeen times (out of twenty-four) we saw the drivers who led the most and second most laps started 8th or better. Furthermore, 16 out of those 24 drivers started fifth or better further emphasizing the need to start up front if a driver wants to lead a majority of this race. Now things can turn on a dime, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see such things happen at Bristol – a track affectionately referred to as a short track superspeedway by veteran driver Ernie Ervin. However, for the purpose of roster construction, I believe it’s best if we follow the trends closely and make Bristol prove me wrong otherwise. Doing so means that roster construction, and the lineups that result, are going to perhaps look different from the rest of the field, especially in lieu of qualifying, but I believe this is the best path to making lineups.
Due to this strategy, I have two recommendations; just play a few hand-built lineups and try to avoid cash. We attacked ISM because Kyle and Blaney paired together made way too much sense and they led many of us to glory that Sunday afternoon. Just a few weeks later, it once again made too much sense to load up on Kyle given his track history at Martinsville, his starting position, practice speed, and form just to watch Kyle never make any sort of move for the lead until way too late in the race and Brad Keselowski lead nearly 90% of the race. This week, with no traditional “dominator” starting better than seventh (Joey Logano), no recent Bristol winner starting better than tenth (Jimmie Johnson), and no past Bristol Hog starting better than thirteenth (Kevin Harvick) it makes the process that much harder knowing what we know about dirty air and this new aero package.
Before I begin to list off my favorite dominator/ place differential options for this Sunday’s race I want to quickly address what I think is the best path to building a Bristol lineup. First, you’re going to need at minimum two dominators but in most lineup scenarios you’ll want three and “perhaps” even a fourth as we saw four drivers lead 60 or more laps in both races last year. Second, affected by how many Hogs you chase, you’ll need place differential drivers but don’t be afraid to pivot to drivers who merely start in the teens and move up a few spots while hopefully maintaining their position on the lead lap. Finally, you will need a punt or perhaps even two, and the key to punt selection are drivers who can survive attrition through 500 laps of beating and banging on their tempers, egos, and equipment.
Chase Elliott (1st) – believe it or not, this is Chase’s first pole won outside of a Superspeedway. Thus, we don’t have any past history on Chase from the pole to sway us one way or the other. However, we do know that the pole sitter gets the unfair advantage of the preferred line as well as clean air and past Spring Bristol pole sitters have been able to convert that into laps led totals of 276, 202, and 117 the past three years. While under different circumstances (weather, time of day) we do know that Chase is more than capable of leading here after he finished last Summer’s night race in third after leading 112 laps, so we follow the trends and say Chase should be one of our two top lap leaders tomorrow.
Ryan Blaney (3rd) – keeping with our theme of focusing on drivers who start up front, I really like the odds of Blaney to lead a large swath of this race. In this same event last Spring, Ryan led 100 laps from the fifth position and then followed that up in the Summer with 121 laps led from the tenth position – thus we know that Ryan is capable of leading this race and he doesn’t have to be on the pole in order to do so. Blaney may have the fastest car in the field, based off of practice and what we saw in qualifying, so he should be able to convert that speed into lots of Hog points so close to the front of the field.
Denny Hamlin (5th) – Denny isn’t the prototypical driver I would target at Bristol with only 13.3 laps led on average here since 2016 he’s been the model of consistency in this new aero package with no finish worse than 11th (Atlanta), four straight top-seven finishes including last week’s win, and the fact that he is up front. Denny may be cheating but until NASCAR blows his cover you should continue to roster him because he has a very high likelihood to maneuver his way towards the lead.
Joey Logano (7th)/ Clint Bowyer (8th) – I highlight these two together because they both seem to me to be on a level field in terms of likelihood to be a Hog, probably drivers I won’t have in my lineups unless I go the mass multi-entry route but still carrying the chance to be Hogs regardless. Joey is still unmeritedly expensive based on his downward trend of the past few weeks with three tenth of worse finishes since his win in Las Vegas but he’s got the second best average finish at Bristol in the field (8.5). Perhaps Joey is messing around with stuff like his teammate Brad Keselowski looking for some sort of advantage that NASCAR isn’t keen too, it may pay off but until it does I won’t be looking to grab any Joey shares. Bowyer, on the other hand, is much cheaper and has been a fairly good driver here in the Spring with an even better average finish than Joey (average finish of 6th versus 8th).
Drivers first through tenth is what should constitute the majority if not all of your dominator’s list save for Paul Menard in 9th but everyone else should be in your pool because their starting position gives them a fighting chance. If you are looking for drivers outside of the top ten who could maneuver their way through the field and eventually contend for the lead then I would look towards these drivers…
Kyle Larson (16th) – It’s a wonder that Kyle hasn’t brought home a win at Bristol yet, especially during the Spring races, with over 130 laps led per Spring event. Larson has the benefit of place differential this week which means we don’t need as many dominator points to help pay off his salary but even then his salary was underpriced so the floor was low, to begin with. Kyle had no issue cutting through dirty air at Phoenix when he started near the rear and made his way to 6th, now you start him even closer at a track that he can masterfully cruise the top groove at and Larson makes lots of sense as your second or third Hog option.
Kurt Busch (27th) – wait don’t I mean Kyle, no and for good reason but more about him later. Rowdy’s older brother, put his 2019 season on repeat with another bad qualifying effort which means we have another day with Kurt having loads of place differential upside as well as a driver who should be in contention to lead laps. Kurt’s salary is up there but his starting position helps offset what he needs to make value on Draftkings plus we know that Busch is more than capable of leading this event after he won the Summer race here last year.
So why no love for Kyle Busch? Look, if you want exposure to Kyle as a possible Hog I’m not going to stop you but here are the facts.
- He is helluva expensive and you need him to not only pick up his 16 place differential points but to also lead a portion of this race just to be in the discussion of meeting salary based expectations.
- He is starting in the teens and it may take him half of the race just to sniff the top five like Martinsville. The reason this doesn’t concern me too much about Larson or Kurt is that they are that much cheaper. I can live with either of them taking their time and methodically moving up front. I need Kyle to get up front and lead, another Martinsville type of race is going to cut it because the longer he’s not leading the race means the longer he’s not accruing laps led points.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr (19th) – perhaps a cash game lock if such a thing existed this week, Ricky offers you place differential on top of upside for a driver who has three top ten finishes in his past six Bristol races. Much like his buddy Kyle Larson, we know that Ricky can ride the rails and makeup speed and position on the rest of the field. Only once this season has Stenhouse not finished on the lead lap (Richmond) and only once in the past six Bristol events has Ricky failed to finish on the lead lap making Ricky a great place differential play.
Daniel Suarez (20th) – right beside Ricky is Daniel Suarez who seems to be putting the pieces together under SHR with three straight finishes in the top thirteen including his third-place finish last weekend at Texas. Suarez had previously been fairly “meh” at Joe Gibbs with no finish outside of the top twenty but nothing inside the top ten at Bristol, however, using Suarez is a bet on momentum paired with a discounted salary for a driver starting 20th.
Alex Bowman (14th) – the tournament pivot to Suarez would be going up to Bowman who knocked out top ten finishes in both Bristol races last year. Starting this far forward, Alex may do nothing but just hold his position on the lead lap around the top ten but that could be enough to outscore everyone else around him based on finishing position points.
You will inevitably need options from the cheaper pool, possibly even two on Draftkings, but in order to maximize upside, we need drivers who can maintain position around 20th or so and hold on to the lead lap. Yes, we could very well see another Matt Dibenedetto circa 2016 performance but in all likelihood, these drivers with slow equipment are not going to be able to advance their position through the field thus making their fantasy point floors nearly mirrored to their ceilings. With that said, I think punts begin with Ty Dillon starting 24th and David Ragan in 22nd. Ty has essentially “overqualified” the past few weeks and has been able to convert that into lead lap finishes of 15th (ISM), 13th (Richmond), and 21st (Texas). Based on what he did at the fellow short tracks that gives me hope he can do the same and just hang around and be the highest scoring driver priced under $6000. Meanwhile, Ragan is coming off his fifth straight finish of 25th or worse with no lead lap finishes, however, Ragan managed to eek out an 11th place finish in this race last year so hope does abound although I’d much rather go with Ty when comparing the two.
One more punt option, who should see minimal ownership, is Michael McDowell who repeated his qualifying effort from last week sneaking into the top twenty, this time 18th. McDowell just sort of hung out in the rear of the lead lap last week and ended up with his best non-plate race finish of 2019 in 15th. Perhaps he can repeat that effort again but even if he falls into the 20’s he should still outscore similarly priced drivers like Landon Cassill, Corey Lajoie, and Matt Tifft – all of whom may never get out of the 30’s.
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