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Fantasy Preview: Get out the dice cup; it's time for Daytona

NASCAR.com

The 2012 Daytona 500 burned and raved at the closing of the day and refused to go gently into that good night. Had he not died in 1953, Dylan Thomas might have been sitting in the grandstands of Daytona International Speedway this February -- drinking a beer at the ripe old age of 98 -- and marveling at the tenacity of that race and the drivers in it. Rain pushed the 500 to Monday, and then further into night and wee hours of Tuesday morning after Juan Montoya's accident with a jet dryer. Fittingly, the race ended with a green-white-checkered finish.

The Daytona 500 being postponed until Monday was the first time in the history of that race that it was delayed by a day. Montoya's freak accident with the jet dryer was also historic, but the green-white-checkered finish has become commonplace. That was the fifth consecutive time that a Daytona race has gone into extra laps; and since the implementation of the rule midway through the 2004 season, it was the ninth time in 15 races that distance was added.

Races on the restrictor-plate superspeedways have never been predictable, but they have become outright chaotic in recent years. At the end of the 2010 season and throughout 2011, drivers discovered they could go faster locked in tandem drafts. The seesaw effect of that style of racing was just as difficult to handicap as the multi-car draft, so fantasy owners made their best guesses and watched the race. Determined to break up the two-car tandems, NASCAR mandated new rules this spring and it was back to the dice cup for fantasy players.

Capriciousness

It is too soon to tell if a measure of stability will ever return to the plate tracks, but in two races this year, four drivers have swept the top 10. Kevin Harvick was the last driver who managed to finish that well in all four plate races during a year, but he batted only .500 last year and this season as well. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle each backed up a strong Daytona 500 with an equally stout Aaron's 499, but Jeff Burton is currently the hottest driver on this track type since he also finished in the top 10 at Talladega last fall during the two-car tandem era.

In addition to those four drivers, only one other posted back-to-back top-15s this season when Clint Bowyer narrowly missed the top 10 at Daytona with an 11th and finished sixth at Talladega. It can be said without any fear of contradiction that the plate tracks are the least predictable courses on the circuit, but they have to be survived to win a championship. Fans love the erratic action; fantasy players are often much less enthusiastic when they witness half of their lineup crumpled into a pile of twisted metal.

The Favorites

With two-car tandems, Earnhardt was locked into the same strategy as his teammates. If the crew chiefs collectively thought the best course of action was to ride around in the back of the pack, then his duty was to push and be pushed by Jimmie Johnson. He didn't particularly care for that strategy and welcomed the return of pack racing. This February, running his own race seemed to work out for Junior and he finished in the runner-up position behind Kenseth. In 2010, both Daytona races were also characterized by multi-car drafts and he swept the top five that season as well. In fact, even numbered years have been kind to him at Daytona because he also swept the top 10 in 2008, but the news isn't all good. In 2007, 2009, and 2011, he never cracked the top 15 and finished outside the top 20 in five of six races. Momentum doesn't mean much on plate tracks, but confidence can help keep a driver out of dangerous situations and the man behind the wheel of the No. 88 has that with a streak of five consecutive top-10s on oval tracks.

Harvick is the most recent driver to sweep the top 10 on plate tracks. With an accident-induced 25th in the Aaron's 499 this season, he won't match that feat this year, but he continues to be solid at Daytona. He blew an engine in the 2011 Daytona 500 only 22 laps into the contest, but he has been perfect for the past two and half seasons otherwise. In the other four races, he finished seventh three times, but he came out on top during a green-white-checkered finish in the 2010 Coke Zero 400. He is not bulletproof and has been involved in accidents in four of his past 11 plate races, but if he stays out of trouble he will be in contention at the end.

Kenseth also needs to rely on a little luck, but the same can be said about virtually everyone in the field. Kenseth is one of the least emotional drivers in the Cup Series and that plays into his hands with regularity because he is rarely the one who triggers "Big One" crashes. Last summer, he followed then-teammate David Ragan across the line of the Coke Zero 400 and scored a second-place finish when that race was lengthened by two green-white-checkered attempts. This February, he endured only one lap-extending period and won the Daytona 500. As recently as 2008 through 2010 he managed to string together four consecutive top-10s on this track and he looks promising to keep his current streak alive at least one more week.

Dark Horses

It took a little while for Paul Menard to get the hang of Daytona. He failed to race his way into the 2006 and 2007 500s and then failed to crack the top 10 in his first seven starts on this superspeedway. He finished ninth in the 2011 Daytona 500, however, and that seems to have flipped a switch. Since then, he has been perfect in regard to top-10 finishes although he failed to crack the top five. He has not been all that bad at Talladega in recent seasons either; while he does not have a top-10 on that track, his worst results was a 17th this spring and he enters the weekend with a seven-race streak of lead lap finishes on this track type. By staying on the same lap as the leader, he has the opportunity to improve his position late in the race if a "Big One" erupts in the shadow of the checkers.

Last week was a bad time for Joey Logano to apparently raise the ire of Ryan Newman. A replay of the Lap 158 incident showed the No. 39 ramming the back of the No. 20 and tipping Logano's car into Clint Bowyer. Afterward Newman told the media that the young driver had a lot to learn and he was there to teach him. Look for the professor to take a one-week sabbatical because the consequences of incidental contact are too unpredictable to risk another lesson in the multi-car draft. If no one else runs into Logano, he has proven to be capable of holding a steady wheel on the plate tracks. He enters the weekend with back-to-back top-10s at Daytona, which includes a third in this race last year. Staying out of trouble is not guaranteed because Logano has been involved in an accident in nine of his 14 plate races and he sustained enough damage to quit early in four of those events.

Underdogs

Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott, and Terry Labonte will look very appealing this week. With bargain basement price tags, it might even make some sense to have one of them on the fantasy roster if that allows a player to upgrade their mid-cap pick, but expectations need to be managed. In limited schedules, the incentive to overcome setbacks and get into the fray after an incident is not as great as with full-time teams that are battling for every possible position inside the top 35 in owner points.

Driving the No. 55 this week, Waltrip is the most likely exception of these three, but even he is not guaranteed to try to overcome major damage if the team loses more than a handful of laps off the pace because it is unlikely that the team can make its way into the top 10 in owner points and contend for that championship. In the final tally, that could cost a dozen or more points. Fantasy owners who decide to take one of these three drivers should base their decision on qualification. Whichever car starts furthest back in the pack has the most potential to earn positive points in NASCAR Fantasy Live's place differential and that is where the most points will be earned.

There are simply better opportunities to start Jimmie Johnson on any other track type. He is capable of running strong on the restrictor-plate superspeedways, but there are too many variables outside of his control this week. Johnson won the 2011 Aaron's 499, but he has finished 20th or worse in the four plate races that followed. The last time he earned a top-15 at Daytona was in the 2009 Coke Zero 400, but his average finish in five races there since is a points-depriving 31st. He's great on flat tracks, however, and three of those are lined up after this week's Coke Zero 400.

Fantasy Power Ranking
Restrictor-plate superspeedways (past three years)
1. Jeff Burton 10.44   16. David Reutimann 17.11   31. AJ Allmendinger 24.44
2. Clint Bowyer 10.71   17. Brad Keselowski 17.56   32. Michael Waltrip 25.45
3. Kyle Busch 11.03   18. Tony Stewart 17.71   33. David Gilliland 26.53
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 11.72   19. David Ragan 17.78   34. Bobby Labonte 26.64
5. Kevin Harvick 11.89   20. Jeff Gordon 17.79   35. Mike Bliss 28.60
6. Kurt Busch 12.49   21. Aric Almirola 18.00   36. Terry Labonte 29.79
7. Matt Kenseth 13.24   22. Mark Martin 19.26   37. Travis Kvapil 29.91
8. Kasey Kahne 13.59   23. Casey Mears 19.62   38. Dave Blaney 29.94
9. Joey Logano 14.04   24. Carl Edwards 20.11   39. David Stremme 30.74
10. Juan Montoya 14.10   25. Regan Smith 21.01   40. Bill Elliott 35.21
11. Denny Hamlin 15.44   26. Jimmie Johnson 21.13   41. Robert Richardson Jr. 36.06
12. Martin Truex Jr. 15.45   27. Trevor Bayne 22.04   42. Joe Nemechek 38.39
13. Greg Biffle 15.65   28. Landon Cassill 22.73   43. JJ Yeley 39.33
14. Jamie McMurray 16.07   29. Ryan Newman 23.34   44. Josh Wise 40.44
15. Paul Menard 16.34   30. Marcos Ambrose 24.22  

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League type:
Free Yahoo League
League size:
10 players
Draft time:
Aug 27 9:00 am
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