It pays to get off to a fast start in racing. That is true of individual races as well as during the season.
In the past several years, NASCAR has implemented a number of new rules designed to improve the fan experience. Some of these – such as ones designed to enhance parity among teams and manufacturers – have made handicapping races more difficult. Others have helped make races a little less unpredictable.
When NASCAR first implemented the ‘win-and-in’ format that virtually guaranteed a spot in the playoffs with a single victory, teams were tempted to gamble once they won a race. The winner of the Daytona 500 practically had 25 races that could be treated as extended test sessions and that contributed to erratic finishes. Noticing this, NASCAR added bonus points for winning races and stages during a race – and the results leveled out.
Drivers could no longer ignore individual events during the season.
NASCAR hits the quarter mark of the season as the Easter break comes around and that is a good time to take a look back at who has gotten off to a strong start in 2019 compared to 2018.
Kurt Busch felt that he was not receiving the respect he deserved at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). He complained about this periodically throughout the season and tried to use it as a bargaining chip. One can never tell how much of that was real and how much was a bargaining chip, but in the end his old team decided that his needs would not be met. Busch moved the Chip Ganassi Racing beginning this year.
One thing we also have to speculate about is whether Busch is getting better resources this year or if he is driving with a tremendous chip on his shoulder. Either way, it is apparent that his results have improved immeasurably.
If one looks back at his first nine races of 2017 and 2018 compared to the first nine this season they will note that Busch has improved by more than 11 positions compared to 2017 and more than seven over last year, which is the most among full time drivers. After getting involved in an accident to start this season at Daytona, Busch has swept the top 12 in the last eight races, making him one of the most consistent drivers in the field.
Notably, teammate Kyle Larson has the biggest loss year over year, but we will talk about that at a later time.
Change is often good for everyone involved. SHR took the opportunity of Busch’s departure to sign Young Gun Daniel Suarez and they have also experienced better results. Last year, Busch had an average finish of 16.00 in the first nine races. This year, Suarez has improved by one position (15.00). While that is not stunning, there is also the matter of Suarez being one of the most improved drivers this year versus last. He has advanced his personal record by just under five positions on average.
In some ways Suarez might actually be a better value than Busch. He is less flashy and controversial. As a result, he tends to fly under the radar, which makes him a strong value in allocation management games. In the first part of a season, salary caps typically represent last year’s efforts and it can take a little while to catch up. Suarez has not been bullet proof so far this year; he has four results outside the top 15. However, solid top-10s at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Bristol Motor Speedway make him a driver to watch.
When he won the Daytona 500, we wondered if Denny Hamlin would be able to keep his momentum. He got off to a weak start in 2017 (17.00) and a modest one in 2018 (10.78) that caused him to struggle for most of the last two years. And it was not as if winning the restrictor-plate, superspeedway race would give him a set of notes from which to work on the unrestricted tracks – and so we waited and watched.
An 11th at Atlanta didn’t answer any questions – partly because he faded from his fourth-place qualification run. Since then, he has been one of the strongest drivers in the field with a sweep of the top 10, another victory at Texas, and four more fifth-place finishes. With the exception of last week’s disqualification at Richmond Raceway, all of his efforts have come after qualifying on the first five rows and that only adds to his strength.
Rosters are made up of drivers throughout the field and one has to be aware of hidden bargains. Ty Dillon hasn’t exactly set the world on fire this season, but like Suarez he has been a decent value in comparison to last year. In 2018, Dillon earned only one top-15 in the first nine races. This year, he has four such finishes including a sixth in the Daytona 500. On two other occasions, he narrowly missed the top 20 with 21sts at Texas and last week at Richmond.
Two of Dillon’s best runs have come on short tracks. He finished on the lead lap at Martinsville and Bristol. It will be a while before NASCAR returns to a course less than a mile in length, but fantasy players should add a reminder to their calendar for the fall. Dillon should be noted on the upcoming 1-mile courses such as Dover in a few weeks.
Hendrick Motorsports has a long way to go before they are considered weekly threats. The same is true of most of the Chevrolet teams, but it is notable that two of the Hendrick mates are among the 10 most improved.
Chase Elliott has a four-position better average in 2019 than he did last year. Jimmie Johnson is about 3.5 positions improved and starting to challenge for top-10s on a more regular basis. Given the traditional strength of this organization, players need to have them on a watch list during every event.
Average Finish, First 9 Races
TY vs LY