I started this blog to provide a casual, recreational level of fantasy NASCAR advice and discussion. I've been playing these contests for a number of years and am annoyed by lineup sellers and groups of players using the same lineup. I'm hoping to give the casual player some help in building solid lineups that can beat that annoying crowd most of the time. I'm not a "tout" and don't do this for a living, so proceed accordingly. I hope you enjoy the discussion here and Good Luck!
I want to talk next about Aric Almirola, who left the famed 43 team at Richard Petty Motorsports to take over the 10 car from Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola will be an interesting driver to watch this year. He is transitioning to what most would consider a better team at SHR, but that comes with added pressure to perform. And, while there is some familiarity with the car since both RPM and SHR run Ford equipment, everything else will be new. On top of that, the 43 team will be led by first time crew chief, John Klausmeier, who previously served as a race engineer at SHR. He does, however, have a race win as interim crew chief for Kurt Busch in 2016 at Pocono.
From a fantasy perspective, Almirola may be under priced in salary cap games and otherwise under appreciated because he is likely to have significantly better equipment and support at SHR. This could allow him to generally outperform his prior results. RPM is a solid team and all, but it simply doesn't have the kind of recent experience that SHR has in competing for (and winning) championships with Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart before him. So, we'll finally see what Almirola can do with an elite level team.
For fantasy NASCAR purposes, Almirola will be in play at restrictor plate tracks and most short tracks. At the plate tracks, Almirola has a great history in recent years. At Daytona, he won the rain-shortened event in July 2014. In addition, he has finished in the Top 15 in five of the last six races there and he has only 1 DNF in that span. While Almirola doesn't have a win at Talladega, he does have three consecutive Top 10 finishes there. And he finished in the Top 20 in eleven of the last fourteen races. Avoiding the wrecks at a plate track is mostly luck, but some drivers just seem to have a feel for where to be. It seems like Almirola might be one of those guys. While he doesn't have multiple wins at either track, a long history of finishing races in and of itself sets him apart from most of the field.
For short tracks, look for Almirola at Phoenix, Richmond and Martinsville in particular. He has finished in the Top 20 in eleven of twelve Phoenix races; nine of ten Richmond races; and ten of twelve Martinsville races. We are hoping this consistent, solid performance with a mid-level team translates into Top 10's and maybe more at an elite level team like SHR.
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Next up is the #11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin. Denny is a tricky driver for me to figure out for fantasy purposes. He often seems to have a fast car, seems like he should excel, but falls short of those expectations due to some kind of unforced error -- like speeding on pit road, a loose wheel, etc. Despite that, Hamlin really had a great 2017 season. Let's recap some of the numbers.
He had two wins (at New Hampshire and Darlington), 15 Top 5's and 22 Top 10's. He did most of his damage starting with the Memorial Day weekend Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In the 25 races from Charlotte through the end of the season, Hamlin scored both of his victories and put up 14 Top 5's and 18 Top 10's. He had a ton of speed the entire second half of the season. Hamlin returns to his JGR team with continuity at crew chief (Mike Wheeler), so there's no real reason to expect any significant drop off from his 2017 performance.
So where should we lean on Hamlin for fantasy purposes? He has traditionally performed his best on shorter tracks, and that has largely been the case in recent years. He has a win and another top 5 finish in the last two races at Darlington. At Richmond, he has been in the Top 10 for the last four races, including a win and two other Top 5 finishes. He had the win at New Hampshire last year and has also shown well at Phoenix -- despite the poor finish due to the run in with Chase Elliott in the playoffs last year. So always consider Hamlin at the short tracks.
He has also emerged in the last two seasons at the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen. I've never really considered Hamlin a road course guy, but in the last two seasons, he has not finished outside the Top 5 in any of the four road course races. He won at Watkins Glen in 2016 and finished 4th there in 2017. (Conversely, he finished no higher than 19th in the six races at Watkins Glen from 2010-2015.) He finished 2nd at Sonoma in 2016 and 4th in 2017. (Conversely, he finished no higher than 18th in the six races at Sonoma from 2010-2015.) Four consecutive Top 5's over two different season is still a bit of a small sample size, but there is at least some indication that Hamlin has found something at the road courses. Mike Wheeler became Hamlin's crew chief for the 2016 season, so this marked turn around coincides with his presence. So maybe that's what sparked this change. At the very least, Hamlin is someone to watch closely at the road courses in practice and qualifying to see if his newfound speed continues at these tracks.
I want to cover Joey Logano next because he is such an interesting driver heading into 2018. After being a serious championship contender for the last several years, he missed the playoffs altogether in 2017. He started the season strong, but it all fell apart with the "encumbered win" at Richmond. From that point on, he could barely run in the Top 20 -- let alone challenge for race wins. Let's look at some of the actual numbers.
In the first eight races of 2017, Logano finished in the Top 10 seven times and he led 215 laps. In the ninth race at Richmond, he started at the rear, but came through the field, led 25 laps and won the race. But it was an "encumbered win" after NASCAR found an illegal rear suspension. From that point on, the season was a disaster. In the remaining 27 races, Logano finished in the Top 10 only nine more times and he finished outside the Top 20 a whopping thirteen times. That is unheard of for team and driver of this caliber. In those final 27 races, Logano led only 136 laps -- far less than he led in the first nine races of the year.
So what to expect in 2018? I think Logano will rebound, make the playoffs and again be a championship contender. He and Team Penske simply have too much talent and too many resources to be that bad. In addition, we did see some level of improvement toward the end of 2017. Although Logano was not in the playoffs, his performance did see a clear uptick in the ten playoff races. For example, he had five Top 10 finishes in those races and led over 100 laps in them. So, the team seemed to start to overcome whatever issues it suffered after the Richmond penalty. And, with a full off-season of work, I expect Logano to hit the ground running in 2018.
It's hard to identify one strong suit for Logano as he seems pretty consistent at all types of tracks. He has had recent success at the restrictor plate tracks, including a win in the 2015 Daytona 500 and the 2016 playoff race at Talladega. He is also strong at most 1.5 mile tracks. In the last two years, his best tracks overall are the 1.5 mile tracks at Las Vegas (where he has back-to-back Top 5 finishes) and Texas (where he finished three of the last four races in the Top 5, with a total of 217 laps led). He has also been strong at the 2 mile tracks at California/Auto Club (back-to-back Top 5's) and Michigan (one win and another Top 5). So, if the team is back to its form of 2015 and 2016, Logano will be on the fantasy radar almost every week in this upcoming 2018 season.
OK, let's get back into the 2018 season fantasy previews. Today it's the #42 of Kyle Larson with Ganassi Racing. No doubt that Larson is a likely playoff participant in 2018 and a legitimate championship contender. He was dominant at times in 2017, winning four races and finishing second in eight other races. Let that sink in for second. He finished in the top two in 12 of 36 races. On the flip side, he had seven DNF's, which is quite high for a driver and team of this caliber with championship aspirations. So, it was a bit of an up and down season in 2017, but with far more ups than downs.
So what should we expect in 2018? I predict more of the same. I think we will once again see Larson win several races and finish near the top in others. I'm hopeful that, with team continuity (crew chief Chad Johnston returns for a third season) and another year of experience for Larson, the #42 becomes a bit more consistent in 2018 and avoids the numerous DNF's that plagued the team in 2017.
As far as the tracks where Larson excels, he is a lock button start at Michigan. He has won the last three races there and three of his five career wins are at Michigan. In the race prior to the win streak, he finished third. So, in the last two seasons at Michigan, Larson's average finishing position is 1.5. California/Auto Club is a similar 2-mile layout and Larson also won the lone race there in 2017. In fact, he dominated that race, starting from the pole, leading 110 of 202 laps and finishing first. So he is a strong start at both 2-mile tracks.
Several other tracks of note: (1) Miami, where Larson finished 3rd and 2nd in the last two races and led over half the laps; (2) New Hampshire, where Larson finished 2nd in both races in 2017; and (3) Dover, where Larson finished 5th and 2nd in 2017, with 378 laps led and where he has finished in the Top 10 in 6 of 7 Cup races.
I would not recommend Larson at road courses or the plate tracks. In his eight career road course races in the Cup Series, he has only one Top 10 finish and has finished 23rd or worse in four of the eight races. Likewise, in sixteen plate races, he has only four Top 10 finishes and has seven finishes of 29th or worse.
I can't pick four obvious favorites as my projected championship four. I had to make one out of the box selection and that's Chase Elliott. I considered a few others and very nearly went with a rebound season from Joey Logano, but I settled on Elliott. First and foremost, I was incredibly impressed with how this team handled the Denny Hamlin incident at Martinsville during the playoffs last season. Chase was leading that race, had dominated the second half of the event and was a few laps from a victory that would have clinched a spot in the championship race at Miami-Homestead Speedway. But Hamlin slammed into Chase from behind, sending Chase up into the wall and out of contention. He finished a lap down in 27th after pitting for repairs. Chase responded with a great deal of emotion that day and followed it with his best three race stretch to close out the season. He finished 8th the following week at Texas and then he nearly won, but finished 2nd, at Phoenix. He raced Hamlin very aggressively during that Phoenix race -- at one point essentially pushing Hamlin up into the wall. That sent a message to Hamlin and others that he will not be intimidated. Chase closed the year with a lot of speed and a 5th place finish at Miami.
Simply put, the #24 (which will be the #9 in 2018) was one of the fastest cars to close out the 2017 season. In the ten playoff races alone, Chase had seven Top 10 finishes, and it would have been eight had Hamlin not wrecked him at Martinsville. He had three second place finishes in the playoffs alone! And he led laps in seven of the ten races -- for a total of almost 400 laps led during that time.
It also helps that Chase drives for the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team. He will have all the resources throughout the year to let him maximize his driving talent. In fact, one could easily argue that Chase in now the lead dog at Hendrick. Jimmie Johnson is, of course, the most accomplished driver on the team, but he likely has only a few years remaining in his historic career. The other two drivers are newcomers who have never raced full seasons in the top NASCAR series. Alex Bowman replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #88 and William Byron replaces Kasey Kahne. While both young drivers undoubtedly have immense potential, I don't think Rick Hendrick would have been willing to bring them both on board at the same time unless he truly believed that Chase Elliott is ready to assume the role as the team leader and championship contender in 2018.
So where should we focus on Chase for fantasy purposes? I think he is seriously in play everywhere except the restrictor plate tracks and road courses. At the mile and a half tracks last year, Chase finished in the Top 10 nine out of eleven races and the Top 5 in seven of those eleven races. So he is always in play at those tracks. He is a near must start at Dover where he has finished 3rd, 3rd, 5th and 2nd in his four Cup starts. He is also a near must start at the two mile speedways (California Auto Club and Michigan) where he is six for six in Top 10's -- with three second place finishes -- in his Cup career. Finally, he was great at Martinsville in 2017, finishing 3rd in the Spring and as the likely winner if Hamlin hadn't punted him in the Fall.
In fact, working through these numbers makes me feel even more confident in my pick of Chase as a final four driver. He is really strong at virtually every kind of track and has a legitimate chance of running up front each week.
Kyle will return for another season at Joe Gibbs racing with Adam Stevens as his crew chief. Given the strength of the Toyota camp, the JGR company and Kyle's driving talent, there is no doubt that he will once again be a championship contender. In 2017, Kyle got off to a somewhat slow start with finishes of 38th, 16th and 22nd in the first three races. From that point on, the #18 was consistently running near the front of the pack and finishing races in the Top 10. In fact, starting with the May Talledega race, Kyle led multiple laps in 25 of the remaining 27 races. In short, he had speed every week.
Looking further at some statistics, Kyle won 5 races in 2017 -- trailing only Martin Truex (8 wins) in that category. He also led 2,023 laps -- again trailing only Truex (2,253 laps led), but far outpacing the next nearest driver (Kyle Larson with 1,352 laps led). Kyle had 14 Top 5's and 22 Top 10's and an 11.53 average finishing position -- trailing only Truex and Kevin Harvick. Lastly, he had a series best 8 pole awards -- more than doubling the next closest competitor in that regard (Harvick with 4 poles). Once again, Kyle had speed each and every week.
In the last few years, Kyle has had the most success at flat tracks. His strongest track has probably been Martinsville, where he's won 2 of the last 4 races, scored Top 5's in all 4 of those races and led over 800 laps. I say "probably" only because he might very well have back-to-back wins at Indianapolis were it not for the restart incident with Martin Truex in 2017. Recall that those two restarted side by side on the front row late in the race. Truex lost it into Turn 1 and took Kyle out with him. Kyle had led 87 of the 110 laps run to that point and looked poised to win again. He had won the Brickyard 400 the year before while leading 149 of 170 laps. Both years he started from the pole. So let's hit the lock button and say Kyle is an auto start at Martinsville and Indy. I'll add yet another flat track at New Hampshire, where Kyle has won a race, been near the front and led over 400 laps in the last 4 races there. Lastly, while Kyle doesn't always dominate at the mile and a half tracks, he has seemed to finally reverse his luck at Kansas -- a place where he repeatedly ran into problems and poor finishes in years past. In the last 6 Kansas races, Kyle has a win, 5 Top 5's, 6 Top 10's and an average finish of 4.8. In contrast, for the 6 Kansas races before that, he had no wins, just one Top 10, and an average finish of 23.2! I'd say he has turned the corner and is now safe to use at Kansas.
Truex really dominated the 2017 season from beginning to end and it was satisfying to me (and many others) to see him win his first championship. He and his team earned and deserved it. It is really incredible to see this small Furniture Row team based in Denver dominate the super teams in the Charlotte area. Let's admire some of the numbers Truex put up in 2017. He had 8 wins -- 3 more than anyone else. He had 19 Top 5's -- 4 more than anyone else. He had 26 Top 10's -- 3 more than anyone else. He had the best average finish at 9.42 (Harvick was second at 11.08). He had the best average starting spot at 6.8 (Kyle Busch was next at 7.2). And he led the most laps with 2,253 compared to 2,023 for Busch. Only one other driver (Kyle Larson with 1,352) led more than 1,000 laps. In short, Truex won just about every category of statistic you would want to know.
I don't think we can expect Truex to be quite as dominant in 2018. That's not because this isn't truly a great race team, it is simply that I cannot see this level of domination continuing. That said, I fully expect Truex to win something in the neighborhood of 5 races and to challenge once again for the championship. For fantasy purposes, I would think Truex would be your go to driver whenever the series is a a mile and a half track. He has historically been excellent at those tracks and he was simply in a league of his own there last year. 7 of his 8 wins were at those tracks. And he won 7 of the 11 races run at those tracks. He finished no worse than 8th and his average finish was 2.5. And he led over 33% of the laps run at those tracks. If you do one thing in 2018, make Truex a priority at 1.5 mile tracks.
I want to start the driver preview series with the four drivers I think have the best chance to run for the championship in Homestead. The first three are no surprise. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. As you will see from the previews, these three were really a cut above the rest in 2017 and I expect them to remain there in 2018. My fourth pick will be a bit of a surprise for some and I'll wait to reveal that in a few days.
Let's start with the #4 of Kevin Harvick. While they did not win the championship, this team had an amazing 2017 season if you ask me. While he continued with Stewart-Haas racing with Rodney Childers as his crew chief, the entire team made a massive switch from Chevrolet to Ford. That transition might have had something to do with a bit of a slow start to the 2017 season. In the first six races, Harvick finished 20th or worse three times. Included in that was a 6th place finish from the 23rd starting spot at Phoenix -- a place where Harvick had dominated the field in prior years. However, Harvick rebounded from that start, made the playoffs and was a threat to win the championship all the way to Homestead. In contrast to the slow start to the season, in the last five races of the year, Harvick had a huge win at Texas and finished no worse than 8th. He rattled off finishes of 8th - 5th - 1st - 5th - 4th to close out the year. With a full year of racing and two off-seasons under their belt with Ford, I expect Harvick and Childers to come out of the gate at full speed in 2018 and to challenge for multiple wins and a championship once again.
Let's look at a few more statistics that show how good the #4 was in 2017. They had the second best average finish at 11.08, behind only the champion Martin Truex. Also the second most pole wins with 4. And they were 4th in laps led at 850. Harvick had 2 wins, 14 Top 5's, 23 Top 10's and 31 Top 20's -- which led the series.
Harvick excels at many types of tracks. He is generally a factor anywhere he can hook the bottom yellow line and he always seems to get a great ride out of the corners. Historically, he has dominated at Phoenix and done very well at tracks like Atlanta, Kansas and Homestead. I wouldn't recommend using him at Daytona, Talladega or the road courses, but I think he is in play virtually every other weekend.
My name is Steve and I've won thousands playing NASCAR fantasy racing games. This blog will share my advice for enjoying and winning your fantasy racing games. I'm also a NASCAR writer at the motor sports website slicksandsticks.com