We're officially 17 of 36 points races into the 2012 season, and this weekend's race at Daytona will be the half-way point. For teams, however, this is not just any other race. Restrictor-plate events always bring more wrecked cars, damaged points days, and mad drivers than any other type of track on the circuit. Thus, being one of the "wild card" tracks on the schedule, you can't blame teams for being a little antsy of one of the largest, fastest, and most unforgiving tracks we visit. Since everyone is on equal horsepower at these restrictor-plate races, anyone can pounce on the opportunity of a possible victory. After all, who could have predicted Dave Blaney's 3rd-place run last fall, or NASCAR newcomer Brad Keselowski grabbing victory in 2009? Regardless of whether it's underdogs or favorites leading the field, the Coke Zero 400 is bound to be full of pure excitement every lap.
Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, is simply known as the "World Center of Racing". It was built to replace the defunct Beach Course by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. over 50 years ago, 1959 to be exact. It has featured the same dimensions since it was originally paved, which is an uncommon sight in the Cup Series today. Daytona has held more races in the Cup series than any other track at 130, but of the 5 tracks that come closest to that number, 4 of them have been reconfigured to different lengths in their lifetime. The speedway located here is 2.5 miles long, with a steep 31 degrees of banking in the turns. It has long been one of the fastest tracks in the world because of that. The tri-oval and back straightaway is 18 and 3 degrees, respectively, while the short straightaways (the straight areas linking the tri-oval with turns 1 and 4) are slightly steeper, at 6 degrees. As with the sport's only other superspeedway, Talladega Superspeedway, pit road speed limit is 55mph.
One of the headlining stories the past year and a half or so has been the actual method of racing here and at Talladega. For the past 2 decades, the racing was dominated by large packs running from twenty to thirty cars, inches apart and 3 wide. But a change was sparked in late 2010. What caused it, no one is sure. There were no major aerodynamic changes, no new parts, nothing. But during the Talladega fall race of that year, drivers started running in a two-by-two form, one steering and another pushing. It was a form of racing still using drafting, but with only two drivers instead of 30. This new type of competition was hated by the fans, being dubbed the "two-car tango." Attendance and TV ratings plummeted for all restrictor-plate events, and NASCAR was stuck in desperation mode trying to rid of this racing technique. As it is well-known by now, the sport accomplished what it set out to do earlier this year, breaking up the two-car tandem and bringing back pack racing just in time for the Daytona 500. It returned at Talladega later in the year, so it is safe to say that this type of racing is back (to the relief of me and many other fans). Look for pack racing to dominate the large portion of the 400 miles on Saturday night, but watch in the closing laps how drivers will likely draft in pairs again.
The key for drivers in this race is overheating. With either style of racing, packs or duos, drivers are almost always constantly behind another car. That means cars face the possibility of overheating and blowing their engines. In fact, one of the ways NASCAR rid of the two-car tango was by making the engines more sensitive to overheating, thus requiring drivers to race in packs in order not to blow their engines. Under this new engine package, drivers can only run in packs of two for about 2-3 laps before having to switch positions, giving the trailing car a turn to lead. Another key to restrictor-plate races and drafting is timing. Many drivers have different driving styles to avoid the "Big One", a huge collision which can take out half the field at a time. Some drivers (like Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards) like to hang in the back until 10 laps to go, then attempt to charge to the lead. Others (like Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch) prefer to try and stay in front the entire race long, and block the oncoming drivers. Watch your driver(s) carefully throughout the race and see which driving style they're using. It can often mean the difference between 1st and 30th.
Daytona (and Talladega, for that matter), are two of the hardest tracks in the entire circuit to make Fantasy picks on. Thankfully, there is a lot of help out there for tough events like these. I am a member of multiple Fantasy racing sites that have lots of things to keep you informed. iFantasyRace.com has lots of info, as does FantasyRacingCheatSheet.com. Nevertheless, nobody has ever been very consistent here; in fact, the best average finish all-time by Dale Earnhardt Jr. is only 14th. That just goes to show how difficult and luck-based these restrictor-plate races are. Because of that, the best things to look at when choosing your Fantasy teams are 1). Momentum, and 2). The most recent (past 2-3) restrictor plate races. One of the rules on making Fantasy picks is that you never want to go back to far to look at stats. You could look back at how Jeff Gordon ran here in the 1990s, but I'd much rather look at his stats since, say, 2010 or 2009. Sometime I might write a blog specifically on the Do's and Do Not's of Fantasy racing. That would probably help you out even more. The way to beat your opponents in Fantasy NASCAR is having more information than them. Tell me if you'd like to see something like that in the comments below.
Anyways, let's get back on track. For my A team in Yahoo! Fantasy Racing, I am taking Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth. In the last five Daytona races, "Happy" has one win and has finished 7th three times. His only finish lower was due to an engine failure in last season’s Daytona 500. I think he’s a great default pick here and the return of the draft will play into his hands, as that’s how he won both of his Daytona races, including the 2010 Coke Zero 400. Remember earlier in this article when I talked about different timing styles? Well, Harvick is one of those drivers who hangs out in the back. He stayed outside the top 15 in 75% of all the laps, but in the last 40 circuits he never ran lower than 8th. I think that he has a good shot at a top 5 this week, and if luck goes the right way, then a win might be in the cards. Kenseth has also run very well, including winning this year's Daytona 500 in stylish fashion. He started in fourth courtesy of his win in his respective Gatorade Duel Race, and on top of that, led 50 laps. Last summer at Daytona, he finished 2nd and pushed David Ragan to victory lane, and since the summer 2008 race at Daytona, Matt is the only driver in the series with a single digit average finish (9.0). A thing to note, however, is that around lap 70 of the 500, his car was overheating and looked like a geyser until his team pumped more water in. Nevertheless, he went on to win and I think that's a real possibility again this weekend. Other good picks for your A group include Brad Keselowski (medium risk for inconsistency), Kyle Busch (medium risk because he is reckless -just look at his Budweiser Shootout- but then again, he's Kyle Busch), and Jimmie Johnson (low risk).
The B group is budding with talent and potential winners this week. Dale Jr., Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, and Jeff Burton all have been good here in the past and look to have good runs again this Saturday. First off, Earnhardt is my pick to win this week. He finished 2nd in this year's Daytona 500, and in 25 Daytona races he has two wins and 9 top five finishes - pretty remarkable considering this is a restrictor-plate track. However, I think the factor that will push him towards being many people’s top Fantasy pick is his consistency on the track this season and his recent win at Michigan. As for Bowyer, a lot of people don't know that he's a good restrictor plate racer, ecspecially compared to Junior, Harvick, and others. But he has the 2nd-best average finish all-time here at Daytona and has led 90 laps since 2010. Although he's never visited victory lane here, he does have a pair of Ws to his credit at Talladega. Will his recent move to MWR affect him? I doubt it, and am looking for him to be a lock for a top 10. Menard has also put together some solid races recently, including a 6th-place run in the Daytona 500. Prior to that, he also had two other top 10s, and since moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2011, he hasn't finished worse than 9th. 45 laps led are also among recent leaders, and having Kevin Harvick as his likely drafting partner for the closing laps certainly won't affect him. He will contend for another top ten. Jeff Burton, Menard's teammate, had a good performance in the Daytona 500. He finished 5th and had one of the strongest bump drafting cars in the race. He led 24 laps and had the second best average running position (6th). He won this race in 2000, but also has a victory in his 2011 Gatorade Duel. On top of that, 231 laps led to his credit are a plus. He has sleeper potential and RCR cars are still among the best in the series at this track type. I am looking to Burton to contend for a top 10. Other good picks include Kasey Kahne (low risk), Greg Biffle (low risk), and A.J. Allmendinger (high risk for inconsistency).
The C group has plenty of part-time drivers this week, which will be good to help you save a precious start. Michael Waltrip and Trevor Bayne don't race full-time, so it's always a treat to get one of them racing. Mark Martin didn’t want to race at Daytona this week, and as a result Michael Waltrip will be piloting the 55 car. He attempted to race in this season’s Daytona 500 but he failed to make the field. In May he drove the same car at Talladega and finished 19th. Restrictor plate tracks are undoubtedly Waltrip’s best track type, as all of his wins have come at these venues and he’s three-time winner at Daytona. He will contend for a top 20, which is something any c driver would be proud of. Trevor Bayne made NASCAR history by winning the 2011 Daytona 500, which made him one of the the hottest topics and most popular drivers for the months to come. While my expectations aren't that high for him this week, TBayne has 2 more races experience here, and that along with his Roush equipment should push him to a top 15 or better. Another reason to take him is for his qualifying efforts and possible bonus points. He's qualified in the top 13 in five of his eight starts this season. Other good picks for this group include, as usual, Aric Almirola (low risk), David Ragan (low risk), and Casey Mears (medium risk for his tendency to be smack in the middle of crashes).
For my NASCAR.com Fantasy Live! team, I am taking Dale Jr. ($27.75), Matt Kenseth ($28.00), Kevin Harvick ($26.50), Trevor Bayne ($12.00), and Michael Waltrip ($3.00).
The weekend schedule consists of 2 practices on Speed on Thursday, the first at 4:00pm, the second following soon after at 6:30pm. Qualifying, in which 44 drivers will race for 43 spots, will take place at 4:00pm Friday on Speed. TNT's broadcast of the Coke Zero 400 (400 miles, 160 laps) begins at 6:30pm Saturday, with the green flag scheduled to drop at approximately 7:46pm. All times ET.