With another Daytona 500 in the books, the series heads out west for the next couple of weeks, starting with Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway. Hopefully, the change of scenery will bring about a change of fortune, because -- as expected -- the season opener was a little a rough from a fantasy perspective, with several big names getting caught up in wrecks during the rain-delayed marathon.
Of course, the Daytona 500 wasn't all bad. My top option Dale Earnhardt Jr. delivered in a big way, and thanks to a solid performance from my sleeper Bobby Labonte, I managed to place all four Yahoo! drivers in the top 15. On the flip side, investing in Michael Waltrip and Danica Patrick wrecked my other lineups, and I paid a decent chunk of money for Tony Stewart in NASCAR.com Fantasy Live only to watch a fuel cell issue render him useless.
I'll try to get back on track this weekend, and after taking a conservative approach at an unpredictable track like Daytona, I will be a lot more aggressive with my selections for Phoenix. One race into the year, it is tough to establish a hierarchy among the drivers and teams, and there is a lot of guessing involved when it comes to picking sleeper drivers. By sticking with big names that traditionally maintain a high level pf performance from year to year, I hope to accomplish a couple of things. The obvious goal is a big points day this weekend at Phoenix. Equally as important, I buy myself a little time to study the field and figure out which midlevel drivers I can trust.
Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing
Jimmie Johnson (A): I always want to get the most out of a driver whenever I start them, especially with a fantasy stud like Johnson. Thanks to his stellar record, I'm comfortable using him at Phoenix. In addition to leading all drivers in just about every important category, he has logged 13 top-five finishes in his last 15 starts at the track. I like my chances of getting a great finish.
Denny Hamlin (B): Hamlin has always been strong at flat tracks, and Phoenix is no exception. He offers a combination of reliability and upside that I can't pass up. His 10.9 average finish at PIR is the second best among active drivers, and he has finished sixth or better in nine of his 17 starts.
Brad Keselowski (B): His last four starts at Phoenix have been a thing of beauty, and Keselowski has a 6.5 average finish at the track during the stretch. What really makes me confident in using him this weekend is the fact that he put together a pair of solid outings at PIR last season in what was an otherwise inconsistent year.
Austin Dillon (C): Dillon is a bit of a wild card, since he has never made a Cup start at Phoenix. That being said, he finished sixth or better in four Nationwide starts at the track. Perhaps more importantly, he will be driving for a Richard Childress Racing organization that has placed all three drivers in the top 20 in three straight trips to Phoenix.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Jimmie Johnson ($28): The price tag is hefty, but Johnson's absolute dominance in the scoring loop categories, specifically laps led and fastest laps, makes him worth the cost in this format. His salary limits what I can do with the rest of my roster, but no driver can match his numbers at PIR.
Denny Hamlin ($23.75): His salary is still a little depressed from his disappointing 2013 season, and heading to Phoenix, I'll gladly jump on him at his current price tag. He has 13 top-15s in 17 starts at PIR, including six in his last seven. He also has seven top-three finishes at the track, including three in his last four starts.
Austin Dillon ($20): There aren't really any drivers in this price range that I feel have the upside of Dillon. His excellent record at Phoenix, combined with Richard Childress Racing's stellar record at a track, makes a top-20 finish well within reason. After all, the last time an RCR driver has finished worse than 17th at PIR was March of 2012.
A.J. Allmendinger ($17): I expect his year with JTG Daugherty Racing to be up and down, but Phoenix has always been kind to Allmendinger no matter what team he has been driving for. He has finished 18th or better in eight of his nine starts at PIR, and he should make a great value pick for the price.
Joe Nemechek ($11): Having Johnson on my roster forces me take a stab at a serious bargain, and I'm taking a chance "Front Row" Joe. His NEMCO-JRR team is partnering with Michael Waltrip Racing this season, and with Nemechek keeping the seat warm for part-time drivers Waltrip and Jeff Burton, I'm hoping he will salvage a decent finish.
NASCAR.com Streak to the Finish
Jimmie Johnson: If I'm going to use up my start from the best driver in the business, I might as well do it at a track where he has been next to unstoppable. I need a top-10 finish to start my streak, and Johnson has 17 of them in 21 starts at PIR, including 15 in his last 17 starts.
FOX Fantasy Auto Racing
Jimmie Johnson: If it wasn't already apparent, I am riding the Johnson bandwagon this weekend in any and all formats, and why not? He has a 6.3 average finish at Phoenix, which is 4.6 spots better than any other driver. Meanwhile, his 116.7 driver rating is in a league of its own.
Denny Hamlin: Pick a stat, and it points to a big day for Hamlin at Phoenix. He has the second-best average finish and third-best driver rating at the track, and he has finished third or better seven times in 17 starts, including three times in his last four starts.
Kevin Harvick: He has always been reliable at Phoenix, and he has been delivering big time results at recently. In his last four starts at the track, he has two wins and a second-place finish. For his career, Harvick is a four-time winner at PIR, and his 101.3 driver rating ranks second in the series.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne has really stepped up his game at Phoenix recently, and I'm hoping he keeps the momentum going this weekend. In his last six starts at the track, he has finished sixth or better four times, picking up a win in the fall of 2011 and a second-place finish last fall.
Carl Edwards: I'll sacrifice a little consistency for a shot at an elite finish with Edwards. He is the defending winner of this weekend's race, and although he has just one top-10 in his last four starts at PIR, he has two wins and a second-place finish in his last seven starts.