Last weekend's trip to Texas Motor Speedway brought mixed results for my fantasy teams. On one hand, I placed all five drivers in the top 20 in FOX Fantasy Auto Racing, including race-winner Joey Logano. On the flip side, I had an abysmal week in NASCAR.com Fantasy Live as I shelled out big bucks for Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, only to have Harvick lose an engine and Johnson become collateral damage in an early wreck. Meanwhile, my Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing team was a case of what might have been as a I placed all four drivers in the top 20 but left four potential top-five finishes on my bench. Overall, I'm a little disappointed with what transpired in the Lone Star State, and I'm hoping for a better showing this weekend at Darlington Raceway.
In general, I am going to cater my fantasy lineups specifically to Darlington by relying mainly on previous results. Yes, I will take into account which drivers have been running well in 2014, but "The Lady in Black" is as unique as any track on the schedule, and for the most part, drivers either have a feel for Darlington or they don't. With that in mind, I'll also be taking advantage of drivers that are normally middle-of-the-road options but tend to excel at the egg-shaped oval. This strategy should not only help me maximize the production I get out of these second-tier drivers, but it will also save me valuable starts from the big names that I have relied heavily on in the early weeks
Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing
Jeff Gordon (A): In a format that emphasizes results above all else, Gordon is an easy pick in my mind. After all, he leads all drivers with eight top-five finishes in the last 10 races at Darlington, and his 7.0 average finish during the stretch is the second best in the series. By the way, he is also the current points leader. I'll take full advantage of his reliability.
Denny Hamlin (B): Hamlin is pretty much a no-brainer addition in this format. In eight starts at Darlington, his worst finish is 13th. Meanwhile, his 5.4 average finish at the track is the by far the best in the series. Better yet, Hamlin seems to keep improving at Darlington. He has a 2.8 average finish in the last four races at the track, winning in 2010 and finishing second in 2012 and 2013.
Ryan Newman (B): I wouldn't consider Newman one of the elite B-List options, but I think he can provide a strong result this weekend at Darlington. He has a 12.3 average finish at the track overall, and in 15 starts, he has 10 top-10s, including seven top-five finishes. I like the combination of consistency and upside.
Kyle Larson (C): Without any real alternatives available this weekend, I have to use either Larson or Austin Dillon if I want a decent finish out of my C-List option. I'll opt for Larson, in part because he has two top-five finishes in the past three races, but I also think his love for the high line will be a perfect fit for Darlington. After all, drivers will spend a majority of the race running inches from the wall.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Jimmie Johnson ($27.75): Johnson has enjoyed plenty of success at Darlington, and in addition to his three wins, he has 11 top-10s in 15 starts at the track. More importantly as far as this particular format is concerned, he ranks second in fastest laps run and fourth in laps led in the last nine races at Darlington. Johnson is currently the top-scorer in this format by a wide margin, so I definitely don't mind paying for him at a track where he has been dominant.
Jeff Gordon ($27.25): If it's even possible, Gordon might actually be a safer play in this format thanks to the emphasis on having a strong car in addition to where a driver actually finishes. Since the start of the 2005 season, he has the best average running position, driver rating and green flag speed and has spent the most laps in the top 15. Gordon also ranks fifth in fastest laps run and sixth in laps led during the span. Throw in the fact that he has eight top-five finishes in the last 10 races at Darlington, and he more than justifies his hefty salary.
Denny Hamlin ($23.50): Hamlin is an absolute bargain this weekend in this format. He isn't even among the top-10 most expensive options, yet he has been by far the most consistent driver at Darlington. He has a series-leading 5.4 average finish at the track overall, and he three finishes of first or second in his last four starts alone.
Michael Annett ($8.75): Shelling out the money for Johnson and Gordon requires a budget pick or two, and Annett's ability to move forward from where he qualifies usually allows him to rank in the top 30 in scoring. While a top-30 day isn't exactly cause for celebration, owning the one or two drivers that dominate a race is much more important than owning five guys that all have decent days. Annett's minimal salary allows me to splurge on three big guns.
Reed Sorenson ($6.75): Sorenson is certainly not a household name, but thanks to the different scoring categories utilized in this format, he has been a sneaky-good option. The bottom line is that he is providing consistent top-25 production at a near-minimum salary and giving me plenty of salary cap flexibility in the process.
NASCAR.com Streak to the Finish
Denny Hamlin: I've been embarrassingly ineffective at establishing a prolonged streak, so I'm going to be aggressive for now and worry about finding sleepers down the road. With that in mind, Hamlin is my pick this weekend. With a series-leading 5.4 average finish and seven top-10s in eight starts at Darlington, there really isn't a safer bet for a top-10.
FOX Fantasy Auto Racing
Denny Hamlin (captain): I'm taking a mostly conservative approach this week in large part because I have been so aggressive early in the year in using big names. However, I'll make an exception for Hamlin and start him for a third time this season. With a series-leading 5.4 average finish at Darlington, including a 2.8 average in the past four races, he is a pretty safe bet to be in contention for the win.
Kyle Larson: The rookie is on a roll heading into this weekend's race, tallying three top-10s over the past four races. Meanwhile, I just kind of have a gut feeling about this pick. A driver can't be afraid to lean on the wall if they want to run well at Darlington, and Larson is always running the high groove. I'm hoping it's a match made in fantasy racing heaven.
Jamie McMurray: He has had a couple of top-10 runs wiped out in recent weeks because of bad luck, but I like the speed he has shown in 2014. I also like his record at Darlington recently. He has finished 16th or better in five of the last seven races at the track and has three finishes of 11th or better during the stretch. McMurray should be able to deliver a top-15 while allowing me to save the bigger names for another day.
Martin Truex Jr.: I've mainly stayed away Truex as he works out the kinks with his new team, but I just can't pass on him this weekend. His 11.3 average finish at Darlington is third in the series, and in eight starts, he has seven top-15s and has never finished outside the top 20. Truex also owns the eighth-best driver rating at the track and has finished in the top 12 in his last three starts.
Ryan Newman: With many of his best tracks lurking in the second half, I don't mind using a third start from Newman this weekend. Among active drivers, he has the seventh-best driver rating and fifth-best average finish at Darlington, and in 15 starts at the track, he has 10 top-10s. Newman should make a rock solid addition to my team.