Fantasy NASCAR race preview: Coke Zero 400
The newly repaved track at Daytona International Speedway has led to big changes to the style of restrictor plate racing. The long packs of cars drafting in line are gone. The field will break into pairs of drivers working together to form a two-car aerodynamic advantage. In the past, the two-car breakaway has been successful but never for extended runs and in such high numbers like this.
The two-car draft carried over Speedweeks and the Daytona 500 to Talladega Superspeedway, the only other track that requires a restrictor plate. As these are the only races to feature this new tactic, the premium should be placed on those results. After the fireworks of this Independence Day weekend race are over, the final plate race will in late October as the sixth event of the Chase.
Owners facing prequalifying deadlines will get the benefit of two Thursday practice sessions prior to qualifying on Friday. Checking these results is a huge benefit in order to see what drivers have unloaded with an early edge and are most likely to score a prime starting position.
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Drivers to keep an eye on
In addition to four consecutive finishes inside the top 10 at Daytona, Edwards is the only driver to finish sixth or better in both restrictor plate races this season. After four straight Daytona starts with an average running position of at least 13th, Edwards finished as the runner-up in this year's Daytona 500 while running 17th, on the average. The season points leader at the conclusion of the last 10 races, Edwards has three top-fives over the last four starts. Even though he's seeking his first win at DIS, Edwards is among the safest bets at an otherwise unpredictable race track.
When he's hot, the elder Busch brother can really sizzle. Even though his streak of three consecutive poles, which all resulted in top-11 finishes, was snapped last week at Infineon Raceway, the double deuce laid an epic beatdown on the competition. Going back to the summer of 2006, Busch has six top-fives and eight top-10s in 10 starts at Daytona while leading double-digit laps in each of the last three. With his first road course victory secured, the next item on the to-do list is reaching victory lane on a restrictor plate track.
From 2006 through 2009, the younger Busch brother held an average running position at Daytona that never dropped below 10th. In that span of time, he captured one victory, a pair of runner-up finishes and one more top-five result in a total of eight races. In the three starts since, his best finish is eighth from this year's Daytona 500 where he ran 17th, on the average. Although his series best average running position of 12.4 hasn't always resulted in ideal finishes, Rowdy is on the short list of elite drivers at this site.
Even while struggling a season ago, two of Earnhardt's three top-five finishes came at Daytona. He was working on a similar result late in this year's Daytona 500 before being taken out in a crash with six laps to go. Earnhardt's average running position of ninth was his best performance at DIS since 2008. At Talladega in April, he bounced back by qualifying and finishing in the fourth position. Earnhardt is typically among the most started drivers in plate races. While value may not be there, it's hardly a reason to negate the 88.
With an average finish of 13.2 in 11 career starts, Bowyer leads all active drivers with multiple starts at Daytona. The impressive numbers don't stop there. In the Daytona 500, Bowyer salvaged a 17th-place result after holding an average running position of ninth, tied for the race high, until getting caught up in the same late wreck at Earnhardt. Bowyer would get payback at Talladega, where he finished as the runner-up and held the best average running position of the day, fifth.
As long as one of the numerous drivers Montoya upset last week at Sonoma doesn't decide to wreck him, expect a solid performance. A sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500 set a career high for the brash Columbian. That gives Montoya three top-10s over the last four at DIS while his average running position sat 13th or better in each of the last three. JPM was struck by Ryan Newman's car at Talladega, but he finished third there in both races a year ago.
Along with the aforementioned Kurt Busch and Bowyer, an RCR teammate, Menard is one of only three drivers to hold an average running position of 10th or better in both restrictor plate races this season. He finished a career-best ninth in the Daytona 500 before finishing 12th at Talladega, leading multiple laps at each track. Since Talladega, Menard has just one top-10 finish in eight starts but has qualified ninth or better in four straight. A plate race is just the thing that could get Menard back on track.
In addition to picking up a surprising win at Darlington Raceway, Smith has been an impressive performer in plate races. He finished a career-best seventh at Daytona with an average running position of 10th and seven laps led. Smith led half a dozen circuits at Talladega with a career-best average running position of 11th and finishing 15th. Among bottom-tier drivers, none look better than Smith this week.
Temper your expectations
If the maddening inconsistency and misfortunes on the track weren't enough to keep you off Hamlin this week his results at Daytona surely will. In 11 career starts, he owns a single finish better than 17th. Among drivers in this week's field with multiple starts at DIS, Hamlin's career average running position of 17.7 is only good for 16th best.
In three plate races from the fall of 2009 through the spring of 2010, McMurray won on each track while concluding a runner-up performance. However, in the four starts since, he has yet to finish better than 18th. Although McMurray led at least one lap in three of those events, the magic behind his play-it-safe strategy of falling back and making a charge late has all but vanished.
About Eric McClung
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. Follow @EricMcClung
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