blank 02/23/12 08:53AM Chase Predictor, Daytona 500, Fantasy, NASCAR

Nothing in stats is truly predictive about Daytona

FANTASY PREVIEW

After a long, cold winter without racing NASCAR makes its annual pilgrimage to Daytona Beach. While most of the country huddles under blankets, the drivers and some lucky fans get to spend two weeks basking in the Florida sun. Several practices, exhibition races and a qualification session give fantasy players a ton of data. Unfortunately, none of it is particularly useful in handicapping the Daytona 500.

NASCAR has other considerations than keeping gamers happy. They want to put on a good show that causes the fans to pack the grandstands. And if Saturday night's Bud Shootout was any indication, they have tweaked the rules' package to create the most exciting race in the past two and a half years. That is little consolation to those tasked with identifying and selecting a fantasy roster and it has long been one of the ironies of this sport that the first race of the season is the least predictable.

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There is nothing in the statistics that is truly predictive about Daytona. Some of the old standbys such as a driver's record or his years of experience hardly matter when dark horses such as Trevor Bayne and David Ragan can win as easily as the most grizzled veteran. Average running position and the number of laps spent at the front of the field also are of little help after multiple Big Ones erupted at the head of the pack in the Bud Shootout.

Now more than ever, the best strategy for Daytona is to spread the wealth around. In fact, fantasy players want to set their lineup from the bottom up by selecting the dark horses they think will be the strongest and then waiting to see how much that leaves them in salary cap for marquee drivers. It's not that they don't want a Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards, but the difference between their potential and that of David Gilliland or Bobby Labonte is much narrower this week than at any time in the season.

All stats are not created equal

It is true that nothing is particularly predictive about Daytona, but after looking at all the factors, some stats seem to be more useful than others. Yes, the Big One can happen among the leaders, but with the return of pack racing, simple mathematics dictates that an accident is more likely to occur deeper in the field. In the top five, there are only three or four drivers who can make a mistake in front of your roster picks. In the top 20, that number swells to 18 or 19, which means that average running position should be considered even though it is not a magic bullet.

Gamers need to bring their experience into play, as well. Drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have subpar average running positions on the big tracks, but that is because they choose to run around in the back of the pack for much of the race at Daytona and Talladega and only charge to the front when money is on the line.

* Sound Off: Johnson weighs options of running up front, hanging back

Races are won in the pits

This year, there has been a tweak to the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. The architects removed the bonuses for pass differential and replaced that with positions gained or lost on pit road. After all, in fantasy sports as in NASCAR, races are won and lost in the pits.

The favorites

In response to an outcry from the fans, NASCAR changed its rules this season to discourage two-car tandems and a little background is necessary before jumping into the favorites. The tandems have been in vogue since the fall 2010 Talladega race when drivers discovered they could stay hooked together for several laps at a time and increase their speed. Ultimately, this style of racing might have become more predictable, but fans seemed to want the raw action of multi-car packs. The near-term effect of the rules' changes is that last year's stats need to be taken with a grain of salt, unless they are supported by an equally impressive string of finishes from the pack-racing era of 2010 and earlier.

Last year, no one swept the top 10 on plate tracks. Actually, none of the active drivers even posted three top-10s in the four races at Daytona and Talladega. Only five drivers managed to score two top-10s. That not only underscores how difficult it can be to handicap races on this style of track, but also that players need to look further back in the record books to select their favorites. In 2010, one driver swept the top 10 and since three of those were characterized by multi-car packs, Kevin Harvick will be this week's favorite. He not only swept the top 10, but he won a race at Talladega in the spring and at Daytona in the summer. There is some speculation that two-car tandems will come into play in the final laps and Harvick is recommended in those circumstances, as well. He finished second in the 2010 f and scored two top-10s last year on plate tracks.

Since the inception of the Bud Shootout in 1979, five drivers have won that exhibition race and then went on to win the Daytona 500; Dale Jarrett achieved the accomplishment twice and he also is the most recent driver to do so, in 2000. Kyle Busch doesn't care how long it has been, he believes he can sweep those two races this year. Late in 2011, he got a wake-up call from NASCAR, his sponsor and his team after getting parked for one race for aggressive driving. He came to Daytona with a new attitude, which caused many to question if he could race with kid gloves on his hands. Busch provided an emphatic answer Saturday night after getting involved in one accident and nearly spinning off the nose of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Gordon in the late stages of the race. He not only hung onto his car and kept from pounding the wall, but he made a dramatic last-minute pass on the frontstretch to nose out Tony Stewart. If the will to win could be factored into a statistical model, Busch would be the top pick every week.

Kasey Kahne could just as easily be considered a dark horse this week, but there are a couple of factors that should propel him to the top of the ranks. His new tenure with Hendrick Motorsports is going to give him the best drafting partners he has ever had at Daytona and he wants to prove how smart a decision it was to bring him into that organization. By the numbers, he has been hit and miss on the plate tracks, but when he hits his marks few are better. While he hasn't yet won at Daytona, he came close in the 2009 summer race with a second-place finish that he backed up with a fourth in that same race last year.

Dark horses

Take your pick.

Dark horses are as prevalent on the plate tracks as mustangs once were in the Wild West. They roam freely and can be impossible to corral, which is to say hard to identify. No one expected Bayne to win last year's Daytona 500 and Ragan was a surprise winner when the series returned in July. Bayne was not the only pleasant surprise in February, however, because he was joined at the front of the pack by David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte racing in the second two-car tandem before crossing the line third and fourth, respectively. Regan Smith finished seventh and Paul Menard crossed the line in ninth.

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Even though all the plate races last year were characterized by two-car tandems, the most consistently strong driver from that group might well have been Gilliland. In addition to his Daytona top-five, he finished in the top 10 at Talladega and narrowly missed the top 15 when the series returned to Florida in July. One negative about his record last year was that it showed a downward progression, but his 22nd-place finish at Talladega wasn't all that bad for a driver at his level. There is at least one good reason to put him back on the radar screen and that is because he has a new teammate in Ragan, who is another strong dark horse for this week.

Rookies are not supposed to run well on plate tracks, but Ragan disproved that in his first Daytona 500. He slipped through a multi-car accident that erupted in the shadows of the checkers and finished fifth in his inaugural attempt in 2007. Later that same season, he proved it was not a fluke by finishing 12th in the summer race. No one comes to Daytona for long without experiencing some crash damage and Ragan failed to finish his second 500-miler. However, his next four races all ended in results of 16th or better. There was another crash in the 2010 summer race, followed by a 14th in last year's Great American Race and finally a victory under the lights in July. Fantasy owners don't need to be concerned about his move to Front Row Motorsports because the draft is a great equalizer on plate tracks.

Underdogs

If he continues to run with the same level of intensity, it is going to be hard to place Gordon on one's roster. This veteran knows that there are only so many years remaining in his career and now is his best opportunity to win another championship and another Daytona 500. Unfortunately, that has him revving his engine a little too hard. His attempt at a bump-and-run on Busch in the final laps of the Bud Shootout ended catastrophically for him when he flipped the No. 24 Chevrolet and ended up on his lid (watch). And if he doesn't calm down, the same thing could happen on Sunday; after all, he has sustained crash damage in four of his past five attempts at Daytona.

Denny Hamlin is another marquee driver that should be avoided this week. He has one top-five finish at Daytona, in July 2009, but that is his only top-10 in a 12-race career. The overwhelming reason for his lack of success has been crash damage because he's been banged about in two-thirds of those starts on the 2.5-mile oval. He hasn't had much better luck at Talladega and last year he was involved in at least one crash in all four plate races. The good news is that he held on to finish eighth in the fall race at Talladega, but fantasy owners don't want to bet that will happen again.

Power Average Ranking

Restrictor-plate superspeedways (past three years):

1. Kurt Busch 9.74 (average finish); 2. Kyle Busch 10.66; 3. Jeff Burton 11.20; 4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 11.63; 5. Juan Montoya 11.64; 6. Clint Bowyer 12.29; 7. Elliott Sadler 12.87; 8. Kevin Harvick 12.87; 9. Matt Kenseth 13.50; 10. Martin Truex Jr. 14.24.

11. David Ragan 14.33; 12. Denny Hamlin 14.64; 13. Joey Logano 15.00; 14. David Reutimann 16.23; 15. Kasey Kahne 16.49; 16. Jeff Gordon 16.93; 17. Jamie McMurray 17.24; 18. Jimmie Johnson 17.89; 19. Paul Menard 18.42; 20. Tony Stewart 18.45.

21. Casey Mears 19.22; 22. Brad Keselowski 19.47; 23. Carl Edwards 19.51; 24. Greg Biffle 19.70; 25. Trevor Bayne 19.76; 26. Kenny Wallace 20.00; 27. Landon Cassill 20.42; 28. Mark Martin 20.71; 29. Regan Smith 21.41; 30. Ryan Newman 22.56.

31. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 24.33; 32. A.J. Allmendinger 24.51; 33. Aric Almirola 25.33; 34. Michael Waltrip 25.97; 35. David Stremme 26.06; 36. Bobby Labonte 26.55; 37. Mike Wallace 27.43; 38. Robby Gordon 27.71; 39. Marcos Ambrose 27.92 ;40. David Gilliland 28.33.

41. Terry Labonte 31.66; 42. Dave Blaney 32.28; 43. Bill Elliott 33.94; 44. Robert Richardson Jr. 35.65; 45. Joe Nemechek 35.71; 46. J.J. Yeley 38.82; 47. Michael McDowell 39.81; 48. Tony Raines 41.75.

* The Power Average is the average finish during the past three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the race. A driver's recent record in the support series also is factored in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they were a finishing position (i.e. the first non-qualifier is assigned a 44th-place finish).


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