Palm trees swaying in the wind.
200 laps on a 2-mile oval.
Cars wrecking all over the place…
No, it’s not Daytona again this week, but it sure does feel like it! The Cup Series returns today to Auto Club Speedway for the first time since 2020 after a year away due to COVID restrictions in 2021. The more things change, the more they stay the same….
Pace Laps: Setting the Stage
Fontana is referred to as a “driver’s track” due to the vast amount of racing grooves available. While it should provide more passing opportunities, the racing does get spread out at times with the most mayhem coming on restarts. However, as seen in practice and qualifying yesterday, the new cars have added another element to the race. Several drivers, even veterans like Harvick and Logano, lost control of their cars during the session, illustrating how hard this car is to drive, especially on the rough surface in Fontana.
Fontana is a 2.0-mile track with a rough surface that degrades tires quickly relative to most other tracks. The race will feature 200 laps, yielding a maximum of 135 dominator points. Comparable tracks include Homestead-Miami, Atlanta, and Darlington, due to similar high tire wear, as well as Michigan, the other 2.0-mile oval on the schedule. Optimal lineups at these tracks may offer some insight into constructing winning lineups.
Stage 1: Lineup Construction
- Over the past 5 Fontana races, 21 (42%) of 50 drivers earning a top 10 DraftKings score started in the top 10. Meanwhile, only 5 (10%) started 30th or worse.
While it may be tempting to target place differential starting far back in the field, it may not be the optimal strategy. Drivers are 4x more likely to make an optimal lineup when starting up front than when they are in the back. Of the 5 drivers to start 30th or worse and make the optimal lineup, 4 are former Cup Series champions. Then again, if the wrecks in practice continue, there is a higher probability of backmarkers having huge fantasy performances.
- Over the past 5 Fontana races, 789 (78.4%) of the laps have been led by a driver starting on the front two rows (positions 1-4).
Though restarts can get a little crazy, cars seem to spread out within a few laps. Passes that do not occur on the restart tend to happen later in the run when drivers are experiencing different rates of tire degradation. As seen in yesterday’s Xfinity Series race, the outside lane seems to get a better launch, especially off of turn 2 allowing that driver to keep the lead.
- Every driver with a top 10 DraftKings performance at Fontana since 2016 has scored at least 39 points. All but three finished the race in 15th position or better.
Using approximately 40 points as a minimum point total needed as a means to limit a driver pool could be a winning strategy. It may help decide between drivers in similar situations or rule out drivers that do not have that ceiling. Also, it is unlikely that a driver in the optimal lineup does not finish top 15. The three that did not were the aforementioned champions starting worse than 30th.
- While the 2021 package may not be similar at all, lineups at comparable tracks followed a few trends to note.
All drivers featured in optimal lineups at these tracks in 2021 scored a minimum of 5x value. Going further, all but two achieved 5.5x value. 35 of 36 drivers finished in the top 15, with the exception being Chris Buescher who led a large chunk of laps at Homestead before the sun went down. All lineups included at least two drivers starting in the top 10 with only 4 of the 36 drivers starting outside the top 30. Of note, 2021 did not have qualifying, so faster cars almost always started closer to the front, making this trend not as reliable.
Stage 2: Drivers to Target
Cash Game Targets
Kyle Busch ($10,400) – Not only does he have perhaps the best track history of anyone in the field, he has one of the easiest paths to dominator points. Starting 3rd, he should be able to pass Cindric and Jones to take the early lead. Practice may not have been very useful from a speed perspective given the limited timeframe, but Busch tried running multiple lines which should come in handy when trying to make passes. He also had the 2nd fastest 10 lap average speed in practice and has scored the most dominator points at Fontana over the past 5 years. He’ll undoubtedly be a popular play, but his upside makes him worthy of such high ownership.
Kevin Harvick ($9,200) – Likely the highest owned play on this slate, Harvick possesses great place differential upside from his 32nd starting spot. It is slightly worrisome that he did not complete a single full lap in practice before wrecking, but given his experience level, that worry can be mitigated somewhat. Results at Fontana have been mixed, but he did have consecutive 2nd place finishes in 2015 and 2016. Why is that significant? NASCAR was running a low downforce package, similar to that on this new car. Though drivers starting 30th or worse do not often have great fantasy performances at Fontana, Harvick is the only former champion starting this far back and has top 10 upside.
Cole Custer ($5,900) – After a commanding victory in yesterday’s Xfinity Series race, Custer may receive a slight bump in ownership. However, he appears to be one of the better plays priced below $6,000. Other drivers mentioned that the bumps in the track were contributing to the wrecks seen in practice and qualifying. Though the packages are different and lift points will likely be different, Custer’s laps in yesterday’s race should prove beneficial as he will have a better grasp of where the bumps are. He doesn’t bring immense upside in any category but should be a safe play that provides some salary relief.
Kyle Larson ($11,600) – There is no way to count out the defending Cup Series champion, especially on a track where the high line can be utilized. Some people have called Fontana a “2-mile dirt track”, and Larson is arguably the greatest dirt racer in the world. In 2021, Larson dominated a majority of the races on intermediate tracks, scoring the most dominator points at Atlanta, despite not winning one on a comparable track. He does have 3 top 2 finishes at Fontana and has won at Michigan, another 2.0 mile track. Larson’s practice speed wasn’t particularly impressive, but he appeared to be playing it safe to avoid the misfortune experienced by other drivers. Expect him to utilize whatever groove is necessary to maneuver around the competition as he ranked 1st in passing efficiency in 2021 per Motorsports Analytics.
Kurt Busch ($8,800) – After failing pre-race inspection three times, Busch will have to serve a pass-through penalty at the beginning of the race. While it could possibly hurt his chances of being optimal, it is certainly not guaranteed. Given the size of Auto Club Speedway, he may not go a lap down. Also, if these drivers are struggling to handle their cars as much as they did yesterday, he should be in prime position to get the free pass at the first caution. Kurt always performs well at tracks with high tire wear, as evidenced by his win (out of nowhere) at Atlanta last season and five finishes of 6th or better in his last 8 races here at Fontana. Hopefully, the penalty lowers public exposure and he capitalizes on this opportunity to score a large amount of points at a depressed ownership.
There are several different ways to construct lineups for today’s race. In each of the last 4 Fontana races, there have been two drivers lead more than 10 laps. Likewise, with the amount of tire wear, fastest laps tend to get spread throughout the field. Thus, limiting lineups to two potential dominators will be a common route. If the race is absolutely chaotic and caution-filled, stacking the back a la Daytona could be a winning strategy. However, if the race is shockingly similar to past Fontana races despite the new car, follow the trends posted above and find your way to victory lane!