The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to ISM Raceway this weekend for the second leg of the West Coast swing and fourth race of the 2018 season.
Even though we are just a few races in, it’s never too early to start thinking about the big picture when it comes to season-long fantasy NASCAR games. It’s tempting to continue to run out top-tier options to post big scores, but now that we have gotten past a couple of races at mile-and-a-half tracks, we have to start thinking about budgeting starts for both Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game.
Fortunately, ISM can be a good spot to save a start or two. Some drivers just seem to have a good feel for flatter tracks, and there are a few drivers who are midrange performers at the bigger, faster ovals that see a bump in their value.
Races at ISM have also been known to be decided by pit strategy, and it isn’t uncommon to see driver steal a solid finish with a bold strategy call late in the race. Last year, Ryan Newman won the March race using pit strategy, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished in the Top 5, and rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones came away with Top 10s.
Add up all those factors, and this is a race where I won’t mind going a little unconventional with my lineups. I recommend going with at least one middle-tier option for your Group B picks in the Driver Group Game and a couple in Fantasy Live, as well.
Hit me up at @BPolking or at [email protected] if you are looking for advice or lineup tips on any fantasy NASCAR games not covered in this article.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
After he failed to lead a lap in the last three races at ISM, I was hoping to save a start from Harvick this weekend. Unfortunately, he lit up the charts in practice Saturday, especially on long runs. I think you have to play the eight-time ISM winner, and he’s also my pick to win the race.
You can make an argument that Larson was the best overall performer at ISM last season. He finished second in both stages in the March race and finished second, and he won the opening stage in the fall race before an engine issue ended his day. It looks like he has picked up where he left off, grabbing a spot on the front row and showing plenty of muscle in race trim. I’ve been resisting the temptation to use him so far this season, but I’ll gladly burn a start at a track where he could easily score the most points in this format.
Elliott had a car capable of winning both races at ISM last year, and his career record at the track now includes three Top 10s and a 7.8 average finish in four starts. I also love the fact that he earned points in all four stages at ISM last year, finishing fourth or better in three of those four stages. Rolling of third, I love his chances of piling up stage points again this weekend. I haven’t used any starts from Elliott yet, but I’ll use one up at one of his strongest tracks.
He enjoyed a great rookie season at ISM, finishing eighth in the March race and fourth in the fall event. More importantly, he earned at least four stage points in three of the four stages between the two races. After qualifying in the Top 10, I expect the trend of stage points to continue Sunday. I still expect Jones to still be a little boom or bust during his sophomore season, so I want to use him at tracks like ISM where he has already shown some consistency to go along with his Top 5 upside.
McMurray’s safe floor is his biggest appeal this weekend, but his potential for stage point shouldn’t be overlooked. He has finished 16th or better in his last eight starts at ISM, and he finished seventh or better in three of the four stages at the track last year while ranking in the Top 10 average running position in both races. Starting in the Top 10 with a car that looked sharp in Happy Hour, he could post a solid score while allowing me to save a start from a top-tier driver.
Garage Driver – Alex Bowman
I’m trying to find a nice balance between loading up on studs on utilizing mid-tier options, and one of the best ways to help with this is by putting a midrange driver in my bench spot. Bowman had a dominant showing at ISM in the fall of 2016 when he led 194 laps from the pole and finished sixth. He qualified in the Top 5 this weekend, and if he is in line for a lot of stage points early, I’ll swap him in if one of my top guys.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
Group A – Kevin Harvick
As fast as Harvick has looked at the 1.5-mile tracks so far, I wanted to save him this week in case he ends up being this year’s Martin Truex Jr. But like I said in my Fantasy Live preview, he was just so fast in practice that I have to use him. In addition to his eight wins at ISM, he has a 2.6 average finish and four wins in eight starts here with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Group B – Erik Jones
Jones has Top 10 potential at almost any track, and he’s already shown encouraging consistency at ISM. He finished eighth in the March race and fourth in the fall event, he and finished three of the four stages running seventh or better. I haven’t used Jones yet this season, but after a Top 10 qualifying effort and solid practice times, I think it’s worth using one of his starts this weekend.
Group B – Chase Elliott
I debated going with either Kurt Busch or Aric Almirola, but they are starting deep in the field, and ISM might be Elliott’s best track. He has a 7.8 average finish in four starts here, and he led a chunk of laps in both races last year. He also ran near the front for a majority of both races, finishing in the Top 5 in three of the four stages. He qualified third this weekend and looks to once again have a car capable of contending for the win. When I see a Group B driver with a shot a realistic shot at the win, I jump on it.
Group C – Alex Bowman
It hasn’t been the best start to the season for Bowman, but I can’t help but remember the fall race here in 2016 when he led 194 laps and finished sixth at ISM while subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. I’m not expecting him to contend for the win this weekend, but after a Top 5 qualifying run, he has by far the most upside among the Group C options. A Top 10 finish isn’t out of the question.