The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course this weekend, and if you have been playing season-long Fantasy NASCAR, Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 figures to be one of the toughest tests remaining on the schedule.
With only one race under their belts at the Roval, drivers are still trying to figure out the best way to attack the 2.28-mile road course. It is also the first elimination race in the playoffs, and the added pressure will likely lead to some desperate moves on the part of drivers and crew chiefs. Throw in the fact that layout of the Roval is a lot more unforgiving to mistakes than the layouts of the other two road courses, and you shouldn’t be surprised if the attrition is a little higher than usual this weekend.
Last year, track position proved to be crucial as the top eight finishers all started in the Top 10. However, crashes did play a role in those results. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski all started outside the Top 10 but had climbed to the Top 5 before being caught up in wrecks. Meanwhile, you also had five drivers who started 27th or worse finishes 16th or better. In other words, I am not writing off drivers who are starting deeper in the field, especially in the Slingshot Fantasy Auto contest that rewards/punishes drivers based on gaining/losing spots.
For Fantasy Live, it is going to be business as usual for me for the final race of the opening round. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch delivered huge point totals for me at Richmond, and I am going back to the well Sunday at the Roval. Jimmie Johnson also remains a staple of my lineup, and until we see which four drivers are eliminated this weekend, he’s still the class of the non-playoff options.
I got a little creative with my Driver Group Game picks this weekend. I am taking advantage of a road course race to use a Group C sleeper, and I went a little aggressive with my Group B plays, hoping to get a couple of strong finishes out of some high-risk, high-reward options in that tier.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Martin Truex Jr. (Playoff)
He was in position to win at the Roval last year before being spun from the lead on the final lap, but Truex still has three wins and two second-place finishes in the last six road course races. He has been in a league of his own at the road courses, and even though he has to start at the back, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him pick up the win to sweep all three races in the first round of the playoffs.
Kyle Busch (Playoff)
Busch starts back in 17th, but he started outside the Top 10 at the Roval last year and ended up posting the second-best green flag speed. He also leads all drivers with eight Top 10s and an 8.0 average finish in the last 10 road course races. This race could be wild, and I’ll take my chances with Busch’s high floor. If you are looking to go against the grain with some contrarian picks to try to gain ground, William Byron from the pole has plenty of upside. Kurt Busch is also an excellent road racer and finished in the Top 5 in both stages and in the race at the Roval last year.
Jimmie Johnson (Non-Playoff)
He has opened the playoffs with finishes of 11th and 10th, and Johnson had one of the strongest cars at the Roval last year. He finished sixth in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2 before ultimately finishing eighth after spinning while trying to pass Martin Truex Jr. for the lead on the final lap. Starting fourth, he’s in great position to earn a bunch of stage points again Sunday. The other driver I considered for this spot was Daniel Suarez, who has quietly finished 11th or better in five of the last six races coming into the Roval and qualified in the Top 15.
Matt DiBenedetto (Non-Playoff)
Of all the drivers I decided to roster this weekend, DiBenedetto might have been the easiest choice. He finished 13th at the Roval last year while driving the No. 32 machine, and he has been a legitimate Top 5 driver at the road courses for the No. 95 team this season. DiBenedetto finished fourth and posted the fourth-best driver rating at Sonoma, and he finished sixth while posting the ninth-best average running position and 11th-best driver rating at Watkins Glen.
Garage Driver – Clint Bowyer (Playoff)
Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott have been excellent at road courses, but Bowyer is no slouch in his own right, finishing 11th or better in six of his seven road course starts with Stewart-Haas Racing. He has four Top 5 finishes in that stretch, including a third-place run at the Roval last year when he also cracked the Top 5 in both stages. Rolling off from inside the Top 5 Sunday, he could be near the front all day long once again.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
Martin Truex Jr. (A)
Starting at the rear is far from ideal, but stage points are going to be tough to predict anyway, and I still believe that Truex has the best car this weekend. Don’t forget that Truex has three wins and two second-place finishes in the last six road races alone, and it could easily be four wins had he not been spun from the lead on the final lap at the Roval last year.
Ryan Blaney (B)
I have five starts remaining from Blaney, so while the Roval figures to be one of the more unpredictable races, I don’t mind gambling on Blaney’s upside, especially after he qualified in the Top 10. Not only is he the defending winner here, but he has three straight Top 5 finishes at road courses and six finishes of 12th or better in his last seven starts.
Clint Bowyer (B)
Bowyer has been a volatile fantasy option this year, but his ceiling is at its highest at road courses and short tracks. He has finished 11th or better in all but one of his seven road course starts with Stewart-Haas Racing, and he has four Top 5s, including a third-place run at the Roval last year. After qualifying fifth, I think Bowyer could be headed for another Top 5 finish and double-digit stage points.
Michael McDowell (C)
It was tempting to go with Matt DiBenedetto for this spot, but I only have a couple of start left from him and the other Group C stud, Chris Buescher. I want to save Buescher for the 1.5-mile ovals, and with DiBenedetto showing a Top 15 floor with Top 10 upside on a regular basis, and I think the gap between him and the other Group C options is only going to be wider at other tracks. McDowell is an experienced road racer in his own right, and he has finished 18th or better in six of his last eight road course starts, including an 18th-place run at the Roval last season.
Fantasy Racing Online Slingshot Fantasy Auto
Denny Hamlin ($12,500)
Hamlin starts 28th in a backup car, but he gained 15 spots and finished 12th at the Roval last year. I think that type of performance is his floor this weekend. After all, he has finished 13th or better in nine straight road course starts, and he is tied for the series lead with six Top 5s in that stretch. Hamlin should pile up differential points.
Chase Elliott ($12,000)
While the other three Hendrick cars qualified in the Top 5, Elliott is starting back in 19th Sunday. Given his practice speeds and his recent road course results, I expect him to join his teammates at the front sooner rather than later. Elliott finished sixth at the Roval last year and has posted back-to-back wins at Watkins Glen. A Top 5 finish and 30-plus differential points could be on tap.
Ryan Newman ($9,500)
Newman qualified back in 24th, but for most of the year, he’s been turning mid-pack qualifying efforts into solid finishes. He gained 18 spots and finished 11th in the inaugural race at the Roval last year, and I think his floor starts at a Top 15 and 20 place differential points this weekend.
Matt DiBenedetto ($8,800)
This is a lot to pay for DiBenedetto, but I think he will be worth it. He starts 18th, but he has finished fourth and sixth in the two road course events this season. More importantly, he gained 15 spots at Sonoma and 14 spots at Watkins Glen, and he also gained 15 spots at the Roval last year. DiBenedetto should be able to exploit the place differential category.
Michael McDowell ($7,100)
I thought about going with his teammate, Matt Tifft, and then swapping Chase Elliott for Kyle Busch, but McDowell has been a proven Top 20 driver at the road courses. He finished 18th at the Roval last year, and he has finished 18th or better in six of his last eight road course starts.