The end of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is fast approaching, and as we return to ISM Raceway this weekend, just two races remain. Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at Phoenix will determine the four drivers who will compete for the championship next weekend at Homestead, but Fantasy NASCAR owners have their own championships to worry about.
If you read my previews and rankings from earlier in the week, then you that I advocate more of an individualized approach to season-long fantasy leagues in the closing weeks of the year. Understanding your position within your leagues is the first step to deciding what strategy to use this weekend.
I’m positioned above the 98th percentile in Fantasy Live and Slingshot, so I am not looking to take any crazy risks at this point in the year. On the flip side, I am just above the 95th percentile for the Driver Group Game, so I am going to be a little more aggressive with my picks in this contest. Since I know not every fantasy owners is facing the same circumstances, I’ve included potential alternatives in my commentary for my picks.
Given the importance of track position at Phoenix, especially with this year’s rules package, I’m leaning heavily on drivers starting closer to the front of the field. This is especially true in Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game because I believe track position will translate to stage points, especially in Stage 1. Obviously, I give preference to drivers who have run well at Phoenix in the past and at flatter tracks in general.
For the Slingshot game, I am always looking for stronger options starting deeper in the field, even at a track like Phoenix where passing can be brutal. However, I will take a proven stud lurking just outside the Top 10 over a midrange option starting just outside the Top 20. I think the potential for stage points and a stronger finish will outscore the extra place differential potential more often than not.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Kevin Harvick (Playoff)
His record at Phoenix speaks for itself. He is a nine-time winner at the track, and in 11 starts here with Stewart-Haas Racing, he has five wins and an incredible 3.27 average finish. Since NASCAR introduced stage racing, Harvick has earned points in nine of the 10 segments of Phoenix, scoring a series-leading 76 stage points. After showing elite speed in practice and qualifying seventh, Harvick looks poised to continue his Phoenix dominance this weekend. If you want to fade what will be a popular play in Harvick, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott both appear to have strong cars and are in a must-win situation this weekend.
Kyle Busch (Playoff)
I know he hasn’t been his dominant self the last couple of months, but he grabbed the pole for Sunday’s race, and he has owned Phoenix recently. Busch has eight straight Top 10s here, logging seven Top 5s in that span and winning back-to-back races. He has also led more than 100 laps in four of the last five Phoenix races, leading 177 laps in his win back in March. He leads all drivers with three stage wins at Phoenix, and I think he could add at least one more this weekend and potentially complete a three-peat.
Brad Keselowski (Non-Playoff)
He’s actually been a little boom or bust at Phoenix, but Keselowski was the runner-up in the fall race here a year ago, and he is usually one of the best in the business at flat tracks. Starting 12th, he should be in position for stage points in no time, and his ceiling is simply higher than most of the non-playoff options. I like Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola as high-floor alternatives.
Clint Bowyer (Non-Playoff)
Bowyer has been tough to trust this year, but I thought he showed some of the best long-run speeds among non-playoff options, and he could easily move into position for stage points after qualifying 13th. He’s also been solid at Phoenix since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, finishing 13th or better in four of his five starts and notching an 11th-place finish in the March race earlier this year. If you are looking for a sleeper, Matt DiBenedetto showed some serious muscle on the practice sheets.
Garage Driver – Denny Hamlin (Playoff)
He showed some of the best speeds during practice Friday, especially on longer runs, and he turned in a third-place effort in qualifying Saturday. I could see Hamlin forfeiting stage points in order to focus on the race win, so I’ll start him on the bench and see how things play out.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
Kyle Busch (A)
I went back and forth between Busch and Kevin Harvick, and while both appear to have Top 5 cars, Busch is on the pole and will likely be more inclined to grab stage points as he tries to protect his point cushion. Plus, he has won both races at Phoenix since the start/finish line was relocated, and he has seven straight Top 10s at the track overall, logging seven Top 5s in that stretch.
Denny Hamlin (B)
He has to have a must-win attitude going into Sunday’s race, and Hamlin appears to have the speed to get the job done. Hamlin qualified third, and he looked like he had the car to beat during final practice. At worst, he should deliver some stage points and back up the Top 5 finish he had at Phoenix back in March.
Ryan Blaney (B)
Blaney had an impressive run at Phoenix in March, winning Stage 1 and finishing third after leading 94 laps. He also ranks second with 69 stage points scored at Phoenix, earning points in nine of the 10 stages. Blaney has shown a ton of speed all weekend, especially on long runs, and he qualified in the Top 10. If you can afford to play it safe or simply don’t have starts left from the top options in this tier, Ryan Newman should make a reliable alternative. He has finished 12th or better in 10 of the last 12 Phoenix races.
Matt DiBenedetto (C)
DiBenedetto and Chris Buescher have been the best Group C options this year, and I have one start left from each. Buescher has been solid at the 1.5-mile ovals all year, so I’m saving him for the finale at Homestead. Meanwhile, DiBenedetto has emerged as a Top 15 threat at just about every track, and he has finished 16th or better in six of the seven races leading into Phoenix. He also showed Top 5 speed on long runs during practice and qualified a respectable 16th. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up in the Top 10 Sunday.
Fantasy Racing Online Slingshot Fantasy Auto
Kevin Harvick ($13,100)
With most of the big names starting towards the front, I wanted to anchor my lineup with a driver who had a little differential upside and a chance to contend for the win. Starting seventh, the nine-time Phoenix winner checks both boxes.
Brad Keselowski ($11,200)
Keselowski has Top 5 potential whenever he gets behind the wheel, especially at a flat track. Starting 12th, he also has more place differential upside than just about any big name this weekend. I think Keselowski can a strong finish, some stage points and double-digit bonus points for spots gained.
Ryan Blaney ($10,900)
He had an excellent run at Phoenix in March when he won Stage 1 and ended up finishing third in the race. Based on his practice times, Blaney appears to have one of the cars to beat again this weekend. Compared to the other frontrunners for the win, he also has a little place differential upside after qualifying 10th.
Matt DiBenedetto ($8,200)
Austin Dillon starting outside the Top 25 caught my eye, but even with DiBenedetto qualifying up in 16th, I decided to go with the driver of the No. 95. He put on a show during Friday’s practices, and he legitimately looks like a threat for a Top 5. At the very least, I think he can deliver a Top 15.
Ryan Preece ($6,500)
I thought about Ty Dillon, but the added savings with Preece allows me to afford Harvick and a couple of Penske drivers. Starting 25th, he has some place differential points to gain, and he has been running better of late. Preece has cracked the Top 20 in four of the last five races, and he has finished 23rd or better in six straight starts.