The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is back at Pocono Raceway this weekend for Sunday’s Gander RV 400, and the bad news for Fantasy NASCAR owners is that “The Tricky Triangle” could live up to its nickname.
Yes, you often see a lot of the same names pop up near the top of the leaderboard at Pocono, but for many season-long contests, including Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game, stage points can separate the good teams from the great ones. Unfortunately, predicting these stage points is easier said than done at Pocono.
Drivers who are running near the front are able to pit under green without losing a lap, and many opt to stop right before the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2, forfeiting stage points in favor of track position. This eventual winner of Sunday’s race will likely use this strategy, but from a fantasy standpoint, missing out on any stage points can put a dent in a driver’s value.
Back in June, Kyle Busch had by far the best car at Pocono, and he led a race-high 79 laps on his way to the win. However, he didn’t earn a single stage point in that race, and five of the drivers who finished sixth or better didn’t earn any stage points either. Yes, picking the winner is great, but you certainly aren’t maximizing your value out of Kyle Busch if you roster him in a race where he earns zero stage points.
With that in mind, I am not going to invest too heavily in the elite fantasy options this weekend for the Fantasy Live and Driver Group Game contests. Many of these top fantasy options are likely going to focus on the win, and there is a good chance going for the win will come at the expense of stage points. Instead, I am going to try to target drivers who can contend for Top 10s and will be more concerned with maximizing their points earned.
This isn’t an exact science, and a crew chief can decide to alter their race strategy at any point. Ideally, the middle-tier drivers who I roster will earn some stage points and deliver solid finishes, but at the very least, I should be able to avoid wasting any starts from the top-tier drivers.
If that wasn’t bad enough, NASCAR’s ridiculous inspection process has added another hurdle for us to deal with. There were nine drivers who failed post-qualifying inspection this morning, and these drivers will now be scored from the rear. I am going to take full advantage of these drivers in the Slingshot Fantasy Auto contest, but I am going to avoid them in Fantasy Live and the Driver Group.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
While Logano could certainly decide to go for the win this weekend, especially after qualifying on the front row, he may be thinking big picture. He is locked in a tight battle with Kyle Busch for the regular season championship, an honor that pays 15 playoff points. Back in the June here, Logano opted for stage points, finishing eighth in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2 before finishing seventh in the race. I’m betting he goes for the points to help his chances of claiming the regular season crown, and he is going to be my pick to win Stage 1.
I have more starts left with Jones than races remaining, so I can focus solely on his upside for this weekend’s race. He has four Top 10s and three Top 5s in five starts at Pocono, including a third-place finish earlier this year. Granted, Jones didn’t score any stage points in the June race here, but even if he doesn’t alter his pit strategy, I’ll take a Top 5 finish. Starting fourth with a car that was fast in practice, a Top 5 finish is exactly what I’m expecting.
With four starts left for Busch with six races left in the regular season, I think I can afford to use one up this weekend. He’s been one of the best at Pocono throughout his career, winning three times and finishing second on five other occasions. After a rash of inspection failures ahead of him, he will get to start sixth. Stage points should be there for the taking if he opts for that strategy, and I love his chances of a Top 10 finish.
Suarez has been inconsistent this year, but he has four Top 15s and three Top 10s in five starts at Pocono. In fact, he finished in the Top 10 in both stages here in June on his way to an eighth-place finish. Suarez moves up from 10th to seventh on the starting grid after the inspection failures, so he is positioned to make a run at some more stage points today.
His overall numbers at Pocono are nothing special, but Almirola has finished in the Top 10 in two of his three starts here since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, and he finished in the Top 5 in Stage 1 of the June race this season. On the heels of a third-place qualifying effort, more stage points and another solid finish seem well within reach this weekend.
Garage Driver – Denny Hamlin
With just three starts left for Hamlin, I don’t necessarily want to burn one up this weekend. That being said, I do think he has one of the best cars for today’s race, and he is now slated to start in the Top 10. With inspection failures dropping my preferred sleepers, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson, to the back, I needed a replacement. If Hamlin decides to go for stage points, he should be one of the top scorers, and I will have him ready to slide into my lineup. If he doesn’t earn any stage points, he can stay on my bench.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
Brad Keselowski (A)
I think Kyle Busch is the driver to beat, but despite having the best car and winning here in June, he didn’t earn any stage points because of his pit strategy. Keselowski was the runner-up in that same race, but he finished in the Top 5 in both stages. He also has seven Top 5s in the last eight races at Pocono. I just can’t risk using a start from Kyle Busch and ending up with zero stage points, and Keselowski has arguably the safest floor of any driver at Pocono.
Erik Jones (B)
I had planned to save a start from Jones this weekend, but after William Byron failed inspection, my hand was forced. It’s not the worst situation. After all, Jones has back-to-back Top 5s at Pocono, and he has had one of the best cars all weekend. Starting fourth, I am a little worried that he may skip out on stage points, short pit and try for the win, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has Top 5 upside.
Daniel Suarez (B)
He has run hot and cold all year, but Suarez has shown some promise at Pocono. He has an 11.2 average finish in his five starts at the track, logging three Top 10s. Suarez finished eighth at Pocono back in June, and he also earned points in both stages in that race. Starting seventh, a similar performance could be on tap Sunday.
Matt DiBenedetto (C)
DiBenedetto cracked the Top 20 at Pocono earlier this year, and he has taken his performance to another level in recent weeks. He has three Top 10s in the last five races this season, and he cracked the Top 10 in both practices this weekend and will now get to start 10th following inspection. I think he has Top 15 upside Sunday.
Fantasy Racing Online Slingshot Fantasy Auto
Kyle Larson ($10,700)
Larson has been a boom-or-bust driver at Pocono, and he is going to be a boom-or-bust option for my lineup. He has finished 12th or better in seven of his 10 starts here, but he has finished outside the Top 20 in three of his last four. Larson led 35 laps and won both stages in the June race at Pocono, but he crashed while running in the Top 5. He is already in a backup car this weekend after a practice crash, but even after the inspection problems for others, he still starts back in 23rd. That’s still a lot of differential upside for a driver with a Top 5 ceiling.
Ryan Blaney ($10,500)
He is the first of many inspection victims in my lineup. Blaney will have to start 30th today, but he has finished 12th or better in six of his seven starts at Pocono.
Jimmie Johnson ($10,000)
His recent numbers at Pocono haven’t been spectacular, but Johnson doesn’t need a spectacular run to be a great fantasy play now that he has to start 32nd. If he just ends up in the Top 15, we are talking about a big point total.
William Byron ($9,700)
Byron went from being one of my favorite plays in Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game to being a must-own option in this contest. Now starting 31st after failing inspection, Byron could easily gain 20-plus spots today. He has shown speed all weekend, and he will be looking for his third straight Top 10 at Pocono.
Chris Buescher ($7,800)
He was already an excellent option in this scoring system, but failing inspection gives Buescher an extra five spots to gain. He now rolls off 33rd, and he has gained at least 10 spots and finished in the Top 20 in three of his last five races at Pocono. Back in June, Buescher gained 10 spots and finished 14th.