While no race can match the aura and prestige of the Daytona 500, that doesn’t change the fact that the season opener is an absolutely terrible predictor of what to expect during the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.
The real racing begins this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 will be our first chance to see which drivers and teams will have the raw speed to beat to open the year. For Fantasy NASCAR owners, your No. 1 goal over the coming weeks should be to figure which drivers are going be your anchors, which middle-tier drivers could be poised to make a leap, and which drivers are going to disappoint.
In the meantime, you want to be able to post solid scores to stay in the hunt in your respective leagues, and in order to do this, I like to lean on the bigger names. While the pecking order at the top of the Cup Series does change, guys like Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are typically good for a Top 10 on a bad week and are usually battling for Top 5s.
Yes, every start from these high-end options is precious in NASCAR Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game, but sticking with the drivers who have high floors and high ceilings while we figure out the 2020 hierarchy allows you to avoid having to dig yourself a huge hole.
Once we have a better feel for what to expect on the track, we can start mixing in starts from the middle-tier options and sleepers. Until then, I recommend a smart, conservative approach.
1. Kevin Harvick
He was arguably the most consistent performer at the mile-and-a-half tracks in 2019, scoring a series-best 443 points and logging eight Top 10s in the 11 races. Harvick also led a series-best 590 laps in those starts, leading 40-plus laps seven times. He led a race-high 88 laps and finished fourth at Las Vegas in March, and he led 47 laps in a runner-up effort in the fall. As we start to get an idea of what to expect in 2020, I’m confident building around Harvick in all contests this weekend.
2. Kyle Busch
While he didn’t have his most dominant year at the 1.5-mile ovals in 2019, Busch still managed to tie for the series lead with eight Top 10s in the 11 races while ranking second in laps led. Busch also had five finishes of third or better in those starts, including a third-place run at Las Vegas in March. As we undergo a bit of a feeling out process to start the year, I’ll take my chances with the best driver in NASCAR.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
There are some question marks as he breaks in a new crew chief, but Truex has been one of the premier drivers at the mile-and-a-half ovals for several years. In 2019, he recorded the best driver rating in the series at the 1.5-mile tracks, tying for the series lead with eight Top 10s and scoring the third-most points. Truex also won the fall race at Las Vegas I don’t see that speed suddenly going away.
4. Joey Logano
Logano is the defending winner of this weekend’s race, and he was strong in both Las Vegas races a year ago. After leading 86 laps in the win, he came back in the fall and led a race-high 105 laps and finished in the Top 10. Logano is riding a streak of eight straight Top 10s at Vegas, and he has led laps in every race in that span, leading 25 or more laps seven times and 40-plus laps six times.
5. Brad Keselowski
He was hot and cold at the mile-and-a-half tracks last year, but Keselowski was also one of just three drivers to win multiple races, and he tied for the series lead with five Top 5s in the 11 races. He’s also been incredibly reliable at Las Vegas. Keselowski has reeled off nine straight finishes of seventh or better at the track, winning three times and finishing second and third in the two races last season.
6. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin was a Top 10 scorer at the mile-and-a-half tracks last season, and in addition to ranking in the Top 5 in laps led in those 11 races, he was also one of just three drivers who picked up multiple wins. Coming off what was arguably the best all-around season of his career, I’m expecting Hamlin to remain a force at the 1.5-mile ovals in 2020.
7. Chase Elliott
While he wasn’t consistently dominant at the 1.5-mile tracks last season, Elliott was a steady performer. He cracked the Top 15 in nine of the 11 races, picking up four Top 5s. Elliott was solid in both races at Las Vegas, finishing ninth in the March event and leading 12 laps and finishing fourth in the fall. He should have a Top 10 floor this weekend.
8. Erik Jones
Jones is one of the most underrated performers at the 1.5-mile tracks, and last year, he tied for the series lead with eight Top 10s in the 11 races. He actually finished seventh or better in seven of those starts, finishing fourth or better four times. I love him as a Group B option in the Driver Group Game this weekend.
9. Ryan Blaney
Luck wasn’t always on his side at the 1.5-mile tracks last year, but after finishing outside the Top 20 in the first four races, Blaney finished 13th or better in six of the final seven. He has also been stout at Las Vegas with Team Penske, finishing in the Top 5 in three of his four starts. He’s a high-risk, high-reward Group B option for the DGG, but the Top 5 potential is real.
10. Alex Bowman
Bowman emerged as a surprise force at the 1.5-mile tracks in 2019, finishing the year with a 9.3 average finish and six Top 10s in the 11 races. He finished in the Top 20 in all 11 starts, finishing 11th or better eight times and picking up a win at Chicagoland. Bowman should be on your radar as a Top 10 threat and a potential option in the DGG and Fantasy Live this weekend.
11. Kyle Larson
Larson has been strong at Las Vegas throughout his career, finishing 12th or better in six of his eight starts and finishing third or better three times. On the flip side, he had a rollercoaster season at the 1.5-mile tracks in 2019, and while he improved overall as the year went on, I am still likely to take a wait-and-see approach with Larson in season-long contests early on in 2020.
12. Kurt Busch
The veteran will have to slow down eventually, but I wouldn’t count on it happening in 2020. Last year, Busch cracked the Top 15 in eight of the 11 races at 1.5-mile tracks, logging seven Top 10s and picking up the win at Kentucky. Busch led 23 laps and finished fifth at Vegas in March, and at the very least, he should be able to challenge for a Top 10 this weekend.
13. William Byron
Byron made huge strides overall in his sophomore season, especially at the mile-and-a-half tracks. He cracked the Top 20 in 10 of the 11 races, logging five Top 10s and leading laps in eight of those starts. Byron finished 16th and seventh in the two races at Vegas last year, leading a combined 27 laps. He could be a great Group B sleeper in the Driver Group Game this weekend.
14. Clint Bowyer
He struggled to find consistent speed at the 1.5-mile ovals last year, but Bowyer’s upside was undeniable. He had five finishes of sixth or better in the 11 races, leading double-digit laps three times. Bowyer could be a sneaky Top 5 option this weekend, but he is probably best suited as a GPP-only option at the DFS sites.
15. Aric Almirola
Almirola isn’t going to be a game-changer for a fantasy lineup, but he does offer a reliable floor. He only had one Top 5 in the 11 races at 1.5-mile ovals last year, but he finished 16th or better in nine of those starts. Almirola finished seventh and 13th in two starts at Vegas in 2019, and he’s a safe bet to land in the Top 15 again this weekend.
16. Jimmie Johnson
The seven-time champ has seen his numbers plummet over the last couple of seasons, but he did manage respectable results at the 1.5-mile tracks in 2019. He ended up with seven Top 15s in the 11 races, and he even managed five Top 10 finishes. I don’t see his Top 5 upside returning in 2020, but Johnson should be able to challenge for a Top 15 this weekend.
17. Chris Buescher
Buescher switched teams this offseason, so it remains to be seen how his performance will be impacted. Still, he is coming off a solid year at the 1.5-mile tracks that saw him post a 14.3 average finish and crack the Top 20 in all 11 races. Graduating to Group B kills his value in the DGG, but Buescher could again be a useful source of cap relief at the DFS sites.
18. Ross Chastain
While the timetable for his return to the track remains unclear, the fact that Ryan Newman was able to walk out of the hospital after that nasty wreck at Daytona is nothing short of incredible. Chastain has been tabbed to sub in the No. 6 Ford this weekend, and while it is an amazing opportunity for Chastain to show he deserves a premier Cup ride, it is also a golden opportunity for fantasy owners to find some unexpected value. I recommend using Chastain as a Group C option in the Driver Group Game, and he should be a steal at DraftKings.
19. Matt DiBenedetto
DiBenedetto was one of the Cinderella stories of 2019, but despite a breakout season, he was still a mediocre performer at the 1.5-mile tracks. He finished the year with a 23.7 average finish in the 11 races, failing to log a single Top 10. I think the offseason move to Wood Brothers Racing is going to help him at the mile-and-a-half tracks, but it’s not a bad idea to take a wait-and-see approach with DiBenedetto this weekend.
20. Christopher Bell
It’s time to see what Bell can do at the Cup level, and I am not expecting him to disappoint. Yes, a bit of a learning curve is to be expected with any rookie, but he will definitely be one of my Group C drivers in the DGG this weekend. I think he offers Top 15 upside.
21. Tyler Reddick
Reddick got his feet wet in the Cup Series with a couple of starts last year, and in his only start at a 1.5-mile track, he picked up a ninth-place finish at Kansas. The two-time defending XFINITY champ was able to take his race teams to another level, and I think he will eventually do the same for Richard Childress Racing. Reddick should be one of the best Group C plays in the Driver Group Game all season, starting this weekend at Las Vegas.
22. Cole Custer
While I am not sure that Custer’s raw ability is quite on the same level as that of fellow rookies Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick, his performance at the XFINITY level left no doubt that he knows how to take advantage of fast equipment. He lands in a great situation at Stewart-Haas Racing, and at the very least, Custer should compete for Top 20s on a weekly basis.
23. Austin Dillon
Mediocrity has been the story of Dillon’s career, and he delivered just that at the 1.5-mile tracks in 2019. He posted an 18.5 average finish in the 11 races, finishing 21st at Las Vegas in March. Expect a mid-pack showing from Dillon again this weekend, making him a qualifying-dependent DFS option, at best.
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Nobody has crashed more over the last couple of seasons than Stenhouse, and even at his best tracks, he’s a high-risk play. On the plus side, he did have decent numbers at the 1.5-mile ovals last year, cracking the Top 20 in nine of the 11 races and finishing 12th or better five times. I’m going to see how Stenhouse performs with JTG Daugherty Racing before considering him for my season-long lineups, but he could be a DFS lottery ticket this weekend.
25. John Hunter Nemechek
I’m a big believer in Nemechek’s ability, and I think he can overachieve for Front Row Motorsports in 2020. He made two starts at 1.5-mile tracks for the team last year while subbing for Matt Tifft, and he finished 21st at Texas and 23rd at Homestead. Nemechek could be a great source of cap relief at the DFS sites this weekend.
26. Ty Dillon
Dillon’s fantasy value has always been spotty, but his ceiling has been particularly limited at the 1.5-mile tracks. He posted a 24.3 average finish in the 11 races last year, finishing 25th at Las Vegas in March. A Top 25 is probably the best-case scenario for Dillon this weekend.
27. Ryan Preece
His rookie season left a lot to be desired, and while he made some small strides down the stretch, the 1.5-mile tracks were an Achilles’ heel. He recorded a 24.9 average finish over the 11 races, and he finished 25th and 27th in two starts at Las Vegas. I don’t see using him in any fantasy format this weekend.
28. Bubba Wallace
The lack of speed that Richard Petty Racing brings to the track most weeks is painfully evident at the mile-and-a-half tracks. Last year, Wallace finished 23rd or worse in all 11 races at the 1.5-mile ovals, and I’ll be surprised if he can crack the Top 25 this weekend at Las Vegas.
29. Michael McDowell
McDowell struggled at the 1.5-mile ovals throughout 2019, and he finished 30th and 24th in the two races at Las Vegas. A Top 25 finish isn’t out of the question, but at best, he’s a shot-in-the-dark DFS option.
30. Corey LaJoie
Challenging for a Top 25 was a good weekend for LaJoie last year, but his Go Fas Racing team purchased some cars from Stewart-Haas Racing this offseason. With improved equipment, I think LaJoie could be a surprise Top 20 threat, but I want to see how he performs with the SHR stuff before trusting in him in any of the season-long formats.