2020 Fantasy NASCAR Driver Preview: Corey LaJoie and Daniel Suarez
When Silly Season started to heat up, many people expected Daniel Suarez to replace Corey LaJoie in the Go Fas Racing No. 32 Ford. The rumors only picked up steam when it was announced that Suarez's former team, Stewart-Haas Racing, would be forming a technical alliance with Go Fas Racing, providing increased support and even some old chassis.
In the end, LaJoie ended up retaining his seat in the No. 32, leaving Suarez scrambling to find a ride. Thanks to some sponsorship dollars and a partnership with Toyota, Suarez eventually landed with Gaunt Brothers Racing, putting him behind the wheel of the No. 96 for the 2020 season.
Both drivers now find themselves with smaller teams that suddenly have more money and resources than ever before. For a driver like LaJoie, who has been toiling with underfunded organizations throughout his tenure in the Cup Series, it is his best opportunity to show he deserves a shot in a premier. On the flip side, Suarez will have to prove he can elevate a lower-tier team after failing to live up to expectations at both Joe Gibbs Racing and SHR.
It is a make-or-break season for both LaJoie and Suarez in 2020, but the question for fantasy owners is whether or not either driver can be a useful option in any format this year.
Corey LaJoie Fantasy Outlook
Casual NASCAR fans and Fantasy NASCAR owners may not know this, but LaJoie has put up some impressive numbers in lower series when given legitimate equipment. He was the runner-up in the K&N East Series in 2012, winning five times, and he won three of his five ARCA starts in 2013.
Since then, he has bounced around between multiple rides in multiple series, landing a full-time gig with Go Fas Racing in the Cup Series last year. He finished the year with a 25.9 average finish and a pair of Top 10s, and while those numbers don't jump off the page, a closer look suggests that LaJoie was actually an overachiever given the caliber of his equipment.
According to Motorsports Analytics, LaJoie finished 2019 tied for 21st in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), and he did it in a car that ranked 32nd in Central Speed. In other words, LaJoie was able to deliver better-than-expected results based on the speed of his cars, suggesting that his natural talent behind the wheel can elevate a race team.
I think it is also worth noting that his 25.9 average finish was better than the mark that Matt DiBenedetto posted in either of his seasons in the No. 32. We just saw last season what DiBenedetto was able to accomplish when given a decent ride, and as I already mentioned, SHR is upping its support of Go Fas for 2020. LaJoie should have more speed to work with.
I'm not expecting the same type of leap that DiBenedetto took in the No. 95 last year. Leavine Family Racing had more time to work with and develop competitive equipment prior to DiBenedetto coming on board. However, I do think LaJoie can become a staple of the Top 25 and begin challenging for Top 20s sooner rather than later.
Of all the drivers from the smaller, underfunded teams, LaJoie may be my favorite fantasy sleeper heading into the 2020 season. I would have no issues taking a chance on him as a source of cap relief in salary cap-based, season-long contests, and I think he could be a bargain at the DFS sites, especially early in the year before his salary starts to reflect what I expect to be a higher ceiling.
Daniel Suarez Fantasy Outlook
It can be frustrating for fans who just want to see the best drivers behind the wheel, but the bottom line in today's NASCAR is that money talks, and Suarez brings a lot of sponsorship dollars. This funding is the reason he landed a ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, and it is also the reason he then found a home at Stewart-Haas Racing despite lackluster results at JGR. Heck, he was close to re-signing with SHR despite continuing to underperform before co-owner Gene Haas decided to foot the bill to put Cole Custer in the No. 41.
With no seats available among the powerhouse teams, Suarez settled on the partnership with Gaunt Brothers. The team entered 15 races last year, and while Parker Kligerman did pick up Top 15s at both Daytona and Talladega, the No. 96 finished outside the Top 20 in its other 13 appearances, finishing outside the Top 25 in a dozen of those starts.
For his part, Suarez has posted a 17.0 average finish across three full seasons in the Cup Series, finishing on the lead lap in 65 of his 108 starts. His most consistent season was his rookie year when he logged 12 Top 10s, and last year, he set a career high with four Top 5s. Overall, Suarez has been a below average producer in some of the best equipment on the track.
Of course, money can cover up a lot of issues, and it will be interesting to see if Suarez is bringing enough to the table to eventually elevate the No. 96 team to the upper echelon of the smaller teams. I don't see that happening at all in 2020, and if he does start to show an uptick in performance, I wouldn't expect it until the second half of the year. At best, he could be a DFS lottery ticket at the superspeedways and road courses, and I think he struggles to crack the Top 30 most weeks.
Throw in the fact that this team doesn't even have a charter, and there could be a few occasions where Suarez has a legitimate chance to miss a race if he has any issues in qualifying. This makes it tough to use him in any draft-and-go, season-long format, even if he is available for a cheap price tag. I'll be surprised if Suarez finds his way on to any of my fantasy roster more than once or twice in 2020.