Weeknight racing returns when the Cup Series visits Martinsville Speedway for Wednesday night's Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500. The flat, paperclip-shaped oval will be the second short track event of the 2020 season, and for Fantasy NASCAR owners, it is another opportunity to get a little creative with their lineups.
As we saw a couple of weeks ago at Bristol, short tracks can lead to some bumping and banging and higher attrition. Yes, Brad Keselowski ultimately won the race, but Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace ended up in the Top 10, and Ryan Preece, John Hunter Nemechek, Michael McDowell finished in the Top 15. Even Daniel Suarez and Timmy Hill ended up in the Top 20.
The moral of the story is that you don't always need a lineup full of big names to post big scores, and in contests like Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game that limit the number of times you can use each driver, it is a golden opportunity to save starts from some of the elite options. I'll be trying to take advantage, especially in the DGG.
For Slingshot Fantasy Auto, the random draw based on owner points used for qualifying has once again limited the easy opportunities for place differential points. As a result, I decided to build around bigger names starting in the back half of the Top 10 while rounding out my lineup with mid-tier options with more differential upside.
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Keselowski led a massive 446 laps in his win in the spring race here last year, and he followed that up with a third-place run in the fall. He has finished in the Top 10 in the last eight races here, cracking the Top 5 seven times in that span and winning twice. Keselowski will start sixth Wednesday, so at the very least, the Top 10 streak should continue.
Short tracks are his wheelhouse, and Bowyer has finished in the Top 10 in four of his six starts at Martinsville with Stewart-Haas Racing, notching a dominant win in 2018. He picked up points in both stages and finished seventh in the spring race last year, and he finished fourth in Stage 1 last fall before a mechanical issue. Rolling off inside the Top 5, he could easily deliver 40-plus points.
Blaney has emerged as a force at Martinsville, logging four Top 10s and three Top 5s in the last five races. He notched Top 5 finishes in both races here a year ago, finishing in the Top 5 in all four stages and third or better in three of them. After winning the pole via the random draw, Blaney is in great position to win Stage 1 and challenge for the win. He could finish as the top scorer.
The five-time Martinsville winner remains one of the best in the business at the paperclip-shaped short track. Hamlin has reeled off three straight Top 5s here, and he earned points in all four stages across the two races in 2019, finishing third or better in three of the four. He has a little work to do after drawing the 12th starting spot, but it shouldn't take Hamlin long to get to the front.
Martin Truex Jr.
Truex has been locked in at Martinsville, notching four Top 5s in the last five races and posting a 3.6 average finish during that stretch. The last time the series visited the short track, Truex swept both stages and led 464 of the 500 laps on his way to a win. Starting fifth, he is in perfect position to pile up a bunch of stage points and contend for another win.
Garage Driver – Aric Almirola
I don’t use Almirola a lot in Fantasy Live, but with him starting on the front row, I think he is worth having available. He also started second at Martinsville last spring, and he went on to finish third and sixth in the two stages and ninth in the race. Almirola started in the Top 5 in the fall race here, finishing seventh and fifth in the two stages before crashing out. If Almirola turns the track position into double-digit stage points, I’ll likely swap him in and save a start from one of the bigger names in my lineup.
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Kyle Busch (A)
I thought about Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin for this spot, but I've got a good feeling about Kyle. Yes, he is winless in 2020, but he has six finishes of fourth or better in the last eight races, including three runner-up efforts. I also like that he posted the best green flag speed at Bristol a couple of weeks ago. Busch starts seventh Wednesday, and he has a 4.1 average finish and eight Top 5s in the last nine races at Martinsville. I expect a big performance.
Clint Bowyer (B)
I bet on Bowyer's short track prowess at Bristol, and it paid off to the tune of a runner-up finish. I am going back to the well at Martinsville where Bowyer has finished seventh or better in four of his six starts with Stewart-Haas Racing, winning the spring race in 2018. Bowyer can be frustratingly hit-and-miss at a lot of tracks, but he is a legit Top 5 option at Martinsville. I am going to try to take advantage.
Matt DiBenedetto (B)
DiBenedetto was able to deliver his best runs at road courses, short tracks and flat tracks last year, and Martinsville checks two of those boxes. His offseason move to Wood Brothers Racing, a satellite of Team Penske, has allowed him to take his performance to another level, and considering Penske's record at Martinsville, DiBenedetto could be a sleeping giant this weekend. I think he has legitimate Top 10 potential. If you want to go with a bigger name, Ryan Blaney would be my top pick.
John Hunter Nemechek (C)
Given his equipment, I think it is fair to say that Nemechek has been the biggest surprise from a loaded rookie class. He has been challenging for Top 15s on a routine basis since the series returned to action, and in the first short track race of the year, he delivered a 13-th-place finish at Bristol. I think he can manage
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Chase Elliott ($12,400)
Elliott has enjoyed success at flat tracks since jumping to the Cup level, and he has been fast all year. He was the runner-up at Martinsville last spring, grabbing 16 stage points in the process. Elliott started dead last in the fall race, but he still managed to earn points in Stage 1. Rolling off 11th Wednesday, he has as much stage point upside as any of the top options with some place differential points to top it off.
Denny Hamlin ($12,300)
Hamlin has shown a great blend of reliability and upside at Martinsville. He is a five-time winner here, and he has cracked the Top 12 in eight of his last 10 starts, reeling off three straight Top 5s. Starting 12th, Hamlin has as much differential upside as any of the Martinsville aces. He should be able to contend for the win while providing double-digit stage points and 10-plus differential points.
Jimmie Johnson ($10,800)
His resume at Martinsville includes nine trips to victory lane, but while he struggled in the two races here last year, Johnson has been much faster in 2020. He has finished 12th or better in seven of the 10 races, logging a third-place finish at Bristol. Johnson starts 21st, and I think he at least approaches 100 points with all the place differential points he has available.
Ryan Preece ($7,300)
Preece doesn't have the upside of Christopher Bell, but he's been solid at Martinsville, and the salary savings allow me to afford my preferred top options without completely punting my final spot. He cracked the Top 20 in both races here a year ago, and he had some of his best runs in 2019 at short tracks and flat tracks. Preece rolls off 28th Wednesday, and I think he has a decent shot of gaining 10-plus spots.
Ty Dillon ($7,100)
He doesn’t have the highest ceiling, but since he is starting back in 30th, it makes him a safe bet to gain some points in the place differential category. He has a 23.9 average finish in 2020, and he has a 21.0 average finish in six starts at Martinsville, cracking the Top 15 in two of his last three starts here. Worst-case scenario, I think he sneaks into the Top 25 and adds 10-plus differential points to his point total.