It has been a chaotic time for everyone the last couple of months, but NASCAR fans and Fantasy NASCAR fans will get to take a small step back towards normalcy when the Cup Series returns to action this weekend. The egg-shaped oval will host Sunday's The Real Heroes 400, and if "The Lady in Black" wasn't tough enough on its own, the drivers will take the green flag without qualifying or any practice time.
While there is no telling how the time off will treat each race team, we do have a four-race sample, three races if you throw out Daytona, to look back on when building lineups. Still, it somewhat feels like starting the 2020 fantasy season over, and my strategy this weekend reflects that to a degree.
I wanted to stick with "safer" options this weekend, especially in Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game. Targeting the big names is obviously the simplest way to accomplish this, but I paid particular attention to three things when deciding on my picks this weekend. I looked at drivers who were running well in 2020 prior to the break, and I looked at drivers who have had a history of success at Darlington. Given the rules package that was introduced last year, I also placed added emphasis on drivers who had strong showings in the 2019 Darlington race.
For Slingshot Fantasy Auto, the owner points-based tiers used for the random draw have created some opportunities to secure chunks place differential points, and I am hoping to take advantage. I will be anchoring the top of my lineup with a couple of drivers who should contend for the win and pile up stage points, but I have three drivers starting in the middle of the pack or deeper.
Overall, I am mixing in a few drivers who have been fast through the first four races but mediocre at Darlington and vice versa. However, I am building all my lineups around drivers who check all three of the boxes I mentioned. This is an unprecedented time in NASCAR with an unprecedented set of rules. I don't think it is the time to get too crazy with your fantasy picks.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Consistency is the name of the game for Harvick. He was the only driver to finish in the Top 10 in each of the first four races of 2020, and since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing, he has never finished outside the Top 10 at Darlington. Harvick has a 4.2 average finish in his six starts here with SHR, notching five Top 5s and finishing fourth last season. He should be able to hang near the front all afternoon after drawing the No. 6 starting spot.
Busch led 118 laps and finished third at Darlington last year while also chipping in 17 stage points. He also owns a 6.4 average finish over his last 10 starts here, finishing no worse than 11th in that stretch. Busch had posted back-to-back Top 3 finishes prior to the break, and he will start fourth Sunday. Plus, I can' think of a better driver to have on my team heading for a race where there won't be any practice.
Keselowski checks all the aforementioned boxes for me this weekend. He showed consistent speed in the four races before the break, and he has been strong at Darlington. Keselowski has led double-digit laps and finished in the Top 10 in four of his last five starts here, winning the 2018 race and finishing fifth a year ago. Landing the pole from the qualifying lottery should help his cause.
He is probably the riskiest option among my starters, but Jones has been nothing short of outstanding at Darlington. He has compiled a 4.7 average finish in three starts here, logging a pair of Top 5s and leading 79 laps in a win last season. Jones has also scored points in five of the six stages in his three trips to Darlington, averaging 9.7 stage points per race. Two other drivers with high ceilings that could be worth the gamble are Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman. Neither has had a ton of success at Darlington, but both drivers were fast prior to the break.
His career numbers at Darlington include two wins, 11 Top 10s and a 7.8 average finish in 14 starts, and Hamlin has six finishes of fourth or better in the last 10 races alone. He also had one of the strongest cars in the 2019 event, cracking he Top 5 in both stages. Another driver to consider is Kurt Busch. He has a great record at Darlington and gobbled up 19 stage points a year ago.
Garage Driver – Jimmie Johnson
I thought about Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. for this spot, but Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports had shown plenty of speed before the layoff, and he starts inside the Top 10. The seven-time champ also had a great run going at Darlington last year before being caught up in a wreck. Johnson nabbed 11 stage points and was running fourth at the time of the incident.
Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet Driver Group Game
Kevin Harvick (A)
There are a lot of strong options for the Group A spot, but I am going to go with the high floor of Harvick. He is the only driver with Top 10s in all four races this year, and he has never finished outside the Top 10 at Darlington with Stewart-Haas Racing. In fact, he has five Top 5s and a 4.2 average finish in six starts here with SHR.
Erik Jones (B)
His 2020 season wasn't exactly off to a fast start, but I can't ignore his numbers at Darlington. Not only did Jones win here last year, but he has a 4.7 average finish in three career starts and has never finished worse than eighth.
Jimmie Johnson (B)
I debated between Johnson and Kurt Busch, and while Busch has been much better at Darlington in recent years, I like the speed the No. 48 team has shown this season. Plus, Johnson had a strong run going at Darlington last year, finishing second and seventh in the two stages before being caught up in a multi-car wreck while running fourth.
Tyler Reddick (C)
Given his strong numbers at Darlington, it is really tempting to go with Matt Kenseth right out of the gate. However, I think the smart move is to take a wait-and-see approach with the veteran, who could end up being the best Group C option when all is said and done. In the meantime, I will roll with Reddick, the Group C driver who showed the most upside through the first four races. I'm not a huge fan of his qualifying draw that has him starting 29th, but he's been a legitimate Top 15 contender in every race, and he had a Top 5 run going at Phoenix before a tire issue.
Fantasy Racing Online Slingshot Fantasy Auto
Kevin Harvick ($12,500)
I went back and forth between Harvick and Kyle Busch to lead my lineup, but while both have been strong at Darlington, Harvick has been a little more consistent in 2020. I'm hoping he ends up in victory lane, but at the very least, I expect him to grab plenty of stage points and run in the Top 5.
Chase Elliott ($11,400)
I entertained lineup combinations that would include Martin Truex Jr. or Denny Hamlin, but Elliott showed a ton of speed out of the gate prior to the break. Without any practice, the raw speed the No. 9 team has shown should come in handy, and I think a Top 5 finish and double-digit stage points are definitely on the table. Starting 11th, he even has some place differential points to gain.
Erik Jones ($11,200)
Kurt Busch was the other driver I considered for this spot, but Jones also starts in the middle of the pack, and he has never had a bad run at Darlington. He's finished eighth or better in all three starts, posting a 4.7 average finish and winning here last season. Rolling off 20th, I think his floor is a Top 10 finish and 20-plus place differential points.
Tyler Reddick ($8,100)
I know he has never made a Cup start at Darlington, but Reddick was impressive prior to the postponement, finishing 18th at Las Vegas and 11th at Auto Club before a cut tire ruined a potential Top 5 effort at Phoenix. The qualifying draw has him starting 29th, and I think he can at least work his way inside the Top 20, if not challenge for a Top 15. Look for Reddick to pile up some differential points.
John Hunter Nemechek ($6,800)
Nemechek might not have much of a ceiling, but he has cracked the Top 25 in six of his seven Cup starts, including all four starts this year. Drawing the No. 34 starting spot gives him a great shot at gaining double-digit spots. Nemechek should deliver a safe, solid score for a bargain price.