The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for Sunday's GEICO 500. The race will be the first of the season at NASCAR's largest track and the second restrictor-plate event of 2018.
The restrictor plates are a total game-changer for NASCAR DFS, turning the typical strategy on its head. The impact of the normally all-important dominator categories is severely lessened by the pack racing at plate tracks like Talladega. Fastest laps are spread across almost every driver in the field, and the laps led category can be hard to pin down.
More importantly, the place differential category has proven to be the smartest and most effective category to build around at DraftKings for plate tracks. With the pack racing often triggering multiple, multi-car wrecks throughout the race and allowing drivers to move up and down the running order with ease, it is normal to see several drivers gain 20-plus spots in a race.
At Talladega last spring, four drivers who qualified outside the Top 20 finished in the Top 10. In the fall race at the track, four drivers who started outside the Top 25 finished in the Top 10, including 39th-place qualifier Gray Gaulding.
Not only will the place differential category produce a majority of the top scorers, but if you do pick a driver starting deep in the field and they wreck, you aren't going to instantly destroy your entire lineup. The same cannot be said if you pick drivers starting toward the front.
Needless to say, starting position means everything this weekend, so make sure to check back after qualifying for updated picks and lineup tips. In the meantime, here is a closer look at the drivers I'll have my eye on for Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega.
Brad Keselowski ($10,700)
I'll be loading up most of my lineups with drivers starting deep in the field, but Keselowski is one guy I'll consider no matter where he qualifies. He leads all active drivers with six restrictor-plate wins, and five of those have come at Talladega. His 327 laps led in the last 10 plate races are the most of any driver, and he has led 30-plus laps in five of the last eight.
Denny Hamlin ($10,500)
Hamlin always seems to find his way to the front at the plate tracks, and he has actually led multiple laps in nine of the lat 10 races. He finished third in this year's Daytona 500 and sixth at Talladega last fall, and Hamlin should be on the short list of frontrunners this weekend. Cross your fingers that he has some differential upside after qualifying.
Joey Logano ($10,300)
He is a two-time winner at Talladega and a three-time winner at plate tracks, and Logano has shown an impressive blend of reliability and upside. Over the last 10 restrictor-plate races, his seven Top 10s and five Top 5s are both the most in the series. He's also led double-digit laps in four of the last six plate events, leading 59 laps and finishing fourth at Talladega last fall. If he starts deeper in the field, he's a no-brainer pick. Even if he qualifies well, Logano will be in play in GPPs.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($9,100)
Stenhouse is the defending winner of this weekend's race, and he has consistently been one of the fastest drivers at the plate tracks recently. He has four Top 5s in the last seven races, winning twice in that span and leading laps in four straight. He tends to qualify well, which would limit his appeal to GPPs, but Stenhouse should have a shot at the win this weekend.
Ryan Blaney ($9,000)
His stock was already on the rise at the plate tracks, and joining Team Penske seems to have taken his performance to another level. He led a race-high 118 laps and finished seventh in the Daytona 500, and he is the cheapest way to get some exposure to Team Penkse's impressive restrictor-plate equipment.
Aric Almirola ($8,100)
He nearly won the Daytona 500 to open the year, but despite being dumped by Austin Dillon, Almirola still added to his impressive record at plate tracks. His 11.3 average finish over the last 10 plate races is the best in the series, and he has gained an average of 13.1 spots per race. He also has five straight finishes of 11th or better, including back-to-back Top 5s at Talladega.
Jamie McMurray ($7,800)
McMurray has a boom-or-bust record at the plate tracks, but with four wins under his belt, his upside is intriguing. He has finished in the Top 5 and gained more than 20 spots in two of his last three starts at Talladega, so if he starts deep in the field, you will want a little exposure.
Paul Menard ($7,200)
Believe it or not, Menard has scored the most driver points over the last six restrictor-plate races. He hasn't finished outside the Top 15 in that span, and his four Top 10s are tied for the most in the series. Menard also owns an average place differential of +10.7 in those same six races, so he's been the total package.
Ryan Newman ($6,900)
He's in the middle of a hot stretch at the plate tracks, logging six Top 15s in the last 10 races and reeling off three straight finishes of eighth or better. Newman gained 25 spots and finished second at Talladega last fall, so the upside is there if he starts deeper in the field.
Trevor Bayne ($6,800)
His teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., gets most of the attention, but Bayne has been decent at the plate tracks himself. He has finished 17th or better in six of his last eight starts, finishing as high as third twice in that stretch.
Darrell Wallace Jr. ($6,500)
Two starts isn't much to go on, but Wallace gained 16 spots and finished in the Top 15 in his first Cup start at a plate track last July, and he finished second in this year's Daytona 500. If he starts deeper in the field, it might be worth finding out if Wallace's hot start at the plate tracks can continue.
David Ragan ($6,300)
Ragan crashed out of the Daytona 500, but he still owns an impressive resume at the restrictor-plate tracks. He has finished in the Top 10 and gained at least 19 spots in three of the last four plate races, and he owns Cup wins at both Daytona and Talladega. If he starts in the back once again, he could post a big score.
Chris Buescher ($6,100)
Buescher has been enjoying a nice stretch at the plate tracks, posting an 11.8 average finish and gaining an average of 16.3 spots in his last four starts. He has finished 17th or better in all four races, gaining no fewer than 11 spots.
A.J. Allmendinger ($5,900)
The road course ace has quietly emerged as one of the best DFS options at plate tracks. He has cracked the Top 15 in six of his last eight starts, gaining an average of 13.9 spots per race in that stretch. Allmendinger always seems to start in the back half of the field at the plate tracks, and if that trend continues this weekend, he should continue to be an excellent DFS play.
Gray Gaulding ($5,100)
He finished ninth at Talladega last fall, and in three career restrictor-plate starts, he has never finished outside the Top 20 and has gained no fewer than 14 spots. Gaulding owns a series-best 20.4 average place differential at the plate tracks, so while you might not need the salary cap space, he could still be a worthwhile play at DraftKings this weekend.