The Daily Fantasy Impact of NASCAR's 2020 Offseason Driver Changes
The NASCAR Cup Series is dealing with a whole boatload of off-the-track news threatening to overshadow the on-track racing this year. There's a new car coming in 2021, an altered aero package for short tracks and road courses, and no sponsor for the top series for the first time since 1970.
Thankfully, the incoming rookie class is a popcorn-worthy group good enough to distract from all of that.
The "Big Three" from the 2019 Xfinity Series season are all prepared to make the jump to the next level. Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, and Christopher Bell combined to win 21 of 33 Xfinity races and will now be in at least semi-competitive equipment in the Cup Series. All three are in their age-25 season or younger, making this the most intriguing rookie class since Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney came up together for the 2016 season.
But those aren't the only changes. Fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto is climbing into better equipment, Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are swapping rides, and Corey LaJoie figures to have stronger equipment in a new technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing. All of these moves are going to have a big impact on how we view drivers early on in daily fantasy NASCAR.
Because each driver's success in NASCAR depends as much on what's under the hood as what's under the helmet, it's important to dive into each of these changes and try to estimate what the impact will be. Eventually, salaries will account for each driver in their new equipment, but how should we adjust expectations early on? Let's check it out.
Christopher Bell to Leavine Family Racing
This move is twofold. First, Bell -- the sport's top prospect -- transitions into the Cup Series. Second, Leavine Family Racing will get increased support from Joe Gibbs Racing as part of their strengthened technical alliance, which began last year. We need to make sure we're accounting for both factors here.
The good thing for Bell is that DiBenedetto proved in the second half of last year that a quality driver can be competitive in this equipment. It just wasn't true at all track types.
DiBenedetto had a top-15 average running position in 14 races last year. Here's the track type on which those top-15 runs took place.
|Track Type||Top-15 Average Running Positions|
The two intermediate and banked courses where DiBenedetto had a top-15 average running position were Darlington and Texas. At all the other high-speed, non-drafting tracks, DiBenedetto struggled to keep pace. That's a condemnation of the car, and it's concerning when tracks fitting in those buckets will account for 17 of 36 races in 2020. When the driver mattered more, DiBenedetto shined.
If the alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing were to improve the speed in the Leavine Family Racing equipment, then Bell could pop up and be a factor at the intermediate and high-speed tracks. We just can't know for sure that will happen.
We should expect Bell to at least be competitive on the track types where DiBenedetto popped last year. In the Xfinity Series -- granted, it was in top-tier equipment with Joe Gibbs Racing -- Bell won in Bristol and Dover (short and high-banked), Iowa, Richmond, and New Hampshire (short and flat), and in Elkhart Lake (a road course). He's got the skills to be relevant there, and we should monitor his speeds in practice closely when the Cup Series is at similar venues. It's when they go places like Las Vegas and Fontana for the second and third races, respectively, that we should potentially take more of a wait-and-see approach.
The other thing to keep in mind with Bell is that he figures to be volatile. Even when you adjust for age, Bell's crash rate is about twice as high as you'd expect, according to David Smith of The Athletic. Volatility isn't a bad thing as long as a driver can hit the high end, so this doesn't mean we must avoid Bell, but it's worth considering.
Overall, the outlook for Bell is that we should monitor him at driver-centric tracks and hold skepticism when the equipment matters more. That could change if the amped-up technical alliance proves fruitful, but missing out on a pop week early on and then adjusting is not the end of the world.
Cole Custer to Stewart-Haas Racing
Not only is Custer the youngest of the rookie class as he sets up for his age-22 season, but he'll likely have the best equipment, as well. That may make him the most noteworthy guy in this class for DFS early on.
Custer is taking over for Daniel Suarez at Stewart-Haas Racing, a team that had Kevin Harvick in the championship race last year and controlled half of the cars in the final eight the year before. Last year was a step back for Stewart-Haas, but it's still high-quality equipment.
Suarez was the polar opposite of DiBenedetto in 2019. Of his 11 races with a top-12 average running position, five came on 1.5-mile tracks, and two others were at non-drafting superspeedways. Suarez popped most when the equipment mattered, which should benefit Custer.
Custer proved he was capable at driver-centric tracks in the Xfinity Series, notching a win and six top-fives across seven races at short, flat tracks and posting a top-four average running position in both Dover races. That means there's a chance he exceeds what Suarez did at those tracks this year. We just have to make sure we don't get too jazzed too quickly.
Not only is Custer regarded as a lesser prospect than Bell, but his age matters, too. According to Smith, drivers don't typically hit their first production spike until their age-24 season, a mark Custer won't hit until 2022. Bell is entering his age-25 season, and this will be Reddick's age-24 season. Custer's production last year is huge for his long-term outlook, but it's wise to keep expectations in check for 2020, specifically.
It's also important to remember that Suarez was no slouch as a driver. He won the Xfinity Series title in 2016 -- his age-24 season -- and then transitioned to the Cup Series the next year. It's not as if Custer is sliding into the seat of someone undeserving of a ride.
As such, we should likely hold Custer in a similar regard to how we handled Suarez last year. We can give him a boost in our minds at tracks where equipment matters a bit more, hoping the speed can carry him to good finishes. As with Bell, though, we should be willing to adjust this prior quickly if Custer starts to flex muscle at tracks outside of this template.
Tyler Reddick to Richard Childress Racing
If we judge each rookie's equipment by what their predecessor in the seat did in 2019, then Reddick is likely at the bottom of the ranking as he replaces Daniel Hemric.
|In 2019||Average Driver Rating|
Because of this, we should probably view Reddick as being a step below those two in daily fantasy to start the year. There are still some track types where Hemric was competitive, though, which means Reddick isn't entirely off the map.
Specifically, Hemric and teammate Austin Dillon graded out well at the superspeedways. Hemric's two best average running positions came in Pocono and Michigan, both of which are two miles or longer and require a boatload of speed. Dillon also won the pole and finished 10th in Fontana, another course that fits that mold. Reddick could have the speed to keep up at that track type, which is valuable.
It's also worth noting that if we look at Dillon's marks, Reddick's equipment may be more on par with that of Custer and Bell. Dillon finished the year ranked 19th in Smith's central speed rankings, one spot ahead of DiBenedetto and two behind Suarez. Hemric was further back in 24th. It could have been that Hemric was holding the team back a bit, potentially encouraging this driver change.
Not shockingly, Reddick had similar strengths to Hemric and Dillon in the Xfinity Series, where he was also driving for Richard Childress Racing. He had a win and three top-fives in four races at big, non-drafting tracks down there, and his lone non-top-five was because Bell wrecked while Reddick was battling him for the lead late in Indianapolis.
From a speed perspective, we should view Reddick favorably at the big tracks. That could actually have a negative impact on his DFS outlook.
On FanDuel, you get a half point for every position a driver gains at the finish relative to their starting position. So, if someone starts 20th and finishes 10th, that's better than another driver who starts 5th and finishes 9th. At least to a certain extend, bad qualifiers are desirable.
Last year, Dillon's average finishing position was three spots worse than his average starting position, and Hemric lost an average of 4.4 spots from start to finish. In general, we'd much prefer the opposite.
This isn't damning for Reddick by any means. In races where he doesn't qualify well, he should have speed to move forward, and you don't always need positive place differential to pay off if you're cheap enough. It'll just be something to monitor with Reddick during the season, and it's another reason to view him as being a peg below Bell and Custer from the jump.
Matt DiBenedetto to Wood Brothers Racing
With each of the rookies, we're still waiting to see how they'll transition into a totally new series where the cars and competition level are different. For DiBenedetto, he's merely jumping into a new tier of equipment. But his change may be the biggest of the group.
As mentioned when discussing Bell, we've already seen DiBenedetto prove his might on driver-centric tracks in the second half of 2019. When fate was in his hands, he graded out well, likely signaling that the 28-year-old has talent. He just couldn't keep up when the speeds increased.
The opposite was true of the guy whose seat he is taking, Paul Menard. Of his 12 races with a top-15 average running position, seven were at the equipment-heavy tracks where DiBenedetto struggled. He also popped at Bristol, Dover, Richmond, Daytona, and the Charlotte road course, all spots where DiBenedetto was competitive with Leavine Family Racing.
In other words, we should expect DiBenedetto to get a boost at faster tracks while still performing well at the driver-centric stops. That's a pretty rosy outlook.
Perhaps the better comp for DiBenedetto than Menard is the guy who was with Wood Brothers Racing before Menard, Ryan Blaney. Blaney was with Wood Brothers Racing in 2016 and 2017, and he got his first career win at Pocono the second of those seasons. Wood Brothers is affiliated with Penske Racing, and although Blaney wasn't on par with the other Penske drivers that year, he was respectable.
|Driver||Average Driver Rating|
|Brad Keselowski in 2017||96.24|
|Ryan Blaney in 2017||87.65|
|Joey Logano in 2017||87.04|
|Matt DiBenedetto in 2019||69.91|
That was a weird year for Joey Logano after he had a win nullified in Richmond due to a penalty and struggled the rest of the season. He then won the Cup Series championship in 2018. Therefore, we should put more weight in Brad Keselowski's number when judging the gap between Wood Brothers and Penske. Even when we do that, Blaney had a really solid season.
It's also worth noting that 2017 was Blaney's age-23 season, and DiBenedetto is entering his age-29 season. It's possible DiBenedetto could be at a better spot in his career now than Blaney was during his final year at Wood Brothers Racing, though Blaney is a supreme talent for his age. Either way, it's clear this ride is an upgrade for DiBenedetto.
DiBenedetto won't catch people by surprise because this move has been highly publicized, but that doesn't mean there's no edge in buying into him early on. FanDuel Sportsbook has DiBenedetto at 180/1 to win the Cup Series title and 32/1 to win the Daytona 500. DiBenedetto's championship odds are longer than all of the rookies, and all of the Penske drivers are 16/1 or better to win in Daytona. If the DFS market reflects the betting market, DiBenedetto will be a driver to buy early on until his salary catches up to his new ride.
Chris Buescher to Roush-Fenway Racing
If you thought the early market was low on DiBenedetto, then hold onto your butts. Buescher's barely got a pulse in the betting market.
Buescher's odds to win the Daytona 500 are 75/1, longer than several drivers who aren't currently slated to be in the race and all of the rookies above. That's even though Buescher had a pair of top-fives in Daytona in 2018 and is now in a car that has more speed than he was sporting previously.
Buescher finished 2019 ranked 23rd in Smith's central speed rankings, six spots behind Stenhouse in the 17 car that Buescher will take over this year. Despite that, it was Buescher who graded out better than Stenhouse from a results perspective.
|Driver||Average Finish||Average Running Position||Average Driver Rating|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||20.47||18.61||70.08|
This says a couple of things. First, it says Stenhouse crashes way too gosh darn much, dragging that average finish down. Second, it says we should view Buescher more positively than we viewed Stenhouse despite their being in the same ride.
The fun thing about Buescher is that he already had pop performances at a wide array of tracks. His seven top-15 average running positions occurred at two short, flat tracks, two intermediate tracks, two road courses, and a short, high-banked track. All four of his top-10 finishes occurred at 1.5-mile tracks, even when he didn't necessarily have the speed to boast a top-notch average running position. This would seem to fit the DiBenedetto mold where he was out-running his equipment a bit.
That was not the case for Stenhouse. His nine best average running positions all came at either a drafting track or a 1.5-mile track. He was strong in the areas where Buescher's equipment lagged.
There is a lot of overlap between the situations for DiBenedetto and Buescher. The differences are that DiBenedetto's equipment upgrade is bigger, but Buescher's is flying more under the radar, as his odds to win the Daytona 500 indicate. That's valuable from a DFS perspective.
Although others will be buying into DiBenedetto while he's potentially underpriced, slightly mitigating the edge we get in using him, they may not be as inclined to do so with Buescher. Both of these guys stand out as early-season targets, and we may even get Buescher without the burden of elevated ownership. That should be music to our ears.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to JTG-Daugherty Racing
If we're upgrading Buescher for taking over Stenhouse's ride, it should be logical that we'd downgrade Stenhouse moving (effectively) into Buescher's old ride. That's the broad takeaway here, a downgrade for Stenhouse.
There are still situations where Stenhouse will be in play, though.
The big one is at places like Daytona and Talladega. Stenhouse has always had a knack for pack racing, and as mentioned when discussing Buescher, the equipment here shouldn't prohibit good finishes. Talladega is more equipment-heavy than Daytona, so Stenhouse will be more relevant in Daytona, but he at least has life those four races.
The other situation is if Stenhouse is cheap and finds himself in the back of the pack. His new teammate, Ryan Preece (who will actually be driving Buescher's old car while Stenhouse takes over the car Preece had last year), finished 12th at Kansas in the fall and was seventh in Michigan over the summer. Good finishes are not completely out of the discussion for drivers in this stable. It's just hard to count on them consistently unless JTG-Daugherty makes major gains in its second season of building its own cars.
Stenhouse has said he's willing to change his driving style in order to crash less, which could make him a bit more stable. That's something to monitor early in the year. Still, overall, this move is a downgrade for his stock, and we'll need a pretty specific set of circumstances in order to feel good plugging him into our lineup.
Corey LaJoie Gains Additional Funding
This isn't a new team for LaJoie as he's headed back to GoFas Racing for a second season. However, GoFas has a new technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing, which should perk things up at least a bit.
On his "Sunday Money" podcast, LaJoie said that GoFas Racing was using cars that were four years old in 2019. They still won't be getting top-of-the-line Stewart-Haas equipment, but it's better than the alternative.
Despite the wretched equipment, LaJoie showed occasional signs of life in 2019. He was 11th or better in three of the four drafting races, and he was 12th in the Coca-Cola 600. Considering the equipment and the low salary he always carried, those are impressive, difference-making runs.
LaJoie's situation still isn't great, so this is not a buying window on par with those of Buescher and DiBenedetto. We should still largely view LaJoie as someone who will struggle to generate top-20 finishes.
However, what this does mean is that we should be more willing to target LaJoie if he shows signs of life. This was a profitable strategy last year if you bought into DiBenedetto when he started to spike over the summer, and we should deploy a similar approach with LaJoie, keeping a close eye and looking for signs of improvement.
John Hunter Nemechek to Front Row Motorsports
As of right now, Front Row Motorsports appears to be trimming down to a two-car operation in 2020 from a three-car team in 2019. That could change with Suarez still out on the market. But John Hunter Nemechek will take over one of the seats and pilot alongside Michael McDowell.
Nemechek got a three-race audition at the end of 2019, taking over for Matt Tifft after Tifft stepped aside following a seizure. Nemechek's finishes of 21st, 27th, and 23rd were good enough to earn him a full-time ride with the team for his age-23 season.
That Nemechek performed well shouldn't be a major surprise. He entered 2019 ranked second in Smith's prospect rankings, trailing only Bell. Nemechek got his first NASCAR touring-series win during his age-18 season in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series -- one of six wins in that series -- and also won in Kansas in the Xfinity Series on a part-time schedule in 2018. The kid can wheel it.
That's going to make Nemechek relevant at places like Daytona and Talladega where equipment matters less. We used McDowell and ex-Front Row driver David Ragan at those tracks last year, meaning Nemechek is on the map. He also could work as a low-dollar option at short tracks if he qualifies poorly. We'll just want to avoid him when the speeds get higher, fleshing out the lack of equipment for this unit.
|Front Row Motorsports in 2019||Average Driver Rating|
|John Hunter Nemechek||51.83|
Nemechek is in the Stenhouse tier where he's relevant in a narrow set of circumstances. With Nemechek's talent and low salary, though, we'll need to keep an eye on him at the driver-heavy tracks.