The 2014 Sprint Cup season begins this weekend with the Daytona 500, and while every fantasy racing owner wants to get their season off to a strong start, it is easier said than done. After all, we are talking about Daytona. We are talking about restrictor plates, pack racing, the "Big One" and a lot of torn up cars. As much as fantasy owners may want to get off to a fast start, Daytona likely has other ideas. There is simply no way of knowing which drivers are going to be taken out in the mayhem and who will survive to the finish. With that in mind, I tend to use a conservative approach when it comes to setting my fantasy lineups at Daytona, especially in any format that limits the number of times I can use a driver during the course of the year.
Sure, loading up with big names can work out. Heck, fantasy juggernaut Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 last year. On the flip side, fantasy afterthoughts like Regan Smith, Danica Patrick, Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley all managed top-10s in the same race.
I like to look at it in terms of what I might be giving up. Yes, I might miss out on a win by Johnson, but I'm very confident I can also win with him at several other tracks. Meanwhile, the odds of me even getting a top-20 out of a guy like McDowell or Yeley anywhere other than Daytona or Talladega are virtually zero.
Nearly every driver has an equal chance of getting swept up in a wreck this weekend, so I'm not going to risk wasting a big name at such an unpredictable track, especially when a lineup featuring a bunch of unheralded drivers can still be effective. To me, loading up on sleeper options at Daytona is the best of both worlds. It gives you a chance to have a solid showing Sunday, and it is also beneficial for your team in the big picture. If you're wrong, being in a small hole after the first race is practically meaningless, too.
Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Auto Racing
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (A): I'm not sure I will even end up using all nine starts from Junior now that he is an A-List driver this season, so I don't mind trotting him out at Daytona. After all, the guy has four straight top-15s at the track and has finished second in three of the last four Daytona 500s.
Jamie McMurray (B): He is inconsistent at Daytona, but the same can be said for any driver. Meanwhile, he is a three-time plate track winner at the Cup level, with two of his victories coming at Daytona. I'll gamble on his upside.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (B): Stenhouse was a quiet fantasy hero at the plate tracks last year. He finished in the top 15 in all four races, picking up a pair of top-12s at Daytona. Call it a gut feeling, but I think he is going to have a solid sophomore season, and I think it starts off well this weekend.
Bobby Labonte (C): He has been hanging back and staying out of trouble at Daytona lately, and it has paid off to the tune of five finishes of 16th or better in his last seven starts. Not to mention that in the last 10 races at Daytona, no driver has more lead-lap finishes. There are actually some C-List drivers that could produce some solid numbers in 2014, and using Labonte at Daytona will help me save them for a later day.
NASCAR.com Fantasy Live
Matt Kenseth ($27.75): Kenseth has been a stud at the plate tracks in general in recent years, and in the last 10 races at Daytona, no driver has scored more points or led more laps. Meanwhile, NASCAR.com uses multiple loop data categories in its scoring system, so even if he ends up crashing out late, he can still be useful if he continues to run at or near the front on regular basis.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($27): He has been the best driver in the series at the plate tracks over the past two years, scoring 20 more points than any other driver. Throw in three second-place finishes in the last four Daytona 500s, and I will gladly pay for the driver that has been the closest thing to a sure thing at an unpredictable track.
Tony Stewart ($23): His inability to win the Daytona 500 is well documented, but you don't rank second to Dale Earnhardt on the all-time Daytona wins list without knowing how to get the job done. I'll take my chances with a driver that has won 19 different races at Daytona in his career.
Michael Waltrip ($12): I'm perfectly happy with Waltrip at Daytona in any format. The guy won at the track three times during his prime and is still solid, as evidenced by two top-10s in his last three starts. I love the price for the potential.
Bobby Labonte ($10): His nine lead-lap finishes in the last 10 races at Daytona are the most in the series, and with five top-20s in the last seven races at Daytona, I just couldn't pass up the salary flexibility his minimal price tag brings.
NASCAR.com Streak to the Finish
Ryan Newman: Starting a top-10 streak at Daytona is tough, but Newman has reeled off three straight top-10s at the track, and I like his chances to keep the momentum going now that he is driving for a Richard Childress Racing organization with a proven plate track program.
FOX Fantasy Auto Racing
Kurt Busch: I think moving back to a premier team will be just what Busch needs to recapture his plate track magic. From July of 2007 through July of 2011, he had eight top-15s in a nine-race span at Daytona, including five top-five finishes. I'm probably going to take a wait-and-see approach with Busch early in the year anyway, so I don't mind using up one of his four first-half starts this weekend.
Greg Biffle: He quietly ranks third in the series in points scored at the plate tracks over the past two years, and he has finished sixth and third in the last two Daytona 500s. I don't mind taking a chance on him at Daytona, because there aren't many tracks in the first 13 races of the season where must have him on my roster.
Danica Patrick: She had one top-10 in her entire rookie season, and it came in the Daytona 500. She had four top-15s all of last year, and half of them came at Daytona. Maybe it was beginner's luck, but she at least has a chance to compete, and she will save me a start from the group of more proven options.
Paul Menard: Menard has become a fairly reliable plate track option the past few years. In his last eight starts at Daytona, he has six top-20 finishes, including five top-15s. I like his chances of delivering a solid finish, and I don't see using him much at other tracks.
Michael Waltrip: With only being allowed to use each driver four times through the first 13 races of the season, I'll take advantage of a part-time driver like Waltrip, who has a history of success at Daytona.