It has been a quiet weekend at Daytona International Speedway so far, and after all drivers escaped from the first practice session unscathed, rain washed out the final practice session. Qualifying was also accident free, although you won't see a front row of David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson very often. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, practice and qualifying are likely just the calm before the storm, and once the green flag waves Saturday night, the "Big One" is looming to take out a big chunk of the field and destroy fantasy lineups in the process.
Overall, there were few changes between my initial driver rankings and the final set of rankings, but that is typical at a restrictor plate track. After all, drivers can move from the back to the front of the field in just a couple of laps so qualifying results don't matter nearly as much as they do at other tracks. Meanwhile, the restrictor plates keep the field bunched in a big pack so practice speeds don't mean as much either. At the end of the day, picking the drivers that stay out of trouble and are in the mix at the finish will be the difference between having a great day and having a rough one.
The top 3
1) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Unless Junior had decided not to race this weekend, there was no way he was losing the top spot in the rankings. Not only does he own a series-leading 10.2 average finish in the last 10 restrictor plate races, but his 5.6 average finish at Daytona during the stretch is more than five spots better than any other driver. He is starting in the top 10 Saturday night, and while no driver is a safe pick at Daytona, Junior has been pretty darn close lately.
2) Jimmie Johnson
Johnson chose not to work in the draft during practice, but given his recent results at Daytona, I'm guessing he is pretty confident in his setup. After all, he swept both races at the track in 2013, and he delivered a top-five finish in this year's Daytona 500. Johnson has also led a series-high 126 laps during his three-race hot stretch. At an unpredictable track like Daytona, it is never a bad idea to play the hot hand, especially when it belongs to the best driver in the series.
3) Matt Kenseth
He ranked seventh in terms of 10-lap average speeds in practice Thursday, and consistent speed has been Kenseth's trademark at restrictor plate tracks lately. Since 2012, he has led 507 laps at Daytona and Talladega combined, which are 300 more than any other driver. He is also a two-time winner at Daytona in his career, and he has four finishes of sixth or better in his last six starts at the track. Kenseth qualified sixth, and don't be surprised if he works his way to the front and leads a decent amount of laps.
11) Greg Biffle
Biffle doesn't get mentioned among the top restrictor plate racers in NASCAR, but over the past couple of seasons, he has been one of the best. He has scored the second-most points of any driver in 10 races at restrictor plate tracks since 2012, and he has three top-10s in five starts at Daytona during the stretch. Biffle turned one of the 10-fastest laps during practice Thursday and qualified in the top 10 Friday, and he should be back in the mix for another solid run.
12) Jamie McMurray
While his resume at the restrictor plate tracks speaks for itself, there is still something comforting about seeing McMurray at the top of the charts during Thursday's practice session. He is a three-time winner at restrictor plate tracks, and two of those victories have come at Daytona. Yes, a driver can pick up one lucky win at a plate race, but a driver doesn't win three times without knowing what they are doing. McMurray offers excellent upside this weekend.
14) Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
His car appeared to be handling well in the draft during practice Thursday as Stenhouse turned the seventh-fastest lap and logged the fourth-best 10-lap average speed. Meanwhile, he has never finished outside the top 20 in seven Cup starts at restrictor plate tracks, and he has finished 12th or better in his last three starts at Daytona. Stenhouse has quietly been one of the most reliable drivers at Daytona, and he should make a solid addition to fantasy rosters this weekend.
28) Landon Cassill
He is barely more than a field-filler most weeks, but Cassill has been surprisingly effective at restrictor plate tracks this year. He finished 12th in the Daytona 500, and he finished 11th at Talladega in May. Meanwhile, Cassill cracked the top 10 in practice Thursday and qualified third. Despite driving for a single-car team, he continues to show he can more than hold his own when restrictor plates are involved. He could be the biggest surprise of the weekend.
Big names outside the top 10
17) Kurt Busch
His overall numbers at Daytona are solid, but Busch has really struggled at the track in recent years. He has finished outside the top 20 in four of his last five starts and has three finishes outside the top 25 over the same stretch. Driving for four different teams in four years probably hasn't helped the cause either. Until Busch breaks out of his slump, he is a risky pick.
21) Kasey Kahne
Although Kahne is certainly capable of delivering a solid finish at Daytona, the odds are not in his favor. In 21 starts at the track, he has managed just two top-five finishes to go along with a 19.5 average finish. More concerning is the fact that Kahne shows no signs of turning a corner. He has five finishes of 25th or worse in his last seven starts at Daytona, including three straight finishes outside the top 30.