In the inaugural edition of ‘The Nine,’ Pearce Dietrich explains the nine things you need to know ahead of the Daytona 500.
Question 1: What is the importance of the Daytona 500? Is this like Opening Day in baseball?
Pearce: The inaugural race at Daytona in 1959 legitimized NASCAR as a major American sport. The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s opening day and its Super Bowl. Daytona International Speedway is one of the oldest and most historic tracks on the NASCAR circuit. It is a massive cathedral for auto racing. The sheer size of the race track is breathtaking – 15 Florida Stadiums can fit inside the track.
Question 2: Who is the Russell Westbrook of NASCAR? Is there a top tier of stars?
Pearce: Kevin Harvick has led NASCAR in fantasy points in each of the last two seasons. Last year, Harvick scored over 40 fantasy points in 30 of 36 races. After a handful of races each season, it becomes clear which 2-3 cars are on a completely different level.
Question 3: Ok – explain it like I’m five – what is a plate race? Is the Daytona 500 a plate race?
Pearce: Due to the long straight stretches and high banked turns at Daytona and Talladega, stock cars can carry a lot of speed. About 30 years ago, stock cars were approaching dangerous speeds. NASCAR chose to implement a restrictor plate. This thin piece of metal with four holes sits between the carburetor and the engine. It limits the amount of air that can mix with the fuel. This results in less power.
Although this solved the safety issue caused by excessive speed, it created a new safety concern: pack racing. Cars were no longer running at 210 mph, but when every car can run 190 mph, they can not separate. Bumper to bumper traffic at 190 mph usually spells bad things. Jeff Gordon once said, “They didn’t even have to pay me to race, except for Daytona, that’s one they had to pay me for.” This is not like any other racing on the planet. It’s not a test of skill or mechanical engineering. It’s a test of guts or stupidity, depending on who you’re asking. A plate race is simply waiting for the major wreck that collects more than a handful of drivers and hoping your drivers make it through. It’s like a horror movie – you know what’s going to happen, but you don’t know who is going to make it to the end.
Question 4: Do all the drivers drive the same type of car? What’s the deal with drivers being on teams?
Pearce: Chevy, Ford and Toyota are the current manufacturers in the Monster Energy Cup Series. The term stock car is and has always been a misnomer. Once upon a time, NASCAR created a strictly stock series, and it bored the fans to death. Throughout the years modifications have led to increased performance and safety. Today’s stock cars are custom built by race teams and have almost nothing in common with a car the you get from the dealer other than a logo.
Team is probably the wrong word. “Member of the organization” would be better suited to describe what really happens. The “team” shares data and resources, and occasionally the drivers work together on the track. Joe Gibbs Racing is widely considered the strongest “team,” but on the last lap of the Richmond spring race in 2016, Carl Edwards wrecked his teammate, Kyle Busch, in order to win. It’s comparable to being a part of a sales team. You might help out a team member with a lead, but at the end of the day, you want the set of steak knives.
Question 5: We all know golfers have success at certain types of courses – does the same hold true for NASCAR?
Pearce: The specific tracks matter, and the type of tracks matters. As far as track types go, you have flat tracks, high banked tracks, short tracks, intermediate tracks, restrictor plate tracks and then tracks that are combination of tracks. Dale Junior has 10 wins at restrictor plate tracks. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is not a short track wiz, but at the high banked, short track in Bristol, he’s been very successful. When it comes to a specific track, Kevin Harvick’s domination at Phoenix is unparalleled.
Question 6: Let’s take a walk down narrative street – what are the top storylines surrounding the drivers at Daytona?
Pearce: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. missed the second half of the season last year with a concussion. Many feared that his career was over. The Daytona 500 marks his return to racing. His 10 wins at plate tracks are the most among active drivers.
Jimmie Johnson’s car got loose and wrecked twice during the Daytona Clash last weekend. His Hendrick Motorsports teammates should be concerned. Two of his teammates, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., wrecked due to a similar issue in the 2015 Daytona 500.
Stewart-Haas Racing switched manufacturers from Chevy to Ford. The change meant building a completely new fleet of race cars. One does not simply wave a magic wand to create competitive race cars. It takes hours of R&D and track time. If you plan on rostering SHR cars (Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer), please familiarize yourself with Murphy’s Law.
Question 7: What’s place differential? Is it bad to start in pole position?
Pearce: Place Differential is where a car starts minus where it finishes. A driver earns positive points for advancing their position, and loses points for going backwards.
At plate tracks, pole position is a scary proposition. The top DFS performers usually score 20 place differential points or more. The pole leader can only lose place differential points. To make up for the lack of place differential points, the pole sitter must lead 80 laps (40% of the race) to score 20 laps led points. It’s possible, but with the new segment format in NASCAR, it’s not probable.
Question 8: Is NASCAR a stars and scrubs sport? What’s one basic tip for roster construction?
Pearce: NASCAR is about the haves and the have-nots. The teams with more resources dominate the sport. Stars and scrubs can work at a plate race because the restrictor plate creates an even playing field. In fact, an all scrub lineup is not out of the question because the scrubs tend to start in the back, so they have the opportunity to score the most place differential points. At other tracks, it is rare for multiple lower end drivers to score significant fantasy points. This week, feel free to go crazy with the scrubs, but next week at Atlanta, it might be smart to take it easy.
Question 9: Make me look smart – give me one under the radar driver for the race.
Pearce: A.J. Allmendinger is the best driver in NASCAR when it comes to road courses. Most NASCAR fans subjectively assume that he is only good at road courses, but that’s not the case. Better yet, Allmendinger is not amazing at restrictor plates tracks, but he’s good. This value tier driver will likely be overlooked this weekend. Simply finishing a restrictor plate race is an achievement, but Allmendinger is better than that. He’s finished 21st or better in his last four Daytona races, and he finished 23rd or better in five of his last six Talladega races.
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