It's the best time of the year again! The weather is hot, the pools are cold, the grills are lit...and so are the fireworks!
This (long) weekend, most of us will celebrate our Independence Day.
That is, unless, you're a Sprint Cup Series driver. They'll be celebrating anything but independence.
While most of us enjoy the liberties of freedom. NASCAR drivers will be linked with a ball-and-chain to a draft partner in hopes they can just stay free of Daytona's catastrophic "Big One."
Daytona has always presented a lack of freedom due to it being a restrictor plate race. The physics behind a restrictor plate is that it limits the flow of air into the carburetor and thus regulates the speed a car can drive. The explanation for those not so scientifically gifted: all the cars are limited to the same maximum speed and thus tend to travel in one big pack.
Needless to say, when you're cruising with 42 other cars at speeds of over 200 mph, the slightest mishap can lead to a big LA freeway-esque pile up. Even the best drivers will get caught in such wrecks, and it's uncommon for drivers to have better track records on superspeedways, like Daytona and Talladega, than they do elsewhere.
At most tracks, there are usually three or four drivers with ratings over 100. At Daytona, there are two: Tony Stewart, whose 100.6 just makes the cut, and Trevor Bayne, who won his one and only start there.
The issue with a lack of freedom has compounded itself this year due to a new style of racing.
Changes in car design have made it more beneficial for drivers to team up and draft off one another. The effect has caused the field to separate out. It now tends to look like a non-restrictor plate race, except that instead of cars headed off by themselves, they break off with a dancing partner.
On one hand, it's made for an interesting strategy. In some cases, drivers that aren't even associated with one another will team up to gain ground. The most recent race at Talladega posed a crazy finish with a pack of eight cars (four pairs) crossing the finish line as a unit.
However, it's also taken away some of liberties drivers have had. They can no longer win a race only on their own accord and will be left in the dust if they don't find someone to drive with. The wild-and-crazy every-man-for-himself races at Daytona are a thing of the past. And, while "The Big One" still struck early in February's race, it's possible that it might not have the same affect it once had with the field spreading out.
One thing's for sure, though, no matter what type of racing is being run by the Sprint Cup Series' drivers during Saturday's race. It'll be anything but an independence day for them.
For the rest of you, sure, you have the freedom of thought, but why go through that trouble when I'm doing the work for you? Here's some fantasy advice in a race that tends to be somewhat of a crapshoot.
*In case you're new to this segment, check out my first fantasy post on how the system works.
Strategy: Strategy for Daytona is simple. It's hard to predict a winner and we don't have enough data yet to know if the two-car draft will change anything. Stay away from your best drivers this week; you don't want to waste a start on a bad finish.
#14 Tony Stewart - For a guy that hasn't started him once this year, I definitely recommend him a lot. There's two things to remember: first, he's not always my top choice, just a consideration; second, he's had a great career, so some of his stats could be inflated. He's worth considering (again) because he finished so badly last week and on the cusp of the Chase, so you have to assume that will fuel him. As I mentioned before, he's also the only regular driver with a driver rating here of over 100.
#22 Kurt Busch - Call me a bandwagoner, but Busch has really come on strong after a well-documented disgruntling start. His win last week on a road course has a no bearing on a superspeedway, but 10 top-fives in 21 starts does!
#24 Jeff Gordon - Gordon's won six races here. He also has 18 top-10s, but that's in 37 races, so not the best ratio. I considered Kevin Harvick (#29) as well, but I'll show due respect to a six-time winner!
#11 Denny Hamlin - I could see the new drafting style working to his benefit with his Joe Gibbs Racing team, but he has one top-10 in 11 starts and an average finish of 22.9 at Daytona. I'll wait until he proves something before rolling the dice on those numbers.
#1 Jamie McMurray - It's about time McMurray show up for his token major win. He hasn't had a good season, but he has a knack for winning big races (and only big races). I might not be starting him, but he's won here twice since 2007, so he's a good option to have available.
#4 Kasey Kahne - Kahne could be somewhat of a reach, but he hasn't been bad on this track and is less of a risk for a wasted start than someone who's having a stronger season.
#33 Clint Bowyer - So much for the strategy of not starting the best drivers this week. Bowyer is getting rolled off the hauler because his 13.2 average finish is the highest among any driver currently in the top 12 and six top-10s in 11 starts is pretty impressive. He also nearly won Talladega earlier this year, so he's proven he does well in the two-car draft.
#88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Bowyer and Earnhardt are numbers one and two in the B-group, so I've totally disregarded my strategy! Earnhardt has a similarly strong track record at Daytona. His 14.8 average finish trails only Bowyer among the current top-12 and his two wins and 13 top-10s in 23 starts catches the eye.
#39 Ryan Newman - Newman has two more DNFs (five) than he does top-10s (three). He is also on a two-man team, so that could somewhat hurt his chances since he won't have as many ready-to-go draft partners as some of the three or four-man teams.
#42 Juan Pablo Montoya - These types of tracks aren't his specialty as they are far different from his racing past on road courses. He's also on just a two-man team and seems to be viewed adversely around the garage, so he might not fare well with drafting.
#6 David Ragan - Proceed with caution! In this case, it would be very risky to use a Ragan start as he's one of very few strong drivers in the C-group. However, you can't argue with his average finish at Daytona of 16.8, which is far better than a career average of 21.3.
#34 David Gilliland - Someone's gotta answer the taco bell this week in the C-group, who better than the Taco Bell driver? Gilliland has only two top-10s this year...but they were at Daytona and Talladega. He seems to have figured out how to use the two-car draft to get a better finish than he normally would. His average Daytona finish of 21.7 is much better than a career at 28.7. He could be the guy this week to spell the top of the C-group.
#6 David Ragan - See disclaimer above and continue proceeding with caution.
#21 Trevor Bayne - Ask yourself: could lightning strike the same place twice? Sure, but it's not likely. Just because he won in February doesn't make him much more likely to win now than he was then.
My preliminary roster
A - KURT BUSCH (8), Harvick (8)
B - BOWYER (6), EARNHARDT JR. (3), Kahne (6), McMurray (8)
C - GILLILAND (9), Ragan (4)
*Number in parenthesis are allocations remaining.