Food City 500

For many fans, Bristol Motor Speedway is the king of the short tracks.

AVONDALE, AZ - MARCH 18:  Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John's Ford, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 18, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

This bullring has one of the longest and most interesting histories in the sport, morphing through several iterations. No matter what track officials do to it, the competition has almost always remained intense.

There was a brief period of time when this track developed a single groove, but that seems to be in the past. And with NASCAR’s insistence on parity, it is almost impossible for one driver to run away from the field. Factor in the mandatory cautions at the end of segments one and two, plus some inevitable slow-downs along the way, and there is the potential for more cars than normal on the lead lap at the end of the Food City 500.

There are going to be plenty of dark horse options this week.

Last summer, the second- through fifth-place drivers, plus the seventh- and ninth-place drivers, had all finished outside the top 15 in the spring, which is a distribution of wealth rarely seen in NASCAR.

In the spring, dark horse top-10s were earned by Matt DiBenedetto and Trevor Bayne. In the summer, Stenhouse earned a runner-up finish. Chris Buescher was fifth. If there was ever a justification for rolling the dice and taking some fantasy risks, this is the week to do so.

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O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

It is almost as if NASCAR can’t quite figure out what to do with Texas Motor Speedway. And that’s all right. The state of Texas has always been iconoclastic, so the race might as well be also.

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 25:  Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 25, 2017 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Depending on where one lives in its confines, Texas either considers itself a Western state or part of the South. Dallas is has a more Southern feel, while Fort Worth with its heritage as a cattle hub is more Western.

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 could easily be part of the Western Swing, but it’s not. Instead, it currently interrupts what would be a three-race, short track schedule. So, the Texas race stands alone just as many inhabitants the want state itself to.

Each track is different than the other, but perhaps the best way to think of them is as siblings. Sharing many of the same life experiences, they develop their own personalities, but there is always a certain commonality.

Putting aside the impact that has on fans, the proliferation of this type of track is not a bad thing for fantasy players. One can look back at the most recent “cookie-cutter” race and use that as a baseline to set this week’s roster. In the first two races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this year, three drivers swept the top five, four more finished between sixth and 10th, and another three swept the top 15.

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STP 500

For many fans, the season starts on Sunday.

MARTINSVILLE, VA - APRIL 03:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's 75th Anniversary Toyota, poses for a photo in Victory Lane ater winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks have featured some great racing. The one-mile Phoenix International Raceway had quite a few surprises, but for viewers who grew up going to bullrings across America, nothing beats a short track.

Martinsville Speedway is a venerable old course. In one form or another, it dates back to the birth of the sport, and while most of the drivers of today are separated by a vast space of time and distance from those roots, watching them race around this half-mile bullring evokes memories of strictly stock cars from the past.

This race has an even greater “throwback” feel.

NASCAR’s relatively new rules of locking in the franchise teams to leave only a few spots available for open entries has virtually eliminated the start-and-park operations. The prize money is divvied out differently than in the past, so the field is shrinking. Forty cars mark a full field. The Daytona 500 is only event this year that filled up. Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Western Swing hosted only 39 cars each. This week, Martinsville has 38 cars on the entry list.

In the not-so-distant past, NASCAR had different field maximums for various track types. Short tracks maxed out at 36 cars and that gave the drivers more room to navigate on these tight confines. With two fewer cars than fantasy players have seen in the past, the competition will improve—especially if one or two retire with damage or mechanical difficulty.

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Auto Club 400

The last three races of the season have been important because the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks and short, flat tracks dominate the schedule. Auto Club is longer in length than Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but it fits into the larger category of similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks. These courses require many of the same characteristics in terms of setups, horsepower, aerodynamics, and mechanical grip.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11:  Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 11, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

One way to parse the data is to look at the most recent results. The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 and Kobalt 400 were held on more steeply-banked tracks and measure a half-mile less in length, but their close proximity to the Auto Club 400 is useful because it shows recent momentum. It is notable that many of the drivers had similar results on those two courses.

Another helpful exercise is to look at tracks that are more closely comparable.

Michigan and Auto Club are among the closest comparatives on the schedule of any two tracks and drivers who run well on one tend to run well on the other. Sometimes this is because of the dominance of certain teams like Roush-Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. On other occasions, it is because a certain driver has an affinity for the course like Paul Menard.

Both two-mile tracks are minimally-banked.

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Camping World 500k

Short, flat tracks are rhythm courses.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 04: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Beer Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 4, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Going fast on one of these courses is counterintuitive. Most drivers like to carry as much speed as they can into the entry and then deal with the consequences in the center of the turn. To go fast on a short, flat track, drivers have to back the corner up and brake much earlier than feels natural.

That cadence does not begin overnight and it is not automatic. It takes years of experience to develop that kind of discipline, but once a driver finds the right balance, it becomes part of their long term memory.

Flat tracks in general and short ovals of one-mile or less in length in particular are prone to streaks. This week’s top-10 will be dominated by drivers like Kevin Harvick, who has the longest active streak at Phoenix and Kyle Busch, who has been the best on the combined short, flat tracks.

With little banking to lean on through the corners, finesse comes into play. That makes Phoenix, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway into drivers’ tracks.

Horsepower is important there as it is on all tracks, but it is a smaller percentage of the equation. Driver skill makes up the difference and there will be some interesting dark horses in the teens.

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Kobalt 400

One of the solo cookies—Atlanta Motor Speedway—was on the schedule last week. The paucity of data from the single race in Nevada is offset somewhat by the juxtaposition of the Kobalt 400 with the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

HAMPTON, GA - MARCH 05:  Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Autotrader Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds Of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 5, 2017 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

(Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Drivers can gain some momentum at this stage of the schedule. In a couple of weeks, they will visit the two-mile Auto Club Speedway. A couple of weeks after that, they will be on another “cookie-cutter” course: Texas Motor Speedway. Four of the first seven races of the season are on similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks.

Last year, six drivers who scored top-10s at Atlanta, backed that up with another top-10 at Vegas. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch led the charge in 2016 with a pair of top-fives. Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came close to adding their name to the top-10 sweepers with a worst result of 12th in the two races.

Several of those drivers ran well again last week. Notably, Johnson and Busch did not and it will be interesting to see if the dark horses who stepped into their place in the QuikTrip 500 can also unseat them in this week’s contest.

The “cookie-cutter” promotors hate that description of their tracks. And to be fair, no two courses are alike. From their point of view, they have a right to bristle. Fantasy players have a different outlook and should find cookies quite tasty.

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Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

The Daytona 500 was brutal for most fantasy players.

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 28: Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Furniture Row Toyota, leads a pack of cars down pit road during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

Now the series rolls onto a similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track. This course type has long been among the most predictable in the sport because 10 races are run at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Kentucky Speedway. Three more are run at Michigan International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway.

Several of these get bunched up at the start of the season, which has typically allowed drivers to develop some momentum.

But, the segmentation comes into play again. Teams have to decide if they are going to forego the short term gains of up to 10 championship points at the end of each stage for the big picture of winning the race. Any driver who is not in contact with the top 10 near the end of the segment might chose to pit early if they think they can stay on the lead lap.

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Daytona 500

There will have been 98 days between the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the green that will wave over Daytona International Speedway. There has been more time to study and prepare for this race than any on the calendar.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s biggest race of the year. Teams spend hundreds-of-thousands of dollars on finding speed for this single event. They have more practice time at their disposal than for another event.

Those two facts are important to the rank-and-file fan.

They don’t mean a thing for fantasy players. Restrictor-plate, superspeedway races are the most unpredictable during the year; nothing is predictive. While that is true, there are certain indicators that will allow fantasy players to make educated guesses. Drivers at the top and bottom of the order often have patterns that help in their handicaps.

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Welcome to 2017 and the DanBeaver.com Fantasy Magazine

During the off-season NASCAR tossed a couple of curveballs.

Carl Edwards’ unexpected retirement promoted Daniel Suarez to what now promises to be one of the best Rookie of the Year battles since 2006. That comes on the heels of last year’s introduction of Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon joined the series four years ago and the number of Young Guns with limited Cup experience is going to make fantasy handicapping difficult.

A few weeks later, NASCAR announced a major restructuring of the points’ system that makes every lap of every race matter. Well, perhaps not every lap, but certainly enough to insure that no one rides around in the back of the pack for any amount of time. Segment points will likely play a role in who wins and loses their fantasy lineup.

More than ever, players need to do their homework.  The DanBeaver.com newsletter returns for its second year as a standalone piece, but many of you have been reading this since it began in 2004 with Yahoo! Fantasy Games.  A few have followed me since 2002, when I became NASCAR.com’s handicapper and that means we are going on our 16th season together.

Thanks to everyone who showed their support last year and I hope you return for another season. We’ve kept the pricing the same for 2017. You can renew your subscription here:  http://danbeaver.com/register/purchase/

Look for the Daytona 500 preview to be available on about the 21st. Until then, we are leaving the 2016 previews up. If you have not downloaded all of them, take a minute to do so because the charts and graphs will be helpful in creating a plan of attack.

Please contact me or Victoria if you have any issues. We are truly grateful to have you as readers.

Ford EcoBoost 400

This is it.

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 22: The Sprint Cup Series Championship trophy (C), XFINITY Series Championship trophy (R) and Camping World Truck Series Championship trophy are displayed at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The last race of the season either represents one final opportunity to overtake the competition or one final chance to have fun. If you were skillful enough to maneuver into a position where you have a legitimate chance to win, the decisions this week are critical.

NASCAR implemented the current knockout-style format in 2014 and since then the four Chase contenders have been predictable in the final race. The cast of characters changed, but a Chaser won and finished second in both races, a third finished either sixth or seventh, while the worst playoff contender finished 16th in 2014 and 12th last year.

Odds are good that the Ford EcoBoost 400 winner will be the champion—and that the second-place driver in the standings will finish between at least second and fifth. A third driver will finish in the top 10 and the fourth will hover around the top 15.

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