This week, the key to fantasy success may well be maximizing place-differential points. A couple of big-names crashed during the weekend and will have to roll out backup cars; several others botched qualification and roll off the grid outside of the top 20.
And when we cay big-named drivers, we’re talking about Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, and Denny Hamlin – all of whom would have been considered top-ranked candidates on the short track of Bristol Motor Speedway.
One big reason for the inversion of the field is the PJ1 compound that Bristol put in the bottom groove. The intent is to make the track sticky in what was once the preferred line. As the race wears on, a second groove will naturally get worked in higher, but the current compound itself takes a few laps to work in, and that created some major issues for the drivers.
An added effect of so many strong cars coming from the back is that it is going to be difficult to find a suitable dark horse as several long shots qualified better than they otherwise might. Choose judiciously.
The biggest game changer this week came out of qualification.
Drivers attempted to time their laps around the track so they came out as late as possible. Denny Hamlin was one of the first 10 drivers to take to the track and while his lap jumped to the top of the board briefly, it rapidly was surpassed by 24 others. He failed to make the second round of qualification for the first time this year and starts 25th.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jamie McMurray attempted to go out at the very last moment so that he was on track when it was at its best. NASCAR launches the cars from the backstretch at Bristol and it takes more than a full lap to get up to speed as a result. McMurray did not get under the clock in with what would have been his fastest lap and that caused him to qualify 31st. He should still be able to record a top-15.
The same thing happened to Ryan Newman who starts one position better.
The drivers who got it right were the Busch brothers.
Kyle Busch had the fastest time in round one of time trials and again when it mattered most. His lap of 128.822 was .002 seconds faster than his brother Kurt Busch and he earned his second Bristol pole.
Kurt was scheduled to line up on the outside of the front row – but more of that in the practice segment of this post.
Martin Truex Jr. is another notable driver who botched qualification. He went out too early – like Hamlin – and will have to overcome a 26th-place start.
Practice incidents were just as impactful.
Kevin Harvick crashed in the first practice session of the week. Something broke in the front suspension and sent him hard into the wall and into a backup car. The team didn’t even try to get through qualification, so Harvick will roll off the grid from the very back. The hidden good news in his starting spot is that his place-differential points will be based on a 39th-place start. The X-factor is going to be whether he is able to avoid trouble on his way through the pack, but he is almost guaranteed to add at least 30 points to his total for passing cars.
Harvick will be joined in the back of the pack by teammate Kurt Busch. Moments after being told to come into the pits whenever he was ready, Busch got loose out of turn two and slammed the inside wall in Happy Hour. He destroyed his primary and will also roll out a backup. That is going to cost him his second-place start – but since most games offer place-differential points based on a driver’s official starting position, he could struggle to earn positive points.
Jimmie Johnson will also join the field at the back. After qualification, the team noticed a deflating tire on the No. 48. Since NASCAR requires teams to race on the rubber they qualify with and Johnson is going to have to change the tire, he is going to give up his 17th-place position on the grid. With so much trouble assailing him so far this year, it is risky to have him in heavy traffic.
Clint Bowyer and Trevor Bayne tangled in the final moments of Happy Hour. When Bayne slowed to give Bowyer the bottom line, it was either mistimed or it caught Bowyer by surprise. He clipped Bayne’s left rear with his right front – doing significant damage to his Ford. It does not appear either driver will be forced into backup cars.
The Happy Hour speed chart was topped by dark horse David Ragan. He posted a lap of 127.487 m.p.h. to prove there is a little speed in the ole’ girl. He qualified 23rd and should be considered a favorite to move into the mid-teens, which may make him the top sleeper this week.
Kyle Busch had the quickest 10-lap average in that session with a speed of 125.483. Given his pole position, there is a strong likelihood he is going to lead a lot of laps early and probably win the first segment.