An odd year for the NASCAR Cup Series continues in 2020 with its playoff opener. This weekend will mark their third trip this season to Darlington Raceway, the first time they’ve done that since first coming to the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval in 1950. It’s another twist in a year of them for daily fantasy NASCAR FanDuel players.
Darlington is the second oldest track in the sport and the first purpose-built, paved superspeedway for stock cars. This weekend’s event, the Cook Out Southern 500, has always been one of the crown jewels of NASCAR. It’s in the conversation with events like the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and the Bristol Motor Speedway night race. Of those events, however, the Cook Out Southern 500 is the oldest.
Another unique feature about this weekend? Your roster may be hard to spot once the green flag drops. Many drivers will have different looks as the official “throwback” weekend in NASCAR always attracts creative paint scheme ideas from teams that pay tribute to the stars of yesteryear. The fun and games, however, end once the green flag drops.
This 500-mile event, a fairly rare occurrence in today’s NASCAR, is a big endurance test for drivers and teams. While the heat won’t be a major issue, as the majority of this race will be run in the evening, tire wear will definitely play a factor. Darlington is basically a tire cheese grater, and with no practice time to test that component out, these teams are going to have to tread carefully. If not, there might be a couple of Darlington stripes on the right side of their machines come the end of Sunday night (Sept. 6).
You’ll want to pick drivers for your roster that have a history of handling this type of endurance event. Darlington typically lends itself to experience and is a track where the cream rises to the top. The top 16 playoff drivers are all starting up front, giving them early track position that’ll be hard to beat.
FanDuel has put more emphasis on finishing position than other DFS sites. For this reason, it allows you to look at the entire field instead of just dominators and big movers.
Also, with only 0.1 points awarded for each lap led by a driver, the need for a dominator is less important when building a winning lineup. The 367-lap races will have a total of 36.7 points up for grabs in this category. Take note when building your roster and focus on midpack competitors who can climb up toward the front on race day.
Here are a few drivers to keep an eye on when setting your daily NASCAR FanDuel roster for the race this Sunday.
NASCAR FANDUEL: SOUTHERN 500
ELITE TIER: $10,000 and up
Denny Hamlin ($13,500)
Career at Darlington: 16 starts, 3 wins, 9 top fives, 13 top 10s
Average Finish at Darlington: 7.2
Look at that stat line. That’s what happens when a driver has just one finish outside the top 20 in their entire career at a racetrack, over 14 years into said career.
Darlington is arguably Hamlin’s best racetrack, with his one big blemish, 29th in last year’s event, only coming thanks to a multi-car wreck not of his making. That was the only time Hamlin has ever not finished on the lead lap at Darlington, a trait that comes in handy at a 367-lap race like this one. It’s a venue that plays into all of Hamlin’s strengths, from just how great Toyota is at this place (six wins in the last eight Cup events) to this veteran’s gift for understanding the art of tire management.
Hamlin doesn’t usually have dominating performances, having led over 100 laps just three times at the Lady in Black. But dominance matters little if you’re still winning at the end of the night. Look for Hamlin to be at or near the front all race long, heading up a winning NASCAR FanDuel roster.
Chase Elliott ($11,700)
Career at Darlington: 7 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 3 top 10s
Average Finish at Darlington: 18.3
That average finish deserves an asterisk, because Elliott was on his way to a top-five finish or maybe even a win in May at the Track Too Tough to Tame before this wreck seen around the world.
Elliott’s two awful results at Darlington this year were due to crashes. If it wasn’t for those, there’s no doubt he’d be mentioned more as a potential race winner come Sunday, leading 28 laps his last time out.
Elliott has largely had a quiet summer outside of his win at the Daytona road course event a couple of weeks ago. But this team always seems to take a big step to the plate once the playoffs begin, and there’s no reason to believe 2020 will be any different. Elliott represents Chevrolet’s best chance at a win this weekend, trying to break a long slump for the Bowtie Brigade. The manufacturer hasn’t won here in six years, their longest drought since returning to NASCAR in full force back in 1970.
Kyle Busch ($11,000)
Career at Darlington: 17 starts, 1 win, 5 top fives, 11 top 10s
Average Finish at Darlington: 11.4
OK, Kyle Busch has not had a great season this year. He’s never gone this deep into a season without winning a race, and he’s actually in the hole as far as making it into the next playoff round due to a lack of stage wins this season.
However, there are still some positives for Busch. Looking into 2020, the No. 18 Toyota hasn’t often been off the pace; it’s more they just keep having bad luck. Busch is not usually finishing mid-pack; the reigning Cup Series champ either posts a top-five finish or a DNF. So the speed to potentially advance is still there if Lady Luck plays along.
Busch is also about to come up on a great portion of the schedule for him. After Darlington, he goes to one of this top tracks, Richmond Raceway, then follows up with his best (Bristol Motor Speedway). And if Busch advances? He starts the next round racing at his home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
If Busch is going to end up repeating as a champion, he needs to have a great September. Darlington is a place where he can start off strong, posting three top-three finishes in his last five events there (and that total includes a second place run in May).
ALL-STAR TIER: $6,000 – $9,999
Austin Dillon ($8,300)
Career at Darlington: 8 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 2 top 10s
Average Finish at Michigan: 13.2
Dillon is a steal at this price. He doesn’t have too many flashy results at Darlington, but the stats are deceiving. Sure, the Richard Childress Racing driver has only one top-five finish, but he also has just one result outside the top 20: a 22nd in this race in 2015. Dillon might have just two top-10 results, but he also has five top-12 performances here.
Finally, Dillon stays out of trouble at this notorious racetrack, having completed every single lap at Darlington in his career. 2,710 for 2,710 is no small feat and will likely lead to a little extra boost on your roster.
BARGAIN TIER: $5,999 and below
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($5,500)
Career at Darlington: 9 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s
Average Finish at Darlington: 25.9
Stenhouse really doesn’t have a great record at this track. But when a driver is this cheap, it’s worth a roll of the dice, even at Darlington.
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver is remembered most at this track for wrecking on lap 1 this spring. But it hasn’t been all bad for Stenhouse here. A 12th-place finish in 2018 is the high-water mark of four career top-20 results.
It’s always smart to have at least one outlier on a NASCAR FanDuel fantasy team just in case things go crazy. Stenhouse might just be the one for you.