Can you believe it's finally here? At last, a weekend I've been anxiously waiting all season.
No, I'm not talking about the start of American football. Instead, it's the week before the playoffs in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Drivers and teams are headed from one iconic racetrack to another, jumping from Darlington Raceway's Southern 500 to the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Sunday, Sept. 8.
A track most widely known for NASCAR's open-wheel motorsports counterpart, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is 2.5 miles long and rectangularly shaped. This week, cars will be equipped with their lower horsepower package and aero ducts, increasing the likelihood of drafting and more competitive racing on Sunday.
Just 160 laps are in the race at Indy, which means just 40 bonus points are up for grabs for laps led. However, there are 80 bonus points still available for fastest laps. In recent years, drivers who started near the front also held the fastest-lap bonus, so keep that in mind.
Track position is key at Indy, so it stands to reason you will want drivers who qualify in the front portion of the field. Practice speeds may help highlight who you’ll need in your lineup. Also, you may need to adjust your DraftKings roster before the race since qualifying isn't until Sunday morning.
Finally, remember to look for drivers capable of having a good finish after starting further back. Racking up extra position differential points can make the difference in a winning final fantasy score.
Kyle Busch ($12,000)
Career at Indianapolis: 14 starts, 2 wins, 5 top fives, 11 top 10s
Average finish at Indianapolis: 10.7
Rowdy couldn't quite reel in Erik Jones, running out of room in the closing laps last week at Darlington but still salvaged a third-place finish. This week, Busch heads to a track where he has two victories and 11 top 10s. At the Brickyard, those two victories came back-to-back in 2015-2016 when he led 19 and 149 laps in each event, respectively. One of those wins (2016) was from the pole, the first of three straight for him here.
However, Busch has struggled to qualify up front the past month or so this season. Last week at The Lady in Black, Busch overcame an engine change that sent him to the rear. It was his third consecutive start in the lower half of the pack, as he started 22nd at Michigan International Speedway and 31st at Bristol Motor Speedway. Fortunately, he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team were resilient enough to end each race within the top 10.
It will be interesting to see where Busch will start Sunday's event, as he could be more valuable if he goes from the rear. However, even if the No. 18 does qualify on the front row, he would give you bonus DraftKings points for leading laps.
Kevin Harvick ($10,000)
Career at Indianapolis: 18 starts, 1 win, 6 top fives, 12 top 10s
Average finish at Indianapolis: 9.4
There's some bad news and good news for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driver at Indy. The bad news? Harvick's lone win came way back in 2003. The good news? He's had five straight top 10s there recently, including two top fives. Additionally, he's led 109 total laps in that span in which he started near the front. Last year, he led 22 laps but ultimately took home a fourth-place finish.
While the 2019 season didn't start off with a bang, Harvick seems to have found his stride in recent weeks. Aside from mechanical problems he encountered at the Bristol race, Harvick has three top fives and five top 10s in the past six races. Two of those were wins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Michigan. IMS is a much different track than those two, but he still knows how to be successful here. That consistency could put you in the green for your DraftKings contests.
Brad Keselowski ($9,800)
Career at Indianapolis: 9 starts, 1 win, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s
Average finish at Indianapolis: 11.1
The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford is the defending winner of this event, leading just nine laps in a surprise 2018 victory. However, he's led laps in all but two starts at Indy and finished 21 spots higher from where he qualified in 2015. Keselowski's track history illustrates the different bonuses available on DraftKings, though the most points could come from leading laps and repeating last year's performance.
Keselowski has had some rough finishes in the past 10 races, but he does have six top 10s in that span. He also has two poles and five top-five starts; if he qualifies well again at Indy, he could again lead several circuits. In addition to all of his quality statistics is the price—he can help you save some salary and build a more balanced lineup. You could also pair him with Busch or Harvick if you think more than one driver will lead several laps.
Ryan Newman ($8,200)
Career at Indianapolis: 18 starts, 1 win, 3 top fives, 5 top 10s
Average finish at Indianapolis: 16.4
Things could get interesting this week for Newman. After battling hard last week with Daniel Suarez and spinning, he wound up tied with Suarez for the final playoff spot after Darlington. I'm unsure whether Newman would risk obtaining revenge on his fellow peer, as it could be detrimental to his playoff hopes.
Nonetheless, the Roush Fenway Racing driver does have some good finishes at IMS. Newman is currently on a two-race top-10 streak there in which he finished five and seven spots higher from where he began. In 2015, he started last and raced his way to 11th; two years prior, he won from the pole.
While it's unlikely Newman would repeat his winning ways Sunday, he should still provide some good fantasy value for the price. Many of his points would come from positive position differential, depending on where he qualifies.
Paul Menard ($6,800)
Career at Indianapolis: 12 starts, 1 win, 1 top five, 3 top 10s
Average finish at Indianapolis: 17.8
"Paul. Freaking. Menard. For real?" Yes. Menard, wheelman of the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford, has some fairly good statistics at IMS. First, he won this race in 2011 when he drove for Richard Childress Racing, and second, he's finished higher than where he started in several events. One such instance was in his first season with the Wood Brothers last year, where Menard qualified 19th and came in ninth.
While most of this season's results have been unspectacular, this veteran did snatch a ninth last week at Darlington. Menard and his team (which have an alliance with Penske) could use that momentum to earn another top-10 finish. If he does, that would be a nice, inexpensive value play for your contests.
Matt DiBenedetto ($7,300)
Career at Indianapolis: 4 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10
Average finish at Indianapolis: 29.0
DiBenedetto may have a limited history at the Brickyard, but he does have an eighth-place finish in 2017. In that race, drivers needed a certain set of skills to get through the mayhem, as just around 20 cars finished the event. However, all four starts were with other teams than what he's driving for this year (Leavine Family Racing) and those cars didn't have the support LFR has now. So what information can you use besides his track history?
Well, you can look at his performance in recent races this season. As was mentioned in this week's Did You Notice? column, DiBenedetto has the seventh-best average finish in the past six races. That's incredible for a small team such as LFR. Not only that, but Matty D also has four top fives and six top 10s since the Sonoma Raceway event in June. That includes a spectacular performance at Bristol where he nearly won his first Cup race. Will he survive the potential chaos Sunday and earn another top 10? If you believe there's a chance, then plug him into your lineup.
Dark Horse Performer
Chris Buescher ($7,100)
Career at Indianapolis: 3 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 1
Average finish at Indianapolis: 16.0
I may have to start calling this JTG-Daugherty Racing fellow Mr. Consistency, as he hasn't finished outside the top 20 since May 6 at Dover International Speedway. Buescher also has four top 10s this year, including a sixth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
The most appealing stat to me is this driver's ability to finish several positions higher than where he starts. For example, Buescher had a 17-place difference at Pocono's second race and finished 11 spots higher at Michigan. Since he's stayed inside the top 20, that's resulted in higher DraftKings points.
Buescher also posted similar results in his first two races at IMS, one being a ninth-place finish in 2017. He began that race 26th and earned 17 positions thanks to his impeccable driving skills. Should he again qualify in the 20s or even the high teens, Buescher would hit his value and help you cash in your contests.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)