There are a variety of salary cap games and it is essential to know the rules of each. Typically, the most productive drivers produce consistently, while others have peaks and valleys. Drivers who consistently underperform are the least expensive. All that is simple logic—but strategy still comes into play.
Buy Low, Sale High
Salary cap managers do their best to set reasonable caps at the beginning of the season, but there is always a driver like Martin Truex Jr. in 2015 that defy expectations. When Truex embarked on his string of 15 races with only one result outside the top 10 at the start of the season, his value began to skyrocket. For more than half of the regular season, he was a place-and-hold driver that could not be replaced in most cap games. That meant he needed to be dropped and re-added at a more expensive level than originally purchased. Back-to-back accidents at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway in the summer hurt fantasy players, but not enough that many believed he could be dropped. He only scored consecutive top-10s once more during the season, however, so players who dropped him following the Toyota / Save Mart 350 made the right choice.
On the other side of the coin, much more was expected of Jimmie Johnson than he ultimately produced. On average he was still a top-10 pick most weeks, but he was expected to be one of the top five with regularity and should have picked up his pace during the Chase. With a dismal 2014 playoff in his record, astute fantasy players learned to avoid him in the middle of the summer and he earned consecutive top-10s sparingly after July. This year he will start lower in the cap level, however, and that could make him a hidden gem.
Other drivers lacked consistency, but trended high. Before making wild swings, most cap managers wait for two or more poor performances before dropping values and a racer like Kurt Busch kept just enough momentum to make him a place-and-hold driver much of the season. When he entered the year four races into 2015, he climbed behind the wheel with a chip on his shoulder determined to prove he belonged in the series and should not have been suspended. His value rose quickly and even with a few poor performances smattered through the season he remained worth starting most weeks.
Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano represented the other type of place-and-hold driver. They dominated the season to such a degree that their salary caps became prohibitively expensive unless they were added very early in the season. Even then they were great values only when they scored top-fives, which is a difficult standard to maintain. Harvick and Logano became anchor drivers and anyone with them on their roster knew they would need to take dark horses to fill the field.
Dark horses in salary cap games came in two types. Some drivers outperformed only during certain weeks. Short, flat tracks and short courses typically reward driver skill as a greater part of the equation than engines on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Relative unknowns like Alex Bowman or Cole Whitt could earn solid top-25s on these tracks.
With very little room at the top of the field, the roster was crowded and racers for Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon, Brian Scott, and Chris Buescher had to make the most of limited opportunities. Since they were not on the lineup every week, it was difficult for cap managers to predict their potential and they nearly always outperformed expectations. Elliott, Scott, and Buescher have fulltime rides this year, but Dillon will be in only 10 events and will be joined by some pleasant surprises in 2016. It’s hard to imagine that Erik Jones will not make an appearance or two in a fifth Joe Gibbs Racing ride, and he will be rightly priced in most games.
The ultimate dark horse races in 2016 will be the restrictor-plate, superspeedways, however, and nearly anyone can finish in the top 10 on those tracks. Spread the wealth around and avoid adding the most expensive drivers, but remember that anyone you drop before the ‘Dega duels or Daytona‘s second event will need to be re-added at their current level.