Four drivers in the NASCAR field have got off to a dramatically strong start for 2015. In three instances, they were expected to run as well as they have, while the fourth has been a pleasant surprise.
Setting salary caps at the beginning of a season is often as much about anticipating how well a driver will run as it is about their previous season momentum. Kevin Harvick is a perfect example of how a driver is often capable of carrying his momentum from one year to the next. He finished second at Texas Motor Speedway last fall, won the final two races of the year—and the championship—and started this season with back-to-back runner-up finishes. His victory last week was the icing on the cake and it gave him six consecutive first- or second-place finishes. His salary has now increased in consecutive weeks to make him the most expensive driver in the game. Harvick shares a value of $28.25 with Joey Logano, whose top-10 last week was not enough to drop his value. Like Harvick, Logano has swept the top spots.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is rapidly catching up to the pair at the top of the valuation chart, however. He is getting off to just as strong a 2015 season as he had last year and rivals Harvick in terms of top-fives. That contributed to an increase of 50 cents, which makes him the third-most expensive driver in the game. From the start of the year, he has now bumped $1 and will continue to become more expensive until he falls outside of the top 10 or gets to the top of the acceptable values.
For the minor valuation changes those three have undergone in the first three weeks, these racers cannot be considered a surprise, but Martin Truex Jr. was not expected to be quite this strong this soon. At the end of last year, he scored top-15s with frequency at the beginning of the Chase, but earned only one such finish in the final five races. That contributed to an initial cap of $17, but it is rapidly becoming obvious that he was undervalued. His cap has improved to $18.25 in just two weeks, but given the erratic record at the end of last year, it is difficult to bump him all the way to the top without several more top-10s.
To maintain a balance among the most expensive drivers, salary cap increases often are offset by decreases. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson both experienced crash damage last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and lost a lot of points for fantasy owners. This was the third straight week in which the No. 24 sustained crash damage and it is impossible for him to be unaffected. Gordon has dropped 75 cents since the start of the Daytona 500, but that should stabilize when his luck turns around.
Johnson also took a slight dip last week but after his victory at Atlanta, it has not been quite as severe as Gordon’s. One reason for any reaction to last week’s accident is that fantasy players are not certain if this team is beginning to experiment with risky setups now that they are locked into the Chase. This could also be true for the other two winners this season, but Logano and Harvick’s results have not been impacted like Johnson was last week.
Tony Stewart was the biggest loser in terms of cap value last week. His price tag dropped from $20.50 to $20 because he has not been happy with the handling of his car in recent weeks. Whether the cause of his malaise is the distraction surrounding the running of a team or the first signs of a driver entering the twilight of his career has yet to be determined, but for now his results are not sufficient to keep him at his current level.
Good research makes good players. Check up next week to find out how the CampingWorld.com 500 will impact drivers.