Fantasy players need to be situationally aware.
Last October’s Hellmann's 500 was a great example of knowing when to lay back and when to charge. All four Joe Gibbs Racing teams were still in the Chase. Three of them had enough points to advance so long as Carl Edwards did not get swept into an early-race crash. He, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth chose to ride around outside of the lead pack out of harm’s way.
Denny Hamlin did not have that same luxury. He was forced to race his way into the next round of the Chase and eventually made a daring move to get in by a whisker. Hamlin was the contrarian.
Forced to accumulate maximum points, he had to do what his teammates did not—but it pays to note that all of them made it to the third round. If a player finds himself behind in the count in season-long games, they are going to have to take some chances.
Contrarian picks come in two forms. There are flat out dark horses that are NASCAR’s equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, and there are secondary drivers and teams that find the top 10 in less than a third of the events.
Longshot dark horses are difficult to predict and should only be used on restrictor-plate, superspeedways and in times of desperation. Still, a driver like Michael McDowell who surged when Todd Parrott came to the organization helped win a lot of fantasy contests even though he did not score a lot of top-10s.
Last year, 34 drivers earned top-10s including a dozen who scored five or less. Several of them scored their top-10s on plate tracks, which are notorious for rewarding dark horses, but Trevor Bayne’s strong runs at Bristol Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway, Paul Menard’s three top-10s on flat tracks, and Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto’s solid Bristol efforts prove that there are other courses on which driver skill can trump horsepower.
There are also drivers with uneven results for whom timing their starts are often difficult. Kasey Kahne earned 13 top-10s in 2016, but it was not until the end of the regular season that he managed to post consecutive strong runs. When he finally broke through, he earned four in a row, finished 12th in the next race, and then scored two more. Determining when to climb on a bandwagon can be critical.
AJ Allmendinger is another interesting driver to watch. All but two of his nine top-10s last year came in conjunction with another. These pairings were not natural ones, such as Menard’s string of flat track successes. Allmendinger doubled down at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Speedway early in the year, Watkins Glen International and Bristol in the summer, and then Kansas Speedway, Talladega SuperSpeedway and Martinsville in the fall. In 2017, as soon as he scores one top 10, he should be activated in the next race.
The Rookie of the Year contenders round out the list of contrarians. On the heels of Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney’s strong runs last year, it is expected that Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, and Ty Dillon will earn their fair share of top-10s. In salary cap games, they are likely to be relatively cheap at the start of the season. Moreover, they will not be particularly volatile because they are unlikely to string long streak of top-10s together and that is what usually triggers a meteoric rise in value.