With two races on unrestricted, intermediate speedways in the books, a new Big 3 have emerged.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak paused the season, NASCAR ran on four different track types: an aero-restricted superspeedway, a similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track, a 2-mile track, and a short, flat track. With its progressive banking, the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway is distinct from the flat 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, but not as much as one would suppose.
The difference between those two courses shows up in the mechanical handling of the cars. There are some similarities nonetheless. Both of unrestricted, intermediate speedways require stout engine packages, organizations that do not falter, and a slick aerodynamic flow over the hood and roof line.
As a result, fantasy players have learned a lot already – even though we made it only to Week 4.
One of the things we learned on the intermediate tracks is that NASCAR’s parity seems to finally be taking effect. The Big 3 of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. were not nearly as dominant in the early races as they were at the end of 2019.
Harvick managed to score top-10s in both races, but his best finish of eighth was disappointing. Busch finished second at Auto Club, but he ran on the high side of the top 10 most of the day and surged only at the end of the 400 miles. Truex ran into trouble both weeks and failed to crack the top-10. He also languished in race trim.
Joey Logano won at Las Vegas, but he struggled badly at Las Vegas.
That allowed three other drivers to assume their role as the Big 3.
Blaney posted the second-best Average Running Position at Vegas. He had the power and the right strategy for most of the race, but a late caution left his crew chief with an impossible decision. If he stayed out on old tires, the remainder of the field would pit. If he pitted, many of the top runners would opt to do the opposite. Ultimately the decision to pit put him in a maelstrom that resulted in an 11th-place finish.
The majority of points are scored at the end of the race, but in order to look forward, fantasy players have to consider other factors. If the Pennzoil 400 had ended under green, Bowman likely would have caught Blaney and battled for the lead. Bowman also got shuffled outside of the top 10 at the checkers.
Bowman proved the next week that he had the strength to contend for a win and that Vegas was not a fluke. (For that matter, so did Blaney with the second-best running position for the second week in a row.) Bowman dominated the Auto Club 400 with an Average Running Position of 1.76, won Stage 1, and finished second in Stage 2 for near perfect points before driving away from the field at the checkers.
Bowman’s success underscores another change for 2020. Last year Chevrolet had issues with the aerodynamics of their body style on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Elliott was good more often than many of the others in the bowtie brigade in 2019, but he was still uneven.
This year, the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization has improved. Elliott had a tire failure at Vegas and did not get the finish he deserved. He posted the fourth-best Average Running Position (7.36). William Byron (7.58), Bowman (8.31), and Jimmie Johnson (9.68) also cracked the top 10 on this statistic.
At Auto Club, Bowman (1.76), Johnson (3.63), and Elliott (8.09) were all ranked among the top five in regard to their average position. Also in a Chevrolet, Kurt Busch (8.72) was sixth-best. That suggests the manufacturer’s new body is much better suited for races on this style of track.
The forced break will give Harvick, Busch, and Truex a chance to recalibrate. While we are certain their teams are practicing social distancing, we are equally sure they are hard at work – calling out to one another from six feet or more distance. Of course, the same is true for Blaney, Bowman, and Elliott.
And the thrill of this sport is that one never knows how that will play out until the green flag waves. Whenever that is.
2020 Stats through Week 4