Fantasy Fastlane: Previewing the 2021 season with driver tier rankings
5 must-use spots: Daytona Road Course, Kansas, Dover, Road America and Watkins Glen
Avoids: Daytona and New Hampshire
The scoop: With most of the top drivers, I prefer to avoid uses at the superspeedways. And given the regular-season schedule has six road courses, you'll want to make sure you have Elliott for the bulk of those. Dover has been one of his stronger tracks throughout his career, and Kansas has been one of his best 1.5-milers of late. He’s pretty strong everywhere, which will force some tough choices as the uses pile up. One easy avoid: New Hampshire — where he has an average finish of 16.0.
5 must-use spots: Phoenix, Atlanta, Darlington, New Hampshire and Michigan
Avoids: Daytona and Talladega
The scoop: Harvick is simply too valuable to risk the use at a superspeedway -- not to mention both are his worst tracks over the past three seasons. The 2014 champ is a driver to use at tracks where speed is at a premium, so think most 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks. Don't forget about Phoenix -- his nine wins there are a track best. Harvick is solid on road courses, but the catch there is he and crew chief Rodney Childers may pass on stage points to better position for the win, so you might not get a massive points day there.
5 must-use spots: Miami, Phoenix, Richmond, Darlington and Pocono
Avoids: Atlanta and Charlotte
The scoop: You'll notice I didn't include Daytona on the must-use spots for Hamlin. Let me explain -- I don't love using my top plays on superspeedways, but given how strong he has been at Daytona of late, I would make an exception for the Daytona 500 with Hamlin and I likely will budget a play for him there to open the season. Hamlin tends to fare well at tracks where tire management is key, like Miami and Darlington. He's also solid on short tracks, with Richmond and Phoenix strong spots to play (and Martinsville has been historically but not as much of late).
5 must-use spots: Las Vegas, Martinsville, Richmond, Nashville and New Hampshire
Avoids: Sonoma and Daytona
The scoop: Keselowski was strong on the short tracks in 2020, and with the same package in place, I'd feel good penciling him in for Martinsville, Richmond and New Hampshire for starters. His Xfinity record at Nashville -- two wins and seven top fives -- suggests a set-and-forget roster spot for the first Cup race there. His three wins at Las Vegas make him an intriguing prospect there, especially if he isn't going to be used more than once or twice prior to Martinsville. The 2012 champ is not bad on road courses, but with just two top 10s at Sonoma ... I'd avoid that one. Daytona is his worst track on the circuit. If you were going to use him at a superspeedway, consider Talladega, where he has five wins.
5 must-use spots: Miami, Phoenix, Richmond, Nashville and Watkins Glen
Avoids: Daytona Road Course and Talladega
The scoop: After a disappointing 2020, we are still leaning heavily on Busch's career numbers to find his strong tracks. Richmond, Watkins Glen and Phoenix are three of his best. Miami has been one of his best in the last six years, and his last four Xfinity starts at Nashville were pretty strong. The two-time champion can get on a hot streak like no other, so staying flexible here is good. Players pick up two uses here with Auto Club and the paved Bristol off the regular season schedule in 2021. The Roval layouts have not been kind to Busch, so those are flat avoids for me.
5 must-use spots: Las Vegas, Martinsville, Richmond, Charlotte and Michigan
Avoids: Pocono and Atlanta
The scoop: I expect to go through nearly half my Logano uses in the first three months given his solid numbers at Las Vegas, Martinsville and Richmond as well as my expectation he'll merit another start at another track in the first 10. His record on traditional road courses leaves a little bit to be desired overall, so I'd take a wait-and-see approach at the new road races with him. Pocono and Atlanta are two tracks that have not treated the 2018 champion well and are among two of his five worst tracks based on average finish.
5 must use spots: Miami, Richmond, Dover, Watkins Glen and Michigan
Avoids: Bristol (dirt) and Daytona
The scoop: Truex has never won at a superspeedway, so you can include both of those in the avoids. He doesn't have much of a dirt history, so I'd stay away from him at Bristol as well. Truex has long been strong at Dover, where he has three wins. He has been a top-five machine at Michigan the last two years, and his recent Richmond record has been quite good with two wins in his last three starts there (can say the same for Martinsville). Miami and Watkins Glen are his two best active tracks with more than two regular-season starts.
4 must-use spots: Las Vegas, Martinsville, Road America and Michigan
Avoids: Richmond and Darlington
The scoop: Another Penske driver, another Las Vegas/Martinsville must-use recommendation. The two venues have simply been tracks where Penske has thrived in recent years. Blaney's lone Road America start was a runner-up finish in 2015, and his road-racing record is a bit underrated in general. Blaney could very well be a Tier 1 driver given his streaky nature of stringing together strong finishes. In 17 starts, Blaney has never finished in the top 10 at Darlington and Richmond -- just a few of several spring tracks where he historically hasn't run well.
4 must-use spots: Las Vegas, Talladega, Kansas and Dover
Avoids: Phoenix and Miami
The scoop: Bowman's strong close to 2020 has him on the cusp of the Tier 1 range. The four tracks for his must-use spots are among his best during his three-year, full-time run at Hendrick Motorsports. A sleeper track to consider: the Bristol dirt race given his dirt history. Phoenix has been Bowman's worst track by average finish among those on the active circuit over the last three years. He has one top 10 at Miami, and his next best finish there is 16th.
4 must-use spots: Miami, Bristol (dirt), Darlington and Dover
Avoids: Martinsville and Charlotte
The scoop: Similar to Blaney and Bowman, Larson could very well be a Tier 1 driver disguised as a Tier 2 driver to start the year. He has been out of the top series for almost a year, so that's part of the initial hesitancy. With Miami up as the third race of the season, we'll know pretty quickly how up to speed he is since that's one of his best tracks. Martinsville and Larson have never mixed well, and Charlotte has too much variance in his results over the years.
4 must-use spots: Phoenix, Atlanta, Darlington and Sonoma
Avoids: Miami and Las Vegas
The scoop: Two tracks known for tire falloff that tend to favor veterans are among my top four tracks for Busch, which is why it's weird not to see him have more success at Miami. Phoenix and Sonoma are his top two regular-season tracks, and his road record lends thought to being able to plug him in for a few more of those races throughout the season. I know you're also thinking, "Wait, didn't Busch win at Las Vegas last fall?" He did, but he has just three top fives and six top 10s in 22 starts. I'll play the odds in Sin City that the fall result wasn't the start of a reverse of his hometown curse.
4 must-use spots: Daytona Road Course, Kansas, Pocono and Road America
Avoids: Atlanta and Richmond
The scoop: Byron's a solid road racer -- not on teammate Elliott's level, but solid nonetheless. He has a top-six finish at Road America in the Xfinity Series and notched a top 10 at the Daytona Road Course. I feel comfortable deploying him for several road courses in the regular season. Kansas has been one of his top tracks in the las two seasons, as has Pocono. Atlanta has been one of Byron’s worst tracks by average finish -- no finish better than 17th -- and his Richmond runs have been a struggle for him as well.
3 must-use spots: Las Vegas, Sonoma and New Hampshire
Avoids: Atlanta and Kansas
The scoop: In general, DiBenedetto is a name to consider for the road-course part of the schedule. He nabbed a top five at Sonoma and a top 10 at Watkins Glen in 2019. New Hampshire has also been a solid track for him in the last two years with an average finish of 5.5. With two runner-up finishes at Las Vegas in 2020, it's hard to not to consider him there as well. Atlanta and Kansas have been his two worst non-superspeedway tracks since 2019. Like others on this tier, he can be a race-day, plug-and-play option.
3 must-use spots: Miami, Bristol (dirt) and Pocono
Avoids: Las Vegas and Sonoma
The scoop: Bell's a tricky one to read since he only has one Cup season to go on, and he's already in a different ride. He could drive himself into the Tier 2 group given his caliber of equipment. So we're going to lean on his dirt background and tracks where he can ride the high line all the way around. Miami was a track where he finished eighth in the summer. The Bristol dirt race is an ideal spot for a use as a three-time Chili Bowl winner. With one of his two top fives in his rookie year at Pocono, we'll throw that on the list as another solid play. Bell has a decent road racing history, but I'd avoid him at tracks he hasn’t run yet for now -- Sonoma is one of those.
3 must-use spots: Phoenix, Talladega and New Hampshire
Avoids: Watkins Glen and Michigan
The scoop: Since moving to SHR, Almirola has four top 10s at Phoenix (in six starts), three top 11s at New Hampshire (in three starts) and a win, three top fives and five top 10s in six Talladega starts. Pocono is also a good option with five top 12s in his last six starts there. Almirola has never finished in the top 10 in nine Watkins Glen starts. The veteran tends to be a little streaky, as he has had streaks of at least six top 10s in each of the last two regular seasons.
3 must-use spots: Miami, Bristol (dirt) and Charlotte
Avoids: Martinsville and Pocono
The scoop: Reddick enters his second year, and the preferred tracks for him are in a similar vein to that of Bell and Larson. He's an ideal play for the dirt race at Bristol given his background, and past Miami success makes him a must there. His 2020 Charlotte stats were solid, so I'd give him a look there. Pocono was a track to forget for him during the doubleheader weekend, and Martinsville is typically tough on a young driver. A solid start puts Reddick in the glimpse of the Tier 2 conversation.
3 must-use spots: Miami, Richmond and Darlington
Avoids: All road courses
The scoop: Miami and Darlington have been routine top-12, top-15 tracks for Dillon in his Cup career -- five straight top 12s at Miami and five top 12s in his last seven starts at Darlington. At Richmond, he has three top-six finishes in his last four starts there. As for the road courses, in 15 starts at that track type, he has yet to finish in the top 10 in any of those races. Need to see improvement there before considering the play.
3 must-use spots: Kansas, Dover and Road America
Avoids: Daytona and Michigan
The scoop: Kansas and Dover were two of Custer's best tracks on the regular-season schedule -- New Hampshire was a solid one as well for him. His Xfinity road-course record is consistent with nine top 10s in 11 starts, so he could be a sneaky option at those (Road America stands out with three top 10s in three starts.) The second-year driver wrecked out of both Daytona races -- you can take more calculated gambles there. Michigan was his second-worst track in 2020. His second-half stats show a driver who could make a quiet move up the board if he can nab more stage points -- he had the 23rd most in 2020.
Early opportunities for a play: Daytona and Martinsville
The scoop: Wallace's move to a new ride is also a brand-new team in the form of 23XI Racing. Expect some growing pains early as the first-year program gets off the ground, but the Joe Gibbs Racing alliance makes this an intriguing prospect to mind for plays down the line. The hope is Wallace yields a bit more consistency than the Leavine Family Racing alliance did with drivers Matt DiBenedetto and Christopher.
Early opportunities for a play: Miami and Bristol dirt
The scoop: Rookies don't just come right into the top series and make an immediate impact, right? Briscoe is no doubt talented, but expect some time to be needed for him to get up to speed, per se, in the sport's top series. That said, with the slew of road courses on the schedule, he seems primed for multiple fantasy plays in the summer -- looking at you specifically, Road America, Watkins Glen and the Indianapolis Road Course. Much like Larson, Reddick and Bell, his dirt background make him a prime target to use at the Bristol dirt race.
Early opportunities for a play: Daytona Road Course and Darlington
The scoop: Jones is in a new ride as he moves to Petty's No. 43 from the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20. I wouldn't bet against Jones putting together some strong runs in his new ride. Darlington is one track that stands out with a win, six top 10s in as many starts and an average finish of 5.2. Jones has also been a stealth road-course racer with six top 10s in 10 starts, so he could certainly be an option at that track type with the Daytona Road Course serving as the first opportunity -- he finished 11th there in 2020.
Early opportunities for a play: Daytona and Talladega
The scoop: It was a rough year for the No. 42 car in 2020, so that partly factors into our wait-and-see strategy. The other part is, while Chastain hasn't had great opportunities in Cup, he does have a three-race sample size from his Roush fill-in stint last year (a ride on par with the No 42’s performance in 2020) and had an average finish of 22.3. Those numbers don't scream play me. I'd throw him out as an option for the superspeedways and potentially road courses but need to see more elsewhere before I consider other uses.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona Road Course
The scoop: Dinger is making a one-off start in the second race of the year for Kaulig Racing. He finished fourth at the Xfinity Series' Daytona Road Course race in 2020. His road-course success is well-documented, and he's a must start here for me. Any additional road starts he may make over the course of 2021 in the Cup Series are also ideal spots for a use. Kaz Grala will run the car for the Daytona 500, and I'd consider him as well for a spot start (assuming he qualifies for the race).
Opportunities for a play: Bristol dirt and Talladega
The scoop: With eight full-time seasons under his belt, we know where Stenhouse is at his strongest -- superspeedways. He's a must-use play at Talladega -- his best track with a win, six top fives and nine top 10s in 15 starts. Given his dirt background, the Bristol dirt race is a solid choice, especially when you consider regular Bristol is one of his better tracks as well. I would also consider him for Daytona, but he is stronger at Talladega.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona and Daytona Road Course
The scoop: You read that right -- there's a good chance Buescher will be rostered for the first two races of the season. He had the third-best average finish on superspeedways in 2020 -- behind only Hamlin and Blaney -- and finished fifth in the first running of the Daytona Road Course. There may be other opportunities to plug him in at additional road courses, but both Daytona events jump right off the bat to me.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona and Talladega.
The scoop: Newman had a down 2020 season with just two top 10s, and the veteran is a better performer than that. That said, however, it's hard to pinpoint spots to play him besides superspeedways. He has run well at that track type of late with 10 top 10s in his last 14 starts at Daytona and Talladega combined. Martinsville could be a sneaky option given his blue-collar, grind-it-out style of racing.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona Road Course and Road America
The scoop: McDowell is a solid road racer, and with six of those in the regular season, there should ample spots to plug and play him at those track types. The Daytona Road Course and Road America stand out because he had a top 10 at the Daytona Road Course in 2020 and won in the Xfinity Series at Road America in 2016. He's also a great option for the Daytona oval, with six of his career 12 top 10s coming on the 2.5-mile layout.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona 500
The scoop: The reigning Xfinity Series champ will make several Cup starts this season with an attempt to make the 2021 Daytona 500 among them. In a Penske car, he's certainly worth the consideration on a superspeedway. If he makes a road-course start later in the regular season, that's also worth a consideration.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona and Talladega
The scoop: All three of LaJoie's Cup top 10s have come on superspeedways. He is with a new team, so there could be some growing pains. As we get deeper into the season, he could be a nice use saver on the bigger tracks and, if Spire makes some gains, perhaps other venues as well.
Opportunities for a play: Dover and Watkins Glen
The scoop: Watkins Glen and Dover are Suarez’s best two tracks in his four years at the Cup level. That said, he is with a brand-new team in Trackhouse Racing Team, and owner Justin Marks has indicated its eyes are on the Next Gen car coming in 2022. It’s hard to know how, exactly, a new team will run, so definitely see what the results bring before playing him.
Opportunities for a play: Talladega and Road America
The scoop: Talladega has been Preece’s best Cup track with his lone top five and two of his five top 10s in Cup coming there. He had just one start at Road America, but it was an 11th-place run in a JD Motorsports car in the Xfinity Series.
Opportunities for a play: Need some time
The scoop: Alfredo has just 32 national series starts, and the 2021 Daytona 500 will mark his first Cup start. Front Row has a history of doing well on the superspeedways -- the driver he is taking over for, John Hunter Nemechek, had nice runs in those races in 2020. But for now, I think it's best to just wait.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona 500
The scoop: Dillon has three top 10s at Daytona and will be making the start there in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota. The possibility exists for Dillon to make additional starts with the organization -- one I'd potentially look at would be Talladega for a spot start if more starts do come to fruition.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona 500
The scoop: The 2010 Daytona 500 winner is in theory a sneaky play for the season-opening race, especially because in an one-off start, uses won’t matter. The risk? McMurray hasn’t made a start in two years and has just five top 10s in 33 starts at Daytona. Oh, and he crashed out of four of his last six starts there.
Opportunities for a play: Daytona 500
The scoop: I like the one-off use of Ragan a bit more than McMurray. Ragan has two Cup wins, both on superspeedways, and is coming off a fourth-place finish in last year's Daytona 500. It was the only start he made in 2020 in the top series.
Opportunities for a play: Talladega
The scoop: Similar to Cindric, Gragson will make his Cup debut if he qualifies for the Daytona 500. I'd pass on that, but I like the idea of plugging him in for a different superspeedway race later in the year based on Beard Motorsports' history on that track type over the past four years. Brendan Gaughan nabbed four top 10s over that span, and Gragson has four top 11s in that number of starts at Talladega.