Data Mining is a regular post each week of the NASCAR season. It will focus on data behind the picks that combine hundreds of data points to give you the most accurate picture possible of what to expect from each driver this week. Digging deeper than loop data to give you an edge on the competition.
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Average Running Position – Jimmie Johnson: 5.6
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Jimmie Johnson is really good here. The most decorated driver in NASCAR has been dominant in Fontana just like he has been at so many other tracks on the circuit. Even if we scale the results down to just the last seven years, it’s still all Jimmie. He has three wins and five Top-5’s in the last nine years. Outside of a 24th place finish back in 2014 he hasn’t finished worse than 12th since 2005.
Jimmie has been lurking the last few races, finishing 9th in Vegas and 11th in Phoenix but hasn’t yet had a real chance to win; and he will likely be in contention again this weekend. He’s the top driver in the field in average running position at just 5.6. Two other drivers have an average running position under 10.0 but nobody can touch Jimmie. His price is still stubbornly high at $9,800, although justified, I’d like to see him a little lower. Jimmie will be in play regardless of where he qualifies; and this is a track where you can win starting outside the Top-10.
Top-5 Rate – Kyle Busch: 55.6%
Rowdy almost broke through with his first win since Indianapolis last season, but the #22 did him dirty (and my lineup) by melting the damn tires with six laps to go. Busch has been tremendous at Auto Club, especially in the last few years. From 2011-2014 he finished 3rd, 2nd, 1st and 1st. He missed the 2015 race and was running 2nd in last year’s race with two laps to go before he made contact with the wall with a tire going down.
Busch is the top driver in the field in Top-5 Rate over the last nine years. at 55.6%. He’s led 80 or more laps in three of the last five races. I like using a pissed off Rowdy, and you can bet he’s seething after the last two weeks Look for another Top-5 finish from him this week, and a strong shot at a win.
Adjusted Place Differential – Cole Whitt: 13.0
Ladies and gentlemen your punt this week is Cole Whitt. This will be a race that can be won with place differential. There is no driver in the field better than Cole Whitt in adjusted place differential. Yeah he’s usually starting way in the back, but in three races here he’s finished with PD’s of +16 +8 and +10, and has never finished below 26th. It will be an interesting week at the top of the salary range trying to nail the hammers, but Whitt has shown he can stay clean and stay on the lead lap. That along may be worth his price. Using Cole Whitt allows you more lineup combinations than you can imagine.
Green Flag Pass Differential – Dale Earnhardt Jr: 11.1
Is this the week we finally see a good run from the #88? After a pair of sub 30th place finishes to start the year, Earnhardt has finished 16th in Las Vegas and 14th in Phoenix; nowhere near where he wants to run. Coming in to California, this is another track where he’s been strong at moving through the field. His green flag pass differential of 11.1 over the last seven years trails only teammate Chase Elliott (although in once race) in that category. He’s three positions clear of the next closest driver in this category.
Do not treat Earnhardt as a hammer this week, but as a place differential candidate. He’s led under 30 laps here in his entire career, but he’s had a positive place differential in each of the last six years. Partly that’s due to poor qualifying. He has only one Top-10 start since 2007 and based on his history, expect him to start anywhere from the mid teens to high 20’s. A Top-10 finish is feasible, but is that worth it at $8,700?
Average Running Position – Kevin Harvick: 10.1
Did you think I’d get through another article without talking about Kevin Harvick? Three drivers have led 100+ laps here over the last five races. Harvick is one of those with 142 laps led on the way to a second place finish in this race last year. Harvick has the 4th highest average running position in the field *the other drivers are covered in other segments of this article*. Not only has he run up front but he’s led laps. On top of his 142 laps led last year he led 34 the year before. So while he was a good play last week on place differential alone, it’s hard to roster the most expensive driver in the field without hammer points. This week he could easily get those. If he has a good qualifying run he will put himself in a position to get to the lead early. From there he has the ability to dominate here.
Young Guns – (Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott)
The next wave of NASCAR talent is clearly here in Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Neither have hit their 25th birthday (Larson 24 and Elliott 21) but through four races this season they sit 1-2 in the standings. Elliott has a pair of Top-5 finishes and has led at Daytona and Phoenix. Larson has finished second in three straight races, leading laps at every track except Las Vegas. I’m very high on both of them, but not simply because of their fast start to the season.
Both drivers have already shown speed at Auto Club and it’s sister track Michigan. Elliott has two starts at Michigan and has finished second both times, leading 35 and 31 laps respectively. In his one start in Fontana he started 8th and finished 6th. So in only three races at these tracks with very similar footprints he has finished 2nd, 2nd and 6th.
Moving over to Larson, he has a few more starts under his belt. He’s started three races in Fontana. In his first career start, he started 11th and finished 2nd. Here in 2015 he was riding inside the Top-10 before hitting the wall on a late restart. Last year he moved up eight position on the track before behind knocked out in a crash. So while the results aren’t there, the speed is.
Larson’s results are Michigan are more impressive. His finishing position has improved each of the last four years, and last August he captured his first win by leading the final 41 laps with a pass on Chase Elliott. Not much will steer me off of this pair this week. Their prices (Elliott $9,600 and Larson $9,100) put them just under the elite plays but still easy to fit with the peculiar pricing this week by DraftKings.
The Front Row
Not including Daytona, because it’s such a wild-card but we finally saw the front row falter last week in Phoenix. Although Joey Logano led the entire first stage, it was clear his brakes simply weren’t there after the second stage restart. If his brakes were able to cool after a caution he could move up the field, but a speeding penalty on pit road buried him in the back. In the late stages he was again fading through the field before melting the tires with just 6 laps to go.
Ryan Blaney started on the outside of the first row, but was never in contention to lead laps or win the race. Like Logano he got caught with a late speeding penalty on pit road which moved him all the way to the back of the lead lap and a 23rd place finish. Will that be enough to steer the DFS crowd off the front row?
If it’s not, track history in California should be. This race has only been won from the front row twice. Both of those victories belonging to Jimmie Johnson. We know more than wins matter for DFS scoring, but the hammer numbers haven’t been kind to the front row either.
Considers these facts. Five different starting positions have logged between 12-19 average fast laps over the last seven races. The pole sitter is not in that mix.
If we look at laps led, it’s actually the second place starter that leads the field in laps led but the pole sitter is back in 9th. Four different starting positions have averaged more than 20 laps led.
If we look at average finishing position, even if we adjust it for DNF’s the pole sitter only has the 14th highest average finish and the driver on the outside of the front row is just 6th.
The evidence is there to fade the front row. I’ll have a dilemma if the front row holds Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott. Other than those guys I’m confident in a full fade; but only qualifying and practice results will nail that down.