NASCAR Fantasy Fusion: Darlington

Last week at Daytona, Chris Buescher certainly let his 15 fellow Playoff competitors and the rest of the field know that he and his No. 17 RFK Racing team are the real deal. The victory was Buescher's third of the regular season and his first career win at Daytona International Speedway. Remarkably, he has won three of the last five races.

This week the NASCAR Cup Series begins the Playoffs at the iconic Darlington Raceway. Although the track is notorious for being being "Too Tough to Tame," there are 16 drivers looking to do just that. For the first time, Bubba Wallace is joining the Playoff party while veterans Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are both making their NASCAR Cup Series record 17th Playoff appearance – the most all-time. Last year, Erik Jones played the spoiler by becoming the first non-Playoff driver to win the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs (2004-2023). Will we see a repeat this year? Stay tuned.

This Week's Pick Strategy: Odds are pretty good that Playoff drivers will dominate the Top 10 finishers in this opening Playoff race. Over the past two races here these five drivers scored the most driver's points: William Byron (56), Kyle Busch (45), Brad Keselowski (44), Kevin Harvick (42), and Bubba Wallace (40). However, I wouldn't count out having another non-Playoff driver take the win. Erik Jones certain could do a repeat as this is arguably his best track. But drivers like Chase Elliott as well as Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Aric Almirola are also very good here. Go heavy on Playoff drivers this week and mix in at least two hungry non-Playoff drivers who need to make some noise.

Drivers with Most Top 10s
By Race
All with 4 - Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, and Kevin Harvick
All with 3 - Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, and Kyle Busch 

Drivers with Most Top 10s
By Track (Includes 9 races - 2017-2022)
Kevin Harvick - 8
All with 6 - Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Kurt Busch, and Kyle Busch
Martin Truex Jr.- 5
All with 4 - Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Austin Dillon
Last Year's Pole Winner: Joey Logano
Last Year's Race Winner:  Erik Jones
The Likely Suspects: My Darlington elites include Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, and Martin Truex Jr.

My 2 Cents: This week's no-brainer pick is a tie between Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. My next picks are William Byron, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, and Bubba Wallace. I will round out my roster with Corey LaJoie and Harrison Burton.
My Final Four: Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones, and Corey LaJoie.

Second-Look Driver: This week's second-look driver is Tyler Reddick. This will only be Tyler's seventh Cup Series start here. He has earned two Top 5s and three Top 10s for an average finish of 12.500, the sixth best. Tyler has a driver Rating of 86.5, 11th-best here. In last year's race he finished third. He absolutely loves running the high line here. 
Points to Ponder:
  • Last season, Erik Jones became the first non-Playoff driver to win the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs (2004-2023).
  •  Since the inception of the elimination-style format of the Playoffs in 2014, entering the Playoffs as the No. 1 seed has been the most successful seeding, producing four championships among three drivers – Kyle Larson (2021), Kyle Busch (2015, 2019) and Martin Truex Jr. (2017). 
  • The deepest seeding an eventual champion has started the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with is seventh and it has happened twice - by Kevin Harvick (2014) and Joey Logano (2018). 
  • Kevin Harvick (2014, 2017) and Joey Logano (2022 sweep) lead all active NASCAR Cup Series drivers in poles at Darlington Raceway with two each. 
  • 21 of the 124 (16.9%) NASCAR Cup Series races at Darlington Raceway have been won from the pole, the first starting position, making it the most prolific starting position in the field. The most recent was Joey Logano in the May race this year.
  • The outside front row (second starting position) has produced the second-most wins (18). 
  • Eight of the 53 NASCAR Cup Series Darlington race winners are active this weekend: Denny Hamlin with four wins, Kevin Harvick with three, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones with two. William Byron, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch each have one win here. 
  • A total of 11 different manufacturers have won in the series at Darlington, led by Chevrolet with 43 victories, followed by Ford (32).
  • Denny Hamlin leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series in average finishing position at Darlington with a 7.682 in 22 starts. He also leads active drivers in runner-up finishes here with four.
  • Kevin Harvick leads all active NASCAR Cup Series drivers in Top 5s at Darlington with 14 as well as in Top 10s with 19. 
  • Martin Truex Jr. leads all active NASCAR Cup Series drivers in laps led with 914 in 22 starts.
If you are playing Driver Group Game, remember to make your initial picks by 12:50 p.m. ET on Saturday, September 2nd and your final picks at 6 p.m. ET on race day Sunday, September 3rd.
Carol D'Agostino has been playing Fantasy NASCAR for 16 years. She launched  NASCAR Fantasy Fusion for Skirts & Scuffs in October 2011. Each week, Carol pores through statistics and combs through her personal notebooks to arm fans with analysis and picking strategies that will leave their friends wondering how they got so smart. Carol also does race coverage for Skirts & Scuffs at Richmond Raceway and occasionally at her home track, Dover International Speedway. She is also part of the distinguished NASCAR Expert Picks panel at formerly called Fantasy Racing Cheat Sheet. When she isn’t wielding her fantasy-racing superpowers, you’ll find Carol hammering out a news release or creating a marketing strategy at a small niche public relations firm she founded called Purple Cat or executing downtown revitalization projects for a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

NASCAR Fantasy Fusion: Darlington NASCAR Fantasy Fusion: Darlington Reviewed by Carol D'Agostino on Saturday, September 02, 2023 Rating: 5