Following a front row sweep by Stewart-Haas Racing at Sonoma, as Kevin Harvick stamped his place in the playoffs with his first victory of the season, the Monster Energy NASCAR series heads back east to the familiar shores of Daytona Beach for the Coke Zero 400. While the Daytona 500 holds all the glory on the race calendar as the pinnacle of the season, the condensed Summer version under the lights is just as fun to watch. The 2017 version of the Coke Zero 400 may be one of the more memorable as this may be Dale Earnhardt Junior’s last opportune chance to seal his spot in the playoffs before his ride off into the sunset of retirement. However, before this narrative gets driven into the ground like a tent peg let’s take a walk through the past seven Daytona races to investigate how many potential lap leaders we will need on our teams come this Saturday evening.

How many potential lap leaders should we roster? 

Before we begin, let me clarify the above numbers. The February version of the Daytona race is 200 laps while the July 4th weekend offering is only 160 laps, because of so few laps what qualifies as a lap leader worth noting fluctuates. My baseline for a lap leader is 25% of the race, thus a driver needed to lead at least 50 laps in February or 40 laps in July. I’ve hashed this out before at Pocono but when you have so few laps led points available, the benchmark needs to creep up for a percentage of the race led. Also, the data from this year’s Daytona 500 is added to see if any trends that began to creep up in last year held true to this year.

Moving on, with 25% of the race being the absolute least a driver can lead we see a steady pattern where only one driver hits that benchmark but we do have one race in the Summer of 2014 where not one single driver led 40 or more laps. For our purposes, I want to focus on the Summer races of the past two years. Besides having 40 fewer laps, this is a race night held at night in the summer heat/ humidity of Florida as opposed to the daytime event held during the winter. For two straight years, we’ve had a driver lead half or more of the race resulting in 21.75 laps led points for Dale Earnhardt Junior in 2015 and 28.75 laps led points for Brad Keselowski last year. Coincidentally, both drivers went on to the win their races making them must play for DFS purposes. In fact, if you add the results from the 2016 Daytona 500 you have three straight races where the driver who led the most laps also won the race (Hamlin – 95 laps). This year’s Daytona 500 broke the streak where the race winner (Kurt Busch) was not also the driver who led the most laps.

Now I see that look of confusion on your face as you may wonder how this information meshes with the idea that you fade practically everyone starting in the top 20 and just build a team based on nothing more than place differential? Yes, this is the approach that worked at Daytona earlier this year as the optimal lineup featured drivers all starting 30th or worse. However, this worked out not only because their place differential points were so substantial but the fact that no one driver led more than fifty laps and combined that with a high finish.

Below is the optimal lineup for last summer’s Daytona race clearly showing the lap leader, Brad Keselowski, as the leading fantasy scorer surrounded by drivers who garnered points via place differential and finishing position.

However, when you look at this year’s earlier Daytona race you see an optimal lineup void of lap leaders.

So… where should we go in regards to rostering potential lap leaders if any? Quite honestly, this boils down to how you interpret the effect of stages and if what happened at Daytona is the beginning of a new trend where segment cautions will prevent a driver from accruing so many laps led points that they need to be rostered. To be honest, past July’s race could have easily been all about place differential thanks to an ill-timed wreck, blown engine, or a myriad of other issues. However, we’d be left making that same excuse for the other two races where the same scenario played out. In the end, it’s too early for me to tell if a new trend is occurring so building teams from both perspectives isn’t that crazy of an idea.

P.S. a big thank you to Pearce Dietrich (@racefortheprize) for the above graphs.

If you think that rostering a potential lap leader is a fool’s errand feel free to bypass the rest of this article; if however, you think that February’s race was an anomaly continued reading below…

Where is the lap leader coming from?

Analyzing where the lap leader comes from at a plate race is a bit like trying to quantify chaos but it is worth noting in the six races where we’ve had someone lead 25% or more of the laps that they all came from within the top eleven starting positions. Whether this is a correlation to starting near the front and being able to maneuver your way there via the draft or having a better pit stall and being able to make up time there, the fact remains that your teams based around a potential lap leader should come from a driver starting twelfth or better.

Should we consider rostering the lap leader?

Finally, what to do with the pole sitter…

Only once in the past seven Daytona races has using the pole sitter actually been a good decision (Summer 2015) as Dale Junior started on the pole, finished first, and led over half of the race. Outside of that race, the pole sitter is not leading nearly enough laps to compensate for the points he’s lost via place differential. Even if the pole sitter doesn’t find his car in a heap of scrap metal when the big one takes place, he’s far too likely to not lead laps to consider as part of your teams come Saturday night.

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Phill Bennetzen

Phill is a father, husband, Catholic, IT Director, wannabe Nutritional Sociologist, and passionate for sports and the stats that encompass them. Phill provides stats and analysis for both NFL and NASCAR as well as writing about game theory for his weekly Process Report article.