Expect hot start to playoff race in Las Vegas`

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

The first race in the playoffs this season will generate a great deal of heat both on and off the track. With temperatures likely exceeding 100 degrees, there is a strong chance that the South Point 400 will be dynamic in terms of cars’ progressing and regressing. The direct heat of the day will likely produce a track that is slick and difficult to navigate for all of the drivers in the race. The difference in temperature between the Las Vegas race in March and this weekend’s race can’t be understated. It is likely that the setups that teams have fallen back on for years will not be ideal in present conditions.

Of course, there are many factors that will make the race different than the one typically held in March. One such factor is that this will be the first race of the playoff season and there will be a level of desperation with the added importance of this event. There is increased emphasis on this race due to the fact that after Richmond next week, it will be the Roval road course in Charlotte North Carolina. The Roval is new to the NASCAR schedule and will serve as an elimination race where the four drivers with the lowest point total will be removed from championship consideration. So with the unknowns of the track conditions at Las Vegas, then adding the wild card Roval, there is increased angst for the drivers who are at the bottom of the playoff seeding.

Alex Bowman, Jimmy Johnson, Aric Almirola and Denny Hamlin are currently the lowest-seeded drivers in the playoff field and have absolutely no room for a poor performance. At a track like Las Vegas, where seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been so successful, he will no doubt have to rely on his strong previous performances to navigate his way to a great finish. A DNF by any driver who is not named Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch could spell disaster for his championship hopes. From listening to the drivers this week, it would seem that many of them are concerned with the results that the Roval might produce. This level of concern will drive the Las Vegas and Richmond races to be run in a more desperate fashion, especially by these lower-seeded drivers, and that fact should play a role in our handicapping.

Below are some of the track analytics that will fuel our wagering decisions.

* 4 of the last 5 races at Las Vegas have been won from a top 4 starting position.

* Over the course of the last 10 races at Las Vegas the average starting position for the winner was 7.7.

* There has been an average of 5.8 caution flags in the last 10 races at Las Vegas

* In the two races at Las Vegas since stage racing was instituted, there has been a significant drop in position changes (83.5) among the top 15 drivers from start to finish. This is down from an average of 116.5 in previous years. This adds value to the starting position difference between two drivers that are matched up.

* 20% of the races at Las Vegas have been won from a starting spot between 20th and 25th. The chance for a longshot winner does exist.

Due to the fact that this race will likely have the largest handle of any race this season, it is critically important to shop the odds in order to get the best value on a targeted driver or matchup. Below is a breakdown of the contenders going into the South Point 400.

Kevin Harvick (plus 280): The winner of the March race in Las Vegas will start 4th and looks to be strong. However there are too many contenders and unknowns to consider betting these odds on a driver to win. He does deserve to be the favorite heading into the race.

Kyle Busch (plus 280): Lined up in the 4th spot, Busch has not displayed the type of speed one might expect to see as the draws near. He was 10th fastest over the course of a long run in happy hour. Along with Harvick, Busch’s odds have not moved much since opening at 5-2.

Martin Truex Jr. (plus 475): Starting in the 10th spot is Truex, who was very fast in all practice sessions, post qualifying. In the last three races at Las Vegas Truex has one win and two top-5 finishes. Although there are plenty of distractions for the #78 team, it has not taken away its ability to run well on 1.5-mile tracks. If the team can keep it clean both mentally and on the track, Truex appears to be a main contender again.

Brad Keselowski (5-1): This is really shocking as Keselowski opened at 20-1 and has been bet down to 5-1. However as mentioned, shopping the prices is crucial, Keselowski is being seen at odds of 12-1 in other spots in Las Vegas. Simply put, Keselowski begins to hit value at 10-1 or better. He has two wins at Las Vegas, but will need to turn up the wick if he is going to get his third win in a row and his third win at Las Vegas.

Kyle Larson (7-1): Thus far Larson has not displayed the type of speed that many expect to see this weekend. Starting in the 11th position, Larson was not able to reach the top 10 in a sustained happy hour run. At current odds, Larson is not considered to be a viable wagering option.

Joey Logano (10-1): After a great qualifying run to line up in the 2nd position, Logano fell off the speed charts in the metrics that are generally crucial in order to get to victory lane. He will need significant improvement in order to be in deep contention for the win as the laps wind down.

Kurt Busch (10-1): Another of the drivers who have been significantly bet down is this Las Vegas native. He opened at 20-1. With his odds now cut in half, he has lost value. He has four DNFs at Las Vegas and has never won at his home track. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Busch as he leads all drivers with a record of 17-6 in matchups on 1.5-mile tracks. Additionally, he was 7th quickest over a sustained run in happy hour. If odds can be located that are closer to his opening number, then Busch gains a lot of value, quietly.

Erik Jones (12-1): Winning the pole position, Jones is a legitimate contender to get the win. He finished 8th in the spring race at Las Vegas and has really improved since that time. Additionally, he has shown strong progression over the course of the weekend. He hold value at current odds, and he becomes and strong play at anything higher.

Chase Elliott (12-1): Here is another of the plays that really deserves to be investigated closely. After crashing out in 9th position of the Las Vegas spring race, Elliott was not really considered to be amongst the top contenders. Over the course of the weekend Elliott has really improved and become one of the top 3 cars going into the race.

Ryan Blaney (15-1): Firmly within the top 10 in the sets of race winning metrics, Blaney will start in an advantageous 6th position. Blaney has 3 top 10s in four races at Las Vegas, and held court in the top positions on his way to a 5th-place finish in March. Blaney is one of the few drivers that hit value at the listed odds above.

Jimmie Johnson (20-1): Bet down from an astonishing 50-1, Johnson is becoming a vogue pick to win the race. At 20-1, there is no way I could begin to endorse him as a possible wager. While it is not hard to see that Johnson will improve from his 17th starting spot, it is difficult to see him finishing in the top 5 or being in deep contention for the win. His speed over the weekend has not been in the top 5 of any predictive metrics.

Denny Hamlin (20-1): Starting in the 3rd position, then falling off the radar is Hamlin. While he was blazing in qualifying, he was nowhere near the top 10 in any of the subsequent practice sessions. There is not a strong indication at this point that Hamlin will be able to improve or even sustain his excellent starting spot.

Clint Bowyer (20-1): While Bowyer has struggled at Las Vegas, he has shown marked improvement over the course of this weekend. He is more deserving of these odds in comparison to Hamlin. Bowyer is not considered to be a great value as he has an average finish of 17.7 in his 13 career starts at Las Vegas.

Below are the matchups that made the cut at this point in the weekend. If any further information should become available which generates a matchup wager there will be an update made available.

Kevin Harvick (-110) over Kyle Busch (-110)

Harvick has simply outperformed Busch this weekend and in the recent history at Las Vegas.

Brad Keselowski (+130) over Kyle Larson (-150)

Keselowski has been hotter than Larson recently, and he has a better career numbers in Las Vegas. At plus money there is genuine value on Keselowski in this matchup.

Kurt Busch (even) over Denny Hamlin (-120)

We will go with Busch here as he leads all drivers in head-to-head matchups on 1.5 mile tracks. Busch is a sneaky play this weekend, and while he may not win, he appears to be poised to turn in a good performance at Las Vegas.

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