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Handicapping NASCAR playoffs

By Steve Makinen  (VSiN.com) 

nascar

(To view the charts accompanying this report, subscribe to Point Spread Weekly.)

Before the Daytona 500 in February, Fox Sports was touting NASCAR’s 2021 campaign as the “Best Season Ever.” It’s arguable whether it will live up to that billing, but what we have seen so far can certainly be described as unpredictable. The meteoric rise of Kyle Larson, the unexpected fall of Kevin Harvick and the inability of Denny Hamlin to win a race after dominating thoroughly in the early season have been some of the Cup Series’ biggest stories. Regardless of how we got to this point, the stakes that accompany each race and successive round of the playoffs are the same as always. We witnessed much of the heightened pressure Saturday in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 as the playoff field was finalized. For the 10 races left, we’ll see that many times over.

Of course, with higher stakes, the betting intrigue also climbs for the season title as well as individual races. The odds-on favorite as set forth by the oddsmakers at DraftKings is Larson at + 240. Chase Elliott, the defending series champ, is next at + 500, followed by Kyle Busch (+ 650) and Martin Truex (+ 700). No one else is listed at better than + 750. Those drivers have combined to win 12 of the 26 regular-season races. But with the championship always coming down to the final four drivers in essentially a winner-take-all season finale, perhaps no sport offers underdog bettors a more rewarding and realistic opportunity.

Busch went into the 2019 playoffs struggling for an extended period after building a nice early lead. He continued to flounder for much of the playoffs but qualified for the season finale at Homestead-Miami and put it together for that one critical race. In last year’s postseason, Harvick went in as a heavy favorite but failed to even qualify for the season finale at Phoenix. In this year’s field, Hamlin could easily fill the role of Busch from two years ago, while Larson would most closely resemble the ’20 Harvick.

Because of his playoff point cushion and barring significantly bad fortune, it is reasonable to figure Larson will be of the final four drivers at Phoenix. You will see from my accompanying charts that a few other drivers would seem to be good fits in the way the schedule lines up before the finale. Of course, with the championship race being a single winner-take-all event, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Elliott and even Harvick would seem to be in just-get-to-Phoenix-with-a-chance mode, as all four have enjoyed success in Arizona.

This year’s playoff race schedule is exactly the same as 2020, meaning that the three elimination races will come at tracks that have proven to be highly competitive and intense in recent years. This is not by accident. Drivers will have to maintain their poise and avoid trouble to advance. In 2020, I called this one of my favorite reasons for believing underdogs could hold higher value than usual. The first elimination race is at Bristol, the second at the Charlotte Roval and the third at Martinsville. Drivers typically are tightly packed at these tracks, and only the most skillful tend to thrive. 

Let’s look at some key statistics you’ll want to consider when analyzing the field, starting with the standings entering the postseason.

Which drivers have the most momentum?

Denny Hamlin shot out of the gate in February, and despite not winning a race, he held the season points lead for most of the first 26 races. However, Kyle Larson dominated the summer months and won five races in a very short period. Two other drivers might be holding the right cards in terms of momentum, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch. Blaney has won the two most recent races, has three straight top-2 finishes and has recorded top-5s in five of the last six events. Busch comes off a 34th-place finish at Daytona and was 37th at Loudon in July after crashes. But in the events I term handicap races, Busch has been the best driver on the circuit in his last 10 races in terms of driver rating and points. He has seven top-5s in that span. This isn’t always the case, but one would figure bettors would rather back a driver who is carrying strong momentum into the playoffs. The next chart illustrates the playoff leaderboard for the last 10 handicap races in terms of driver ratings and points earned. I use the term “handicap races” to describe those in which the driver completed 95% or more of the required laps. I use this method to eliminate the fluke circumstances that NASCAR racing presents, choosing to focus on general strength level instead.

A good grouping of strong drivers sits at the top, a much different feel from last year, when Harvick was the hottest driver and the most dominant season-long option going into the postseason. At the opposite end, Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell seem to have the least momentum. None of the three has built enough of a point cushion to survive a continued slump in the first round.

Which playoff contenders have the best driver ratings at the remaining tracks?

With every track offering a unique set of circumstances and drivers possessing varying skill sets, the makeup of the schedule plays a huge part in how the playoffs transpire. Though this year’s schedule is the same as last year’s, it was wildly different before that. Let’s look at some key driver stats for each of the 10 remaining tracks. The races are listed in order of the schedule.

The races on the chart are in order and separated by round by the color designations. The gray-shaded races make up Round 2, and the yellow-shaded Phoenix race represents the championship. Besides the fact that, surprisingly, Joey Logano is ranked at the top of both charts overall, he is generally strong at tracks in all three rounds plus Phoenix. In fact, using this type of analysis, he might be Larson’s biggest threat to a title run, with the prices not actually reflecting it.

Here are my thoughts on each driver’s chances as we head into the 2021 NASCAR playoffs. The odds listed are courtesy of DraftKings.

Kyle Larson (+ 240)

Larson is an obvious favorite after leading the circuit with five wins this season. But the + 240 doesn’t offer a great reward for winning what is essentially a 16-team, four-round tournament. I would rather present the argument as to why his odds shouldn’t be so short. First, he ranks only middle of the pack among playoff qualifiers in performance at Phoenix. He finished seventh there in March. That won’t get it done in this championship format. Second, his best race stretch was mainly in May and June. Larson’s average finish in the last seven races is just 9.7, with only one win during that stretch. With all the playoff points he has collected in 2021, he should be able to rather easily advance past the first two rounds. But like Harvick a year ago, I don’t consider him a lock to be one of the four finalists.

Chase Elliott (+ 550)

Elliott is the defending series champion and is getting the attendant respect from DraftKings oddsmakers. I like his chances better than Larson’s because of the way the schedule is laid out. He has the top ratings and points rankings for the final races in Rounds 2 and 3, meaning he has a good chance to win at those tracks, resulting in automatic advancement. This is a huge boost, and considering his recent success at Phoenix, it might be hard to knock out this young stud. He is playing with the heart of a champion.

Kyle Busch (+ 650)

Considering he hasn’t won since Pocono in June, I don’t think a lot of experts are giving the younger Busch brother much of a shot at a title run. However, he is a seasoned veteran and a previous champion who knows how to navigate the process. Two years ago, when he won the title, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Toyota driver wasn’t running nearly as well as he is now. In fact, Busch has had the best driver rating and points average of any driver in my handicap races. If Busch faces any danger on the schedule, it might be the middle round of races.

Martin Truex Jr. (+ 700)

Truex is another former champion, but he might be getting too much respect because of it. He has a chance to get off to a great start in the playoffs, as my initial simulation for Sunday’s race at Darlington has him winning. But beyond the first round, he could encounter trouble. His best two tracks among the 10 playoff venues are the first two. Also, Truex hasn’t finished better than third since winning at Darlington on Mother’s Day weekend. His momentum ranks are eighth and 13th. I can easily find better underdog options than the driver of the No. 19 Toyota.

Denny Hamlin (+ 750)

Other than failing to win a race, Hamlin’s 2021 season sort of resembles that of Kyle Busch in 2019. He ran very well early and looked like the series’ best driver, then limped into the playoffs. Hamlin’s best finish since Richmond in April has been fourth. At that point, he had collected eight top-5s in his first nine races. He is capable of that type of performance again, and anything close to that nine-race run would land him in Phoenix with a shot at the title. Once there, bettors would have to reconcile the fact that his playoff qualifier ranks at PIR are seventh and eighth. Add it all up, and Hamlin would appear to be a long shot to win his first title in November.

Ryan Blaney (+ 900)

Blaney is the first of three underdogs I’d really like to focus on, as he has demonstrated the capability to run at the front for long periods. His streak of first, first and second in the last three races is the exact type of surge that can lead a driver to a huge playoff run. Blaney’s weakest playoff tracks are the first three, but that shouldn’t prevent him from advancing to Round 2. From that point, he could surge all the way to Phoenix, where he has also been strong. Having demonstrated the ability to win races lately and not just finish high, I would count Blaney among my favorite options for championship and other prop wagers.

Joey Logano (+ 1200)

Six drivers have shorter odds than Logano to win the title. But no drivers’ last three “handicap” races average ratings and points rank higher than Logano’s. This is a very interesting dynamic, as the schedule sets up well for Logano to make an improbable run over the next 10 weeks. There is literally no weak round for him, and he has been the best driver statistically at Phoenix. This data might open your eyes to a potential live underdog — if you’re willing to ignore his recent skid of four straight finishes of 22nd or worse. Perhaps the team was testing and getting ready for a playoff surge?

William Byron (+ 1200)

Byron brings reasonable momentum into the playoffs, ranking fifth in driver rating and fourth in points among the 16 title contenders. However, he has won only one race this season, and that was at Homestead, a track that won’t be used in the next 10 weeks. Unfortunately for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports driver, that used to be where the title race was run. Byron is among the drivers I would consider a year or two from challenging for a series title. I would regard him as a legit final-eight contender, however, as the Round 2 tracks stack up well for him.

Kevin Harvick (+ 1500)

In most years, it would never be considered going out on a limb to look at Harvick as a title contender, and I am not ready to write him off in 2021 just yet. He comes into the playoffs as the 16th, or final, seed, having not won a race all year. But he does have 16 top-10 finishes, tied for third on the circuit, and he has the veteran savvy to navigate each round. In fact, the first and third rounds are very good for him based on his recent statistical performance. We have seen how fast momentum can be built. Should Harvick score a top-5 or two in Round 1, or even get a win, I think the rest of the contenders would have a new worry. 

Brad Keselowski (+ 1500)

Keselowski has been a top playoff contender almost every year of his career. Having not finished better than third in any race over the last five months, I don’t think this will be one of those seasons. In fact, since the No. 2 Penske Ford driver announced his intent to move on to Roush Racing next season, it seems as if this entire team has packed it in. He has only two finishes better than 10th since Darlington in May, a span of 15 races. Look for better options despite what the track performance charts might say.

Alex Bowman (+ 1500)

Bowman seems to be getting a bit better each season, and after winning three times in 2021, he could be a good underdog to consider for reaching Phoenix with a shot to win the title. I won’t be getting gutsy and making that call, as I don’t believe the Round 3 tracks bode well for his chances. But if given the shot to advance past the first two rounds, I would consider that a good wager.

Christopher Bell (+ 2800)

Bell has enjoyed some good surges this season after stepping into the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota, even winning for the first time. In fact, within the last month and a half, he had a run of second, eighth, second and seventh. It would take that type of momentum for him to reach Round 2. I don’t see it going much further than that, but the future looks bright for the 26 year-old.

Kurt Busch (+ 3000)

Busch did win a race this year at Atlanta, and for the most part, the other best moments of his 2021 season have come in the last few months. In fact, over the last 11 races, his worst finish was 20th, and his average finish has been a very respectable 8.7. In other words, he seems to be enjoying his best racing at the right time. Still, he is another driver who has committed to a different team for 2021, and you have to question how much effort his crew will really invest in a run at the crown for a lame-duck driver. 

Aric Almirola (+ 6000)

Somehow, Almirola managed to squeeze out a win at Loudon in July despite not finishing better than 14th in any of the four races before or after that event. For the 26-race season, he only has three top-10 finishes. Obviously, this playoff format is about elite finishes and wins. The lone checkered flag Almirola got this year would have to be considered a fluke. I don’t see the No. 10 Stewart-Haas team reaching Round 2.

Tyler Reddick (+ 6000)

Reaching the playoffs on points is a great achievement for Reddick, who was considered outside the top 20 playoff contenders at the outset of the season. He has been extremely good at getting the best finish his car has been capable of, recording 13 top-10 finishes, including four streaks of at least two back-to-back top-10s. Those types of finishes won’t get him past Round 1, however, especially since his finishes at Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks on the postseason schedule, were 12th and 20th.

Michael McDowell (+ 15000)

McDowell won the Daytona 500 in February and has known for six months that he would be one of the 16 playoff qualifiers. I wouldn’t say he has been on cruise control since; rather, he has raced to the level his team has been capable of. Talladega is the only real true upset-potential track on the playoff slate, and that comes in Round 2. I literally give McDowell zero chance at advancing to that point.

Makinen’s predictions:

Final 12: Larson, Truex, Blaney, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Bowman, Hamlin, Byron, Logano, Kurt Busch, Bell, Harvick

Final 8: Larson, Truex, Blaney, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Hamlin, Logano, Harvick

Final 4: Larson, Blaney, Kyle Busch, Logano

Champion: Blaney

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