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Harvick, Hamlin favored as NASCAR playoffs open

By Steve Makinen  () 

After one of the most unusual regular seasons in NASCAR history, the 2020 playoffs are upon us. Though much of this season has been different, the stakes that accompany each race in the playoffs are the same as ever. We witnessed much of the heightened pressure Saturday in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 as the playoff field was finalized. For all 10 races remaining, we’ll see that many times over.

With higher stakes, the betting intrigue also climbs, not only for individual races but for the season title. The oddsmakers’ favorites are the drivers you would expect — Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who have combined to win 13 races this season. 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.

Kyle Busch went into last year’s playoffs struggling for an extended period after having built a nice early lead. He continued to flounder for much of the playoffs but qualified for the season finale at Homestead-Miami, then put it together for that one most important race. 

Because of their point cushions, it is reasonable to figure Harvick and Hamlin will be two of the final four drivers at Phoenix this season. Yes, Phoenix. The Cup Series has changed its schedule for 2020, and Phoenix Raceway will host the finale. This changes things dramatically and benefits certain drivers more than others. Even with Harvick and Hamlin accounting for half the championship field Nov. 8, that leaves two other potential champs, and scoring a rewarding underdog could be as easy as picking a playoff contender who has fared well at the tracks leading up to and including the finale.

The 2020 schedule offers another intriguing situation for the elimination races. Those three races will be 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. This is another reason I believe underdogs could hold higher value than usual in 2020. 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. 

Which drivers have the most momentum?

One would figure that bettors would rather back a driver who is carrying strong momentum into the playoffs. Look at the chart illustrating 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.

Clearly, Harvick appears to be the man to beat. He leads the circuit in average driver ratings and points scored over his last 10 handicap races. Hamlin and Brad Keselowski also rank highly in both categories. At the opposite end, it would seem that Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer have the least momentum going into the playoffs. None of those 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. This year’s schedule is different from years past, and not only in the finale. Let’s look at the same key driver stats I showed earlier regarding momentum for the 10 remaining tracks. 

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 event. Not only does Harvick rank at the top of both charts, he is generally strong at all three rounds plus Phoenix. In fact, using this analysis, Keselowski might be Harvick’s biggest threat to a second title run.

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

Kevin Harvick (championship odds: + 200; top-3 odds: -200)

Last spring I produced a chart comparing Harvick’s start in the 2020 season to previous series champions, and he compared very favorably. At that point I proclaimed him the man to beat. I am already holding a championship ticket for Harvick at a price much better than + 200, so I have no need to reinvest. Harvick is atop almost every form of analysis I have supplied. He also gets a huge benefit from the schedule change, with Phoenix being a much better track for him historically than Homestead-Miami. Harvick has an average driver rating of better than 110 at six of the 10 remaining facilities. This should help him capture his second career title.

Denny Hamlin (championship odds: + 300; top-3 odds: -150)

Hamlin has six wins this season, one fewer than Harvick, so most analysts are making him almost a co-favorite for the title. I like Harvick’s chances a lot more. Hamlin has a very weak set of tracks to survive in Round 2, and for his sake, hopefully he built enough of a point cushion to survive those three races. He also ranks fourth in both key categories at Phoenix. His best track is Kansas, and a win in that race would vault him immediately into the championship.

Brad Keselowski (championship odds: + 1000; top-3 odds: + 200)

As the charts show, Keselowski seems to be the victim of undervaluing by those setting the odds. In fact, if I were to cite one value wager for both championship and top-3 odds, it would be the Penske Ford No. 2 driver. The only problem is he will have to overcome some recent struggles at Phoenix. Should he be in the running come Championship Sunday, I’m sure Penske teammate Joey Logano might be willing to share some secrets, as he has been quite successful there. The Round 1 tracks have historically been the best for Keselowski, but he is strong overall on all three rounds and should be in the hunt come Nov. 8.

Joey Logano (championship odds: + 1200; top-3 odds: + 275)

Logano is another driver who has to appreciate the schedule change for 2020, as he ranks in the top 3 in both driver rating and points when it comes to playoff contenders at Phoenix. The bigger concerns for Logano will be surviving Rounds 1 and 3, weaker tracks for him. The No. 22 driver won the title two years ago but hasn’t clicked consistently throughout the COVID-19 portion of the schedule. He may be one of the drivers most impacted by the lack of practice sessions. With his momentum ranking just seventh among the 16 drivers, I’d be a bit surprised to see him competing for the title.

Chase Elliott (championship odds: + 850; top-3 odds: + 150)

I have two long shots I’d be willing to invest in for winning the title and finishing in the top 3 in the final standings, and the first is Elliott. He has a particular advantage no other driver really enjoys: He is as close to a lock for winning a race as anyone. That race is at the Charlotte Roval, where he has absolutely dominated in back-to-back years. He also won the recent Daytona road-course race. Elliott looks like a strong option in Round 1, and a win at the Roval in Round 2 would advance him to the final eight. Kansas and Martinsville are also strong tracks for him in Round 3. Consider the No. 9 Hendrick Chevrolet driver a very live underdog.

Martin Truex Jr. (championship odds: + 700; top-3 odds: + 135)

Truex has been very hot lately, scoring eight straight finishes of fourth place or better. But none of those strong finishes resulted in checkered flags. Eventual champions need to win races to advance in the playoffs and take the title. Even with the recent surge, Truex’s momentum rankings fall short of his biggest threats to the crown. With a couple of land-mine races on the 10-event schedule and modest rankings at Phoenix, this doesn’t feel like a championship-level season for Truex.

Ryan Blaney (championship odds: + 1600; top-3 odds: + 400)

Blaney is the other long shot I like, simply because he has been the most dominant driver on the track at different points this season, though in most cases his finishes don’t match that dominance. It does show that he has a high ceiling, however, so he has the makings of a solid underdog. Blaney has a particularly strong track in each round, meaning a big performance in each of those races would catapult him to the next level. If he can take what has worked this season and eliminate his typically overaggressive mistakes, the + 400 top-3 odds look very inviting.

Alex Bowman (championship odds: + 4000; top-3 odds: + 1000)

Bowman is the first driver who separates the also-rans from the title contenders, in my opinion. He has not fared well lately. He only win came in March, and he has only two top-5s since. But one of those top-5s was a second at Darlington, the site of this week’s playoff opener. Should he improve on that run by just one spot, he’ll advance to Round 2. I don’t see him going much further than that.

William Byron (championship odds: + 5000; top-3 odds: + 1200)

Byron and Bowman are teammates, and Bowman’s odds are slightly better than those of the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet driver, but I would label Byron the bigger threat to make noise in the postseason. He has a championship-level crew chief in Chad Knaus, who led Jimmie Johnson to his seven titles. He also overcame the massive pressure he faced Saturday at Daytona to get a win and clinch a postseason spot. If he can survive Round 1, he has been stellar at the Charlotte Roval, and an upset there would be huge.

Austin Dillon (championship odds: + 10000; top-3 odds: + 2000)

As the late Dale Earnhardt’s grandson and driver of the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet piloted by the Intimidator, Dillon is a fan favorite. Oddsmakers aren’t sharing that enthusiasm for his playoff chances in 2020. Neither do I. He hasn’t fared well lately and doesn’t have particularly good stats at any playoff track.

Cole Custer (championship odds: + 1000; top-3 odds: + 2000)

The rookie pulled off the upset of the season by winning at Kentucky to clinch a spot in the playoffs. He drives for one of the most successful teams of 2020 in Stewart-Haas Racing. That’s about all he has going for him against this staunch competition. With little momentum or experience, I’d be shocked if he advanced to Round 2.

Aric Almirola (championship odds: + 3000; top-3 odds: + 700)

Had the playoffs started six races ago when Almirola was notching his ninth straight top-10 finish, he would have been a very popular option as a live underdog for the playoffs. But he has fallen back to being the driver most experts would have expected to see. His average finish in the six races since is 13.0, and his momentum rankings are now ninth and 10th among the 16 playoff competitors. His best round figures to be Round 2, so if he can stave off early elimination, I would give him a reasonable shot to make the final eight.

Clint Bowyer (championship odds: + 6600; top-3 odds: + 1600)

Amazingly, all four Stewart-Haas drivers qualified for the playoffs in 2020, with Bowyer ranked lowest in points. But I wouldn’t say his chances are the worst of the four. In fact, I’d probably place him second in the SHR lineup. The first three tracks on the playoff schedule are ideal for him, as he has posted good numbers at all three. He also has the playoff experience to navigate rough waters. Looks like a top-12 guy with a reasonable shot at the final eight.

Kyle Busch (championship odds: + 1200; top-3 odds: + 275)

Like a lot of people around the globe, 2020 has been bad for Busch, who hasn’t won a single race and has collected just one playoff point by virtue of a stage win. We all know what he is capable of, but unlike last year, he lacks a huge playoff cushion, and any bets placed on his chances would be forced. If by some chance he makes it to Phoenix as a final-four contender, we’d talk differently, as his numbers at that track are outstanding.

Kurt Busch (championship odds: + 3300; top-3 odds: + 800)

Another former champion who has given himself a shot at the 2020 title, Busch comes in as a heavy underdog. His title season came in 2004, so it has been many years since he was at the top of the sport. His recent stats at the 10 playoff tracks would suggest he is a top-8 driver. That would be a good playoff run for him.

Matt DiBenedetto (championship odds: + 6600; top-3 odds: + 1600)

Besides Byron, who won Saturday at Daytona, DiBenedetto was probably the most excited with how that race ended as he clinched his first playoff berth. The honeymoon doesn’t figure to last long, however, as he is 16th in points, is inexperienced and is the only driver in the field on a single-car team. He’s been relatively consistent lately, and his momentum ranking is 10th, so I wouldn’t put it past him to reach Round 2. But anything beyond that would be highly unexpected.

To see the charts with this story, go to "Point Spread Weekly"

 

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