'Lady in Black" to end NASCAR title hopes for some

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

September 2, 2018 10:22 AM

Darlington Raceway, and the Southern 500 have long been considered to be one of the crown jewel races of the NASCAR season. The critical nature of this year’s edition can not be understated for several teams who are trying a last ditch effort to make the playoffs. While the importance of the race for many can not be denied there is reason to believe that the “Lady in Black” may squash the hopes of some of the playoff desperados and more. The race will be run on Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET) during the warmest temperatures of the day. For a track that is notoriously cruel on tires, this can be the beginning of trouble which often leads to a long night. 

Starting near the front at Darlington is critically important from a car preservation aspect. A well preserved car translates into a much higher probability of winning or at least running well. Due to the loss of grip over just a few laps, drivers tend to come to pit road on all caution flags, and generally for 4 tires. This need for tires often creates between 9-12 pits stops per race at Darlington. Each team is outfitted with 13 sets of tires, and there is little doubt that all of them will be used. With all the 4 tire pit stops and the loss of one crew member over the wall per team, there is a high chance for errors and violations on pit road.  

Now, we may not be able to accurately handicap the action on pit road in order to avoid drivers who might encounter trouble during their stops. But as handicappers we should recognize that the relative danger factors at Darlington are higher than normal circumstances. Additionally, evaluating the teams on pit road from a perspective of pit box location, can help us identify potential hazards. Along with a typical increase in the number of blown tires, there becomes a point when the variables become more than half the battle in trying to accurately handicap a race. At some level it’s almost like trying to predict a race that is forecasted for rain. The majority of the time its best to avoid these situations, however there are times when they can offer value.

As we have discussed, areas of unknown can sometimes create wagering opportunities for drivers who could benefit by a race shake up. These are typically the mid priced drivers with progressive top 5 speeds who find themselves in Victory lane. We will cover some of those drivers in their individual race profiles below. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at some of the specifics that make The Lady in Black so special.

The last 10 races at Darlington have been won from a starting position of 8.9

32% of the races at Darlington have been won from the front row.

65% have been won from the top 5 at Darlington

Only 5% of the races at Darlington have been won from outside the top 15

There have been 11 different winners in the last 12 races at Darlington

Toyota has won four of the last five races at Darlington

Getting a read on the track with a focus on the numbers is a good foundation to begin evaluating a race. There is plenty to consider when judging the quality of data being used to handicap. Due to the car’s evolution and structure, along with many procedural changes, finding analytics that are applicable can be challenging. Stage racing is one of the major changes that has fundamentally altered the way a race is viewed. Handicapping a race with the major components being allotted their justifiable portion of weight is important to creating a personal model that can be refined and adaptable.

Below are some the drivers that look to contend this weekend at Darlington.

Kyle Busch (3-1): Lined up in the 5th spot, Kyle Busch is positioned in a great spot to get the win. In two metrics that are based on long runs, Kyle Busch was in the top #5 for each of them. For Kyle we know that he has one of the best mechanical situations on the circuit, at a track like Darlington he will simply need to be clean to contend. However, considering the independent variables that can be depended on at Darlington, it's tough to back a such a low priced favorite.

Kevin Harvick (7-2): Starting 22nd, Kevin Harvick did not have the type of qualifying run that aligns him with the other favorites. While there is little doubt he will find himself amongst the contenders to win, Harvick will have to get the most from his car from a mechanical standpoint. Additionally, many of the cars that are lined up in front of Harvick look to be stout. He has led over 500 laps in the last 4 races at Darlington, which is more than double any other driver. If the odds float higher due to his qualifying position, Harvick could offer some wagering value.

Martin Truex Jr (7-2): Quietly, Martin Truex Jr. has driven under the radar this weekend. He was not fast on many of the boards that capture short runs, but did show good speed over several laps. Lined up in the 3rd position, Truex has primed his pit crew to compete with Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Going into the race Truex has displayed analytics that are on the cusp of the top 5 best. Considering his odds above, the value does not support his chance to win. 

Denny Hamlin (4-1): Starting from the Pole is this weekend’s “Big 3 Buster.” Hamlin has finished in the top 5 in the last three races at Darlington. Additionally, he has finished outside the top 10 only twice in the last 12 visits to see the Lady in Black. The metrics this weekend show Hamlin as having a very fast short run car. He backed this up by winning the pole and grabbing the first pit stall. They did everything they had to in order to simplify the pit road process by winning the pole. So the question becomes, did they sacrifice developing a fast long-run setup in order to dedicate more time to trying to win the pole? If so, they succeeded, and considering their struggles on pit road this might have been a shrewd strategic maneuver. In part, due to the poor qualifying effort of Kevin Harvick, Hamlin begins to hit value in the 7-1 range.  

Kyle Larson (9-2): Another of the “Short Run Speedsters” who will be lined up next to Denny Hamlin is wall hugger Kyle Larson. Even more than Hamlin, Larson has been quick on the short runs during practice. It is easy to understand how Larson’s preference to run the high line would suit him well at Darlington. Larson has put himself in contention this weekend by his excellent starting position. Please shop this possible wager as he is likely to garner noticeable differences in prices.

Brad Keselowski (10-1 ): Starting in 13th, Brad Keselowski has not stood out this weekend as a top contender. That does not mean he is eliminated from contention to win, it simply means that if the race runs to form, he is not considered to be in the top 3. We know rarely does any race run to form at Darlington, but Keselowski still must support the speed analytics. So far this weekend he has not displayed that type of sustained speed.  

Erik Jones (12-1): After performing consistently all weekend, Erik Jones will roll off in the 7th position. While he has not be amongst the top performers so far this weekend, Jones has been soldily in the top 10. Although he has limited cup experience at Darlington, Jones seems to have adapted to the track quickly. At current odds, if playing a mid pack shot to win the race he is one of the viable options.

Ryan Blaney (14-1): There was reason for optimism going into qualifying for Ryan Blaney, however he was not able to turn in a lap that was equal to the beginning of his weekend. Blaney will start from the 21st position and will have to move up in the field along with Kevin Harvick if they are to fulfill their potential. Blaney was in the top #7 in two of the top metrics when evaluating a formful race at Darlington. Overall there are simply too many obstacles to overcome to consider a Blaney at the present odds.

Chase Elliott (18-1): The Hendrick cars look to be strong this weekend as 3 of 4 qualified in the top 12. Elliott will start in 11th position, and like Blaney and Jones, he has been quick all weekend, posting fast times on extended runs. Further, Elliott is not starting too deep in the field to totally write him off. If playing a team of drivers Elliott could be considered in that group.

Joey Logano (25-1): Lined up in the 8th position, Joey Logano looks to be well placed for his perspective race. He has been in the upper top 10 for most of the weekend, but has not had the true sustained speed that is often called upon in order to win at Darlington. The track will go through a lot of changes over the course of the race and if Logano can hang around, he could get the car right at the right time. Logano is showing the numbers that put him alongside Elliott and Blaney going into the race. Depending on the odds, there could be value as long shot play if he floats over 25-1.

Kurt Busch (14-1): Another of the spoilers in the upper tier of the top 10, starting 9th is Kurt Busch. The Bristol winner has been within the top 7-9 cars so far this weekend over the long runs. His speed on the charts is a level faster than Chase Elliott going into the race, and it is expected that the elder Busch will at least be in the mechanical neighborhood of his brother. Kurt Busch, like Erik Jones are both viable plays at listed odds no matter who else might be a target to win. Simply put, their speed has exceeded their price going into the race.

Alex Bowman (50-1): According to the raw numbers, there is a 65% chance that the winner will come from the top 5. Bowman has excellent value and its not based solely on his starting spot. In two sets of the most predictive Darlington based analytics, Bowman was in the top 5 of both. It looks clear that going into the race he is primed with a very good car from several standpoints. With the 2nd fastest average pit stop times, Bowman is a live at big odds.

Ryan Newman (100-1): Starting in the 6th position, Ryan Newman is desperate to win at his best performing track. In his career, Newman has an average finish over just over 11th place. That represents a long career with many opportunities for Darlington to strike. Like Hamlin, Newman has had good success there and he has been well positioned this weekend with a fast car. At odds of over 100-1 in some books, Newman is well worth the investment regardless of other wagering methods.

Below is the only matchup that has made the cut for the race. Due to the unknowns, this is a conservative week as we detailed. However, please keep an eye out as a matchup play or two could be added prior to the race. This is especially possible if we find out that drivers are being sent to the rear.

Erik Jones (-115) over Clint Bowyer (-105)

We are sticking with this selection as Jones looks to be more stable than Bowyer this weekend. Bowyer has only 1 top 10 finish at Darlington in the last twelve races.

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