Martinsville marks start of final round

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

The 2018 NASCAR championship is down to just 8 drivers with four races remaining as the series travels to the shortest track left on the schedule. Martinsville Speedway will be the setting for the first race of the final playoff round. This round will set the group of 4 drivers that will compete at Homestead for this year’s championship. Racing in close quarters at Martinsville can lead to trouble, and due to the relatively small points gap between several drivers there is an importance to finish very well.

Going into the final round let’s take a look at the points and how they can apply to our handicapping this week and going forward. Following Martinsville, the series will visit Texas, and Phoenix before heading to Homestead for the final race. At Homestead, the top four drivers will race for the title from an equal amount of points. There is no points carryover between the final four drivers coming into Homestead.

Kyle Busch 4,055 (+40) (plus 250)

Kevin Harvick 4,054 (+39) (plus 250)

Martin Truex Jr. 4,038 (+23) (9-2)

Chase Elliott 4,018 (+3) (6-1)

Clint Bowyer 4,015 (-3) (15-1)

Joey Logano 4,015 (-3) (8-1)

Kurt Busch 4,015 (-3) (25-1)

Aric Almirola 4,006 (-12) (25-1)

Let’s take a closer look at the contenders to win the championship from a current wagering perspective.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick (plus 250): Both are in good shape to make the final four heading into this last knockout round. However, with a couple of poor finishes both could find themselves in trouble. Of note Kevin Harvick was stellar at Phoenix earlier this season so with a good run at Martinsville he could be almost assured of making the final four. In comparison, Kyle Busch has been the dominant driver at Martinsville in the last three years. Therefore a typical Martinsville finish could make the next two races virtually meaningless, from an attempt to win standpoint.

One fact that can not be denied is that the Martinsville winner will extract any viable information from the race at Texas, and apply it toward preparation of Homestead.

At this point both drivers have clear shots to race for the title at Homestead. However, neither appears to have a significant advantage over the other. At odds of plus 250 you can make a case for either, but if both make Homestead, the odds to win the Homestead race will be very similar. At this point, why tie up funds that can really only have a small price increase, if any, while exposing oneself to a risk? Using the capital to work for us in the most scrutinizing manner is something we have emphasized all season, and will continue to do so.

Martin Truex Jr. (9-2): With an adjusted finish of 10.1 at the final four tracks Truex has a great outlook to be included in the title race. However, if any of the four drivers who are outside the cut line should win, things for Truex would become very dangerous. At current odds Truex has a solid chance to make the final race, but like Busch and Harvick his odds would likely only slightly decrease going into the final race. One piece of security for Truex, if Kyle Busch wins at Martinsville, and Kevin Harvick wins at Phoenix, then Truex would probably only have to fear Texas. Texas as we know is a 1.5 mile track where Truex has led 363 laps in the last five races there, which is by far the most of any driver.

Chase Elliott (6-1): Perched just 3 points above the cut line is the youthful rising star of Chase Elliott. Elliott has won 2 of the last three races, and he has put himself in great positions to capture wins when he was not the best car. This is remarkably similar to hot streak that Brad Keselowski went on just a few weeks ago. If Elliott continues to put himself in the right spots with a top 3rd-7th place car, there is a decent chance that he joins the title contenders in Homestead. However, with the tightest of leads, and several other drivers at his heels, the price is simply too low. This is very apparent when evaluating the many ways he could be eliminated in a very quick manner.

Clint Bowyer (15-1): These odds display value due to the fact that Clint Bowyer is 3-1 to win at Martinsville. However, Bowyer would likely need a win at Homestead for the ticket to cash. Homestead has not been a very good track for Bowyer in his past, so this wager could take on a possible hedge roll. If he were to make the final four there is little question that his odds would be cut in half to win the title. Martinsville is the key to the automatic bid for Bowyer, without a win he will have to fight his way in amongst the others.

Joey Logano (8-1) Along with Clint Bowyer above and Kurt Busch below there is a 3 way tie for the 5th spot, which is only 3 points behind Chase Elliott and the cut line. The scramble between this group of drivers is expected to be very tight. This is especially true if Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick run to their normal performance. The other hiccup for Logano, is that a non playoff driver who might win would likely keep things status quo for the drivers above the cut line. Without a dominate track left on the schedule it is hard to endorse Logano at 8-1 to win the title. However, he is especially worth shopping and is not far off hitting value at current odds. One reason for this approaching value is that with all other Penske cars out of the playoffs, Logano will command the best resources across the board to create an all star approach.

Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola (25-1): Both of these drivers have longshot potential and some value for different reasons. Kurt Busch has a very limited value because he is only 3 points behind the cut line and he could scratch his way into the final race. Keep in mind that Kurt Busch has an average finish of over 18th at Homestead which hurts the relative value in this wager. Aric Almirola on the other hand meets value because he is running the best of his career in equipment that is far superior to anything else he has been in before. If other drivers ahead of him were to have issues and he continues to run consistently, Almirola could find himself in a championship spot. Having Aric Almirola at current odds going into the final race could be a very live ticket. Almirola is currently a better value than Kurt Busch at matching odds.

Now let’s switch our focus and take a closer look at the contenders for the Martinsville First Data 500.

Kyle Busch (plus 250): The only driver to be in the top 3 of all nine stages that have been run at Martinsville in the last 3 races. He deserves to be the favorite to win with a top car to match his skills entering the race. He has led 837 laps in the last five races at Martinsville which is over 600 laps more than the next driver on the list.

Brad Keselowski (3-1): Starting in the 8th position is Brad Keselowski who appears to be very highly wagered on this weekend. At this time Keselowski is the popular selection of the non playoff drivers to win the race. These odds have been cut in half, and with it have lost any real value.

Clint Bowyer (3-1): At the same odds as Brad Keselowski is Clint Bowyer who will start in the 2nd position. Entering the race, it is not clear that either of them should be this closely priced to Kyle Busch, but there is little doubt that Bowyer appears to be the stronger of the two contenders priced at 3-1. This is Bowyers golden chance to secure his spot in the title race and one opportunity that he looks ready to take on.

Martin Truex Jr. (6-1): Starting in the 6th position Martin truex Jr. has arrived at the track with a car that will be able to contend. With two top-5 finishes in the last five races at Martinsville, Truex will have to put his speedy car to use if he is going to contend with the recent track champion Kyle Busch. Current odds are well placed when compared to Busch but do not provide justifiable value.

Chase Elliott (7-1): Putting himself in a tough spot with a poor qualifying effort is Chase Elliott who will start in the 21st position. This is not ideal in order to hold onto his small point lead. Further, his odds are far too low when considering who he would have to get past to win. There is no doubt Elliott will move up, but he will need to be the primary benefactor of destructive track consequences to get this win.

Joey Logano (8-1): Starting in the 11th position is Joey Logano, who like Elliott is not worthy of their current odds price. Logano appears to be somewhere in the upper top-10 entering the race. The difference in odds between Logano and Elliott is sharp, but the fact that they are both single digits to win is the issue.

Denny Hamlin (10-1): At odds based off past performances at Martinsville will be Denny Hamlin who is starting 3rd. Hamlin, along with all of the Gibbs cars have looked good this weekend. This price is especially worth shopping as odds in this range can show larger variance.

Ryan Blaney (10-1): In the 4th position is Ryan Blaney who finished 3rd in the spring race at Martinsville earlier this season. He will need to rebound this weekend to get into the conversation of winning contenders. Entering the race he does not have a car in the same class as either Kyle Busch or Clint Bowyer.

Kevin Harvick (10-1): Perhaps qualifying deeper than preferred, Kevin Harvick will have ground to make up starting in the 13th spot. Harvick has two top-5 finishes in the last five races at Martinsville, but he also has an average finish of 13.5 over that same span.

Aric Almirola (15-1): Consistent with his performances, Aric Almirola will start in the 5th position at Martinsville. Almirola was well established in the top-10 on the long runs during both practice sessions on Saturday. There is plenty to like considering his need to win and the merging of excellent equipment and rising skills.

Kurt Busch (15-1): Kurt Busch qualified in the 7th position and will have turn in an outstanding Martinsville performance to validate these odds. His car has been in and out of the top-10 this weekend, he does not have a top-5 finish in the last five races at Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson (25-1): Starting 23rd, Jimmie Johnson has just not been able to make the positive strides that many, including myself thought he would. His car has been on the edge of the top-10 this weekend and he should be able to race in that zone. There is always that chance that Johnson and his team decide to pull the rug out from others, and go off strategy to try and capture one more win before the duo separates.

Below are the matchups that have made the cut for this weekend. Last week we went 2-0 which brings our season total to a record of 57-33. Interestingly, drivers who qualified 1-5 spots higher than their matchup counterpart went 10-2 in the spring race at Martinsville.

Clint Bowyer (-120): over Brad Keselowski (even):

Bowyer is the selection here as he was able to run very close to the curb throughout the practice sessions and the car looked great. Additionally, the desperation factor will be hard at work for Bowyer who is looking to punch his ticket to the title race.

Kevin Harvick (plus 110): over Joey Logano (-130):

Harvick is the pick as a slight underdog. Kevin Harvick has been better than Logano on the speed charts, during the long runs this weekend. Harvick meets value at the current price, and he has two top-5 finishes in the last five races at Martinsville which outperforms Logano during the same span.

Aric Almirola (-110): over Kurt Busch (-110):

Neither driver has been great at Martinsville but Kurt Busch has had a lot more time to improve his performances there. As detailed above, we are still trying to understand how good Almirola is, but there is little question that he has been in the top-5 for several weeks. Almirola had better practice sessions than did Busch and the indicator points to more of the same during the race.

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