NASCAR betting year begins at Daytona

Just a week after football’s Super Bowl was played, the Super Bowl of stock car racing kick-starts another season of NASCAR and race betting. The green flag for the Daytona 500 is set to drop on Sunday around 2:30 p.m. ET. Not only is this NASCAR’s first event each season, it is also stock car racing’s most prestigious event. Referred to as “The Great American Race,” this event boasts the Cup Series’ biggest prize purse as well as the coveted Harley J. Earl Trophy. Plus the first playoff ticket gets punched for the winner. Adding to the magnitude of this year’s race, it marks the 20-year anniversary of the tragic death at Daytona of Dale Earnhardt, arguably the most popular driver in the sport’s history. 
Coming off one of the most unusual seasons in the sport’s history, everyone at NASCAR is eager to “get back to normal.” Unfortunately, racing will continue to be affected by the lingering pandemic, and we again will be seeing races without everything we’ve come to expect over the years, notably full stands of spectators as well as qualifying and practice sessions. That said, anyone who watched the action on a regular basis last year can’t argue that the finished product was affected greatly by the absence of those factors. For bettors, if anything, the trimming down of variables may have made the handicapping process a bit easier and more profitable as a result.
On one Sunday each February, Daytona International Speedway becomes the center of the racing world by offering up an unparalleled brand of racing. The track is one of the NASCAR circuit’s biggest at 2 1/2 miles, and with speeds reaching 200-plus mph on up to 31-degree track banking, it’s easy to see how the action becomes so exhilarating. There is little that compares to the freight train-like roar of the cars flying around the oval. Even with the series having tinkered with the drafting process over the years, the racing here has always been breathtaking. I characterize it as tinkering, because mandated changes to spoilers, restrictor plates and other aero factors haven’t changed the product all that much. In fact, last year was the first Daytona 500 not run with restrictor plates in many years. The plates were replaced by an aero package involving tapered spacers, which were expected to promote better passing and/or maneuvering … i.e. better racing. That race produced a few major wrecks, 24 lead changes among 13 drivers, nine caution flags, and 17 out of 40 cars that failed to finish. In other words, typical Daytona stuff.
As a word of caution to bettors planning to watch or invest in this year’s Daytona 500, I give Daytona a grade of F on my Handicap-Ability scale. It is the only track on the circuit to receive that designation, and it’s because there are a lot of caution flags, a lot of accidents, and typically, even the best running cars can get swept up in the calamity through no fault of their drivers. This makes it tough on the statistical handicapper to project a race. Does that mean the Daytona 500 is simply unbettable? Certainly not. It simply means that expecting drivers who have run the best in recent races overall, or at Daytona in prior events, to continue that momentum is not a reliable strategy. With that in mind, this is a fantastic track to pick up value on underdogs, both in matchups and in their chances to win the race or finish high. Of course, there are some drivers who have been better at navigating the troubled Daytona waters better than others, and I’ll get to that shortly after a brief preview of some changes coming for this season.
This 2021 NASCAR season brings more than the usual supply of big storylines and changes. There are car and driver changes, schedule changes, and even configuration changes at tracks. The list of drivers we won’t see on track anymore is highlighted by Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time series champion who retired somewhat unceremoniously in November minus the usual fanfare because of the pandemic. He is joined in retirement by Clint Bowyer, who has moved on to the FOX broadcasting booth, as well as Matt Kenseth, who was pulled out of retirement last season as a substitute driver for the No. 42 car.
Perhaps the biggest change on the driver chart this year involves Johnson’s car. Alex Bowman steps into that No. 48 team for 2021, although he brings crew chief Greg Ives with him. The fourth car in the Hendrick Motorsports stable will now be piloted by Kyle Larson, who gets a fresh start in the No. 5 car after being suspended by NASCAR midway through 2020 and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing for using a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson has always been long on talent and short on equipment. The latter part could change with Hendrick. Also changing homes for 2021 are Christopher Bell, who goes from the No. 95 to Joe Gibbs Racing’s  No. 20. He replaces Erik Jones, who moves over to the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car. That vacancy was created by the formation of Team 23XI, a venture by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. Car No. 23 for that group will be driven by Bubba Wallace. Elsewhere, rookie Chase Briscoe steps into Bowyer’s No. 14 Stewart-Haas ride and should be competitive right away. Ross Chastain takes over the No. 42 Ganassi car for Kenseth.
I mentioned the schedule changes earlier. They are unprecedented by NASCAR season standards in both numbers and uniqueness. The Daytona Road Course race was such a hit last season that it has been made the second race of 2021. The Bristol spring event will have an entirely new feel as the circuit will run on dirt for the first time in the modern era. There are also two new road courses on the slate: the Circuit of the Americas (Austin, Texas) in May, and Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wis.) in July. The Brickyard race will now be run on Indy’s road circuit as well. Add a race at Nashville and a second at Atlanta, then take away events from Kentucky and Chicago, and you have a largely unfamiliar schedule.
Naturally all of this change complicates the process of finding a favorite, but those setting the odds tend to look at the same elite guys from a year ago filling their usual roles atop the standings in 2021. With the series championship race headed to Phoenix again in November, here’s the list of odds-on favorites to win the series title, according to Bet MGM:
Kevin Harvick + 550: Dominated the series for most of 2020, winning nine times.
Kyle Busch + 700: Always a popular pick, won just once in 2020, and changes to new crew chief Ben Beshore.
Chase Elliott + 700: Defending champion has to be salivating at the addition of more road races.
Brad Keselowski + 800: Won four times last year, rode hot streak into playoffs.
Denny Hamlin + 800: Defending Daytona 500 champion, has 44 career wins but no series titles.
Joey Logano + 800: Won 2018 title, typically a threat to win on any type of track.
Martin Truex Jr. + 800: Changed crew chiefs before 2020 and struggled out of the gate before being a weekly top-3 threat at the end.
Kyle Larson + 1,100: Returning from suspension with new team (Hendrick), a driver with elite talent who never has driven a top-flight car.
Ryan Blaney + 1,400: Burst out of the gate last year to become a favorite of bettors, capable of dominating but also mistake-prone.
Alex Bowman + 3,500: Third Hendrick driver on the list, ran at front of the field in eight of the last 11 races of 2020, with nine top-10 finishes in final 12.
Aric Almirola + 3,500: Had best stretch of his career last year in summer, recording nine straight top-10 finishes but cooled in playoffs.
William Byron + 3,500: Won Daytona night race in August to clinch last playoff spot but averaged just 16.4 finish in 10 playoff races.
The Daytona 500 is one of just a handful of races that have prescheduled qualifying procedures for the season. For each of the races that will have a qualifying procedure not set by a predetermined formula, I do a qualifying forecast. I do the same for the expected practice session results, which I happened to reformulate before last season and was unable to fully put through the wringer. These combined with my Track, Track Designation and Recent Handicap Ratings for both individual driver and team make up the 10 variables that go into making each of my simulations. Each track has a different formula associated with these ratings. In any case, here are my Top 10 Qualifying and Practice Handicap Ratings that are used in this week’s initial simulation. I DO NOT share these every week, but for this race I am choosing to in order to give you a better feel for how the simulation process works:
Top 10 pre-Daytona Qualifying Handicap Ratings
1. Joey Logano: 117.25
2. William Byron: 102.85
3. Kevin Harvick: 102.85
4. Alex Bowman: 96.225
5. Aric Almirola: 95
6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 93.95
7. Kyle Larson: 92.475
8. Martin Truex Jr.: 88.6
9. Cole Custer: 84.3
10. Denny Hamlin: 83.85
Top 10 pre-Daytona Qualifying Practice Ratings
1. Martin Truex Jr.: 117.25
2. Denny Hamlin: 109.95
3. Christopher Bell: 106.525
4. Matt DiBenedetto: 99.2
5. Erik Jones: 98.475
6. Darrell Wallace: 85.6
7. Cole Custer: 82.45
8. David Ragan: 82.45
9. Chase Briscoe: 81.8
10. Ryan Preece: 80.15.
As you can see, my pre-race week qualifying ratings project a front row of Joey Logano and  William Byron for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. The rest of the top 10 would have to qualify for their spots via their performances in the duel races. As far as practice is concerned, my pre-race week ratings there show the top three being Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. The actual qualifying and practice results are used in the FINAL SIMULATIONS that are given on for each race. Now looking at the other three HANDICAP RATINGS sets I use:
Top 10 pre-Daytona Track Handicap Ratings
1. Ryan Blaney: 104.77
2. William Byron: 104.63
3. Joey Logano: 97.17
4. Denny Hamlin: 95.83
5. Brad Keselowski: 93.9
6. Kurt Busch: 93.17
7. Chase Elliott: 90.37
8. Alex Bowman: 87.765
9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 87.33
10. Martin Truex Jr.: 84.8
Top 10 pre-Daytona Track Designation Handicap Ratings
1. Denny Hamlin: 95.83
2. Ryan Blaney: 104.77
3. William Byron: 104.63
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 87.33
5. Joey Logano: 97.17
6. Chase Elliott: 90.37
7. Brad Keselowski: 93.9
8. Alex Bowman: 87.765
9. Chris Buescher: 79.03
10. Kyle Busch: 82.73
Top 10 pre-Daytona Recent Handicap Ratings
1. Chase Elliott: 90.37
2. Joey Logano: 97.17
3. Martin Truex Jr.: 84.8
4. Kevin Harvick: 67.57
5. Kyle Busch: 82.73
6. Brad Keselowski: 93.9
7. Ryan Blaney: 104.77
8. Kyle Larson: 78.515
9. Denny Hamlin: 95.83
10. Kurt Busch: 93.17
Ryan Blaney has the highest of my “handicap ratings” for Daytona, the track. He sits behind Denny Hamlin in the Track Designation category, however. The designation ratings include any recent races at tracks similar to the current one, which for Daytona is simply Talladega. The recent category is paced by defending champion Chase Elliott. Drivers who appear on the top 10 of all three sets of ratings for this week’s race are Blaney, Joey Logano, Hamlin, Keselowski and Elliott. I would not be surprised to find the winner listed in this pool of five elite contenders. 
One of the recommended strategies for handicapping this race is to look closely at the four superspeedway races that were run with the tapered spacers aero package last year. Those races were this one, the summer Daytona race and the two Talladega events. The winners of those races were Hamlin in the Daytona 500, William Byron in the other Daytona race, then Blaney and Hamlin in the Talladega events.
Drivers who often choose to “ride around” in the back of the field at these superspeedway races in order to avoid getting caught up in early wrecks can also be contenders. Of late, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have chosen this strategy. Other drivers are contenders at a track like Daytona because their drafting prowess tends to shine. That list includes underdogs such as Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace.
In terms of all-time Daytona wins, Hamlin tops the list with three, all in this race. With Johnson and Kenseth having retired, only two other drivers in the field have multiple Daytona victories — Harvick and Jamie McMurray with two apiece. Each is a one-time Daytona 500 champ as well. The rest of the Daytona 500 active winners list includes Newman, Logano, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon. Of course, the list of drivers without a Daytona 500 win is equally impressive, as that group includes Truex, Blaney, Larson, Elliott and Kyle Busch. You can rest assured that all five are ultra-hungry for a trip to Victory Lane.
Not surprisingly, Hamlin, at 7-1, is the favorite to defend his Daytona 500 title. Elliott is next at 9-1, and no one else is better than 11-1. That in itself explains the risk-reward element of betting Daytona races. The odds are long, but the payouts are better than most of the other races you’ll see. Here are the To Win and Top 3 odds before qualifying:
Daytona 500 Odds (Winner, Top 3)
Denny Hamlin: + 700, + 200
Chase Elliott: + 900, + 250
Ryan Blaney: + 1,100, + 300
Brad Keselowski: + 1,100, + 300
Joey Logano: + 1,100, + 300
Kevin Harvick: + 1,300, + 400
Kyle Busch: + 1,400, + 400
Aric Almirola: + 1,800, + 500
Alex Bowman: + 1,800, + 500
Kurt Busch: + 1,800, + 500
William Byron: + 1,800, + 500
Kyle Larson: + 1,800, + 500
Martin Truex Jr.: + 1,800, + 500
Steve’s Top 5 Picks for the Daytona 500
1. Joey Logano
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Matt DiBenedetto
4. Kurt Busch
5. Alex Bowman
The 500-mile event culminates a great week of season-opening festivities, which also includes The Clash on Tuesday night, qualifying on Wednesday night and Duel Races on Thursday evening. Plus the trucks and Xfinity series run their season openers on Friday and Saturday, respectively. Those events are always great primers and can give bettors a feel for what factors might decide Sunday’s race. As it will be throughout the entire 2021 Cup season, my VSiN Point Spread Weekly Simulation will help you get prepared for all the high-speed action. Keep in mind the projection here is only the INITIAL SIMULATION and you can access the final simulation after full qualifying and practice results on Enjoy the 500, everyone, and be sure to buckle up for what figures to be one of the most exciting NASCAR seasons in years.
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