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NASCAR cranks up new season at Daytona

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly) 

February 15, 2020 12:42 AM
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Denny Hamlin
© Imagn

Another NASCAR season fires up when the green flag for the 2020 Daytona 500 drops Sunday. Not only is this NASCAR’s first event each season, it is also stock car racing’s most prestigious event, the Super Bowl of motorsports. “The Great American Race” boasts NASCAR’s biggest prize purse as well as the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Plus the winner is the first to get his playoff ticket punched. 

This will be one of my most anticipated Daytona 500s, as it kicks off my first full season covering NASCAR race betting with VSiN and Performance Racing Network on the “Racers Odds” show. Follow the show all season on VSiN, SiriusXM, NASCAR.com and other platforms as we preview each race from a betting perspective. We’ll also be launching a new website at RacersOdds.com to supplement the show. Joining me for expert analysis are former Cup Series and current Truck Series crew chief Jeff Hammond and our host, PRN’s Brad Gillie.

Daytona International Speedway becomes the center of the racing world again by offering an unparalleled brand of racing. The track is one of the NASCAR circuit’s biggest at 2 1/2 miles around, and with speeds reaching 200 mph or more on up to 31-degree track banking, it’s easy to see how the action becomes so exhilarating. Little can compare when cars fly around the oval roaring like a freight train. Of course, the type of racing that fans have grown used to figures to be a bit different, as this will be the first Daytona 500 not run with restrictor plates in many years. The plates are replaced by an aero package involving tapered spacers, which tend to promote better passing and maneuvering — better racing. 

This NASCAR season brings the usual supply of big storylines. Perhaps leading that list is the upcoming retirement of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. He has not won in 98 races, by far a career high. A lot for Johnson will hinge on the performance of the new noses on the Chevrolet bodies. That manufacturer and its drivers battled aero issues all season in 2019, and if Chevy can gain headway with the change, it could be in a position to contend for wins and a title again. If not, the series figures to again be dominated by the Joe Gibbs, Stewart-Haas and Penske Racing teams. 

The 2020 season also brings some of the biggest schedule changes we’ve seen in many years. Among them are a summer doubleheader at Pocono, a Fourth of July weekend race now at the Brickyard, the second Daytona race now wrapping up the regular season and the season finale now coming at Phoenix, where a new (or perhaps returning) champion will be crowned. Speaking of which, Kyle Busch is back to defend his title and is one of the odds-on favorites. At + 600, he trails Kevin Harvick (+ 500) and is even with Martin Truex Jr. At + 800, Denny Hamlin is the only other driver at better than 10-1. 

You’ll also need to get used to some old names in new cars. Among the drivers in different rides are Ricky Stenhouse, who is on the pole for the Daytona 500, Matt DiBenedetto and Chris Buescher. Plus a group of high-potential rookies will slide into competitive cars right out of the gate, the three most prominent being Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer, who’ve enjoyed success on other circuits.

Once again, the 2020 season will feature stage racing and the playoff format. The stats I will highlight now are from the stage-racing era of 2017-19. Leading the way in average finish among active drivers at Daytona during that span is Ryan Newman at 10.2, followed by Michael McDowell at 12.0 and Alex Bowman at 14.75. This is not exactly a who’s who of NASCAR drivers, as Daytona and its big wrecks have gobbled up many drivers. No one has won more than once in the last six events here, and the most recent winner was the longest of long shots — Justin Haley in a rain-shortened event in July.

The driver with the best average rating since 2017 at Daytona is Ryan Blaney at 93.32, followed closely by Stenhouse at 92.25 and Bowman at 91.75. Bowman (137.5) and Blaney (130.2) lead in average laps run in the top 15 at Daytona. 

This will be the first Daytona 500 since 1988 without restrictor plates, so one of the recommended handicapping strategies is to look at the three superspeedway races run with the tapered spacers aero package last year — the summer Daytona race and the two Talladega events. Those winners were Chase Elliott in the first ’Dega race, Haley at Daytona and Blaney at Talladega during the fall playoffs. However, leading the way statistically in those races were Joey Logano, for average driver rating and most laps spent in the top 15, and Newman, for average finish. Newman was first in finish position but 26th in top-15 laps, the ultimate “ride-around” strategy. Elliott, Blaney, Stenhouse, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski were among the other most advanced drivers statistically in those three events.

In all-time Daytona wins, Johnson’s three top the list, followed by Harvick and Hamlin with two apiece, and Hamlin is the defending champion. Ten other drivers running this weekend have won here. Of course, the list of drivers without a Daytona win might be equally impressive, as that group includes Truex, Blaney, Elliott, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer. 

Unsurprisingly, Hamlin is among the four drivers listed as 10-1 favorites to capture this year’s Daytona 500. He shares that honor with Logano, Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Daytona has a handicap-ability grade of F on my scale, and the difficulty of statistically handicapping this race shows in the odds. In fact, if there is a single track where underdog betting can prove most lucrative, this is it. So you might want to consider a driver like pole-sitter Stenhouse at 25-1 or Busch Clash winner Erik Jones at 30-1. Perhaps statistical leaders Bowman (20-1) and Blaney (16-1) catch your eye, or a feel-good story like Johnson at 25-1. The list of true contenders is longer here than at other tracks, so have fun with it. Keeping an eye on practice throughout Daytona Speedweeks as well as the results of the Gatorade Duels on Thursday should help you get a better feel for what to expect.

The 500-mile event is set for 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday. Those looking for a primer can tune in Saturday for a typically exciting Daytona Xfinity series race. As it will be throughout the entire 2020 Cup season, my VSiN “Point Spread Weekly” simulation will be ready to help you get prepared for the action. Keep in mind the projection below is only the initial simulation, and you can access the final simulation after qualifying and practice results on VSiN.com or RacersOdds.com. Enjoy the Daytona 500, and be sure to catch a replay of this week’s RacersOdds show with Brad Gillie, Jeff Hammond and me.

 

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