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NASCAR: Daytona 500 wildly unpredictable

February 18, 2022 07:21 PM
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An intriguing NASCAR season kicks off this weekend with the Daytona 500. Unlike most sports, NASCAR’s biggest event of the season is its first. Referred to as “The Great American Race,” this event boasts NASCAR’s biggest purse, plus the first playoff ticket is punched for the winner.

Several major changes come on board in 2022, other than the usual array of “silly season” moves among teams and drivers. The most notable of these changes is a new car, coined Next Gen by most racing experts. The changes to the car, perhaps the biggest the series has witnessed, could lead to some unpredictable results. Drivers have referred to the new car as simply more modern. Fans will first notice the bigger, cooler aluminum wheels, plus the numbers moved to the front of the doors. 

>>VSIN'S NASCAR POWER RATINGS FOR SUNDAY'S RACE

But the changes go way beyond that. The cars are expected to be more durable and more economical, with better handling due to independent axles. Each team is essentially given the same kit to build with, which should put more emphasis on driver talent and team execution.

Series championship futures

Looking at the series championship odds, the last two champions lead the way, with defending champ Kyle Larson listed at + 360 followed by 2020 champ Chase Elliott at + 500. The last time repeat champion came in 2010, when Jimmie Johnson clinched his fifth straight crown. 

Owner Rick Hendrick did go back-to-back with Larson and Elliot, the first time Hendrick Motorsports pulled off consecutive titles since 2010 with Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports had gone through a rough patch from 2017-19. 

Following Larson and Elliot on the series betting board are Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) at + 700, William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports) at + 800 and Martin Truex (Joe Gibbs Racing) at + 900. No other driver is better than 10-1.

Byron is an interesting case. Perhaps oddsmakers are expecting him to be the one to take the next step forward from the Hendrick garage. However, Byron has a new crew chief in Rudy Fugle after Chad Knaus left for another position in the organization. Knaus was Johnson’s crew chief for all seven of his title runs.

Beyond the favorites, several veterans who might have a leg up in adapting to a new car are worthy of a look. First among that group has to be Kyle Busch (+ 1000), who has two series titles. Joey Logano (+ 1200) and Kevin Harvick (+ 1500) are also past champions who have their sights set on contending in 2022. Logano has some momentum after winning the preseason Clash two weeks ago. Harvick was the preseason favorite in 2021 but endured a miserable season in which he failed to win a race or even take home a stage victory. Ryan Blaney (+ 1100), who had some dominant stretches in 2021, and Alex Bowman (+ 1800), the forgotten man at Hendrick, are the only other drivers I would consider for futures wagers.

The biggest team/driver changes from the offseason involve a pair of well-known veteran drivers. Brad Keselowski has left Team Penske for a driver/owner spot at RFK Racing (Roush Fenway Keselowski). Keselowski replaces Ryan Newman in the No. 6 car. Newman, who was involved in a horrifying last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 two years ago, has not announced any plans going forward. Elsewhere, Kurt Busch has left Team Ganassi to join the relatively new team at 23XI Racing, owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. Busch will drive the No. 45 alongside new teammate Bubba Wallace in the No. 23. 

In the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 car, top rookie candidate Harrison Burton takes over for Matt DiBenedetto. Ross Chastain, who had a great summer run in the No. 42 last year, becomes the second driver for Pitbull’s Trackhouse Racing. Chastain will drive the No. 1 car alongside teammate Daniel Suarez in the No. 99.

Breaking down the Daytona 500

Getting back to the Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway becomes the center of the racing world again by offering up an unparalleled brand of racing. The track is one of NASCAR’s biggest at 2.5 miles. With speeds reaching 200+ mph on up to 31-degree track banking, it’s easy to see how the action becomes so exhilarating. 

No track and no race is more favorable to underdogs. Look no further than last year, when Michael McDowell won at odds of 100-1. Is he a contender this year? He’s listed at 50-1, 29th out of 42 drivers. 

Daytona is the only track where I assign a Handicap-Ability Grade of F in my simulations. Not only are there surprise winners at Daytona, there are also major accidents (“big ones,” as they are called) which can wipe out 10 to 15 cars that include any number of contenders. In fact, last year’s race featured three sizable accidents, and in the end, only 11 of 40 drivers finished on the lead lap.

In terms of statistics at Daytona, Denny Hamlin (+ 850) is the man to beat. Hamlin has three Daytona 500 titles, including back-to-back wins in 2019 and 2020, plus four other Top 5s at this track in 32 races. His average finish is 15.9. Only Austin Dillon (+ 2000) shows better average finish numbers (14.9) among drivers that have run more than three races at Daytona. Kevin Harvick (+ 1800) is the only other active multi-winner at Daytona International Speedway but hasn’t won at the track since 2010. 

Among the other statistical highlights, perhaps most importantly, those that go into my race simulation: Kyle Busch (+ 1600) is second to Hamlin in my handicapped track rating, followed by Chase Elliott (+ 1000) and Joey Logano (+ 1200). In terms of track designation ratings, which include other similar tracks (in this case Talladega), Brad Keselowski (+ 1600) sets the pace, followed by Logano, Bubba Wallace (+ 1600) and Ryan Blaney (+ 1200). Besides qualifying and practice speeds, the only other major statistical category that goes into my projections is momentum. Kyle Larson (+ 1000) is far ahead of the field in that category, followed by Hamlin, Elliott and William Byron (+ 1200). 

Blaney and Byron won the two most recent races at Daytona in August. Both have shown a penchant for navigating the draft here. That should keep them among the contenders on Sunday, assuming they can avoid trouble. 

Daytona 500 qualifying is different from other races. Only the top two cars in terms of qualifying lap speed earn positions on the front row. The rest of the field is set by two 50-lap shootouts held on Thursday, and then provisionals kick in. This year’s front row will be decided Wednesday. However, starting positions have little or nothing to do with how drivers finish, so don’t overreact. In fact, none of the last 10 pole starters has finished better than 14th.

I love to watch the duel races on Thursday night. They not only help set the field but also give bettors an idea of which drivers have a good feel for the draft. That will be of particular importance this year with the new car. That said, here are my early predictions (which will surely change after the duels and practice sessions):

Top 5: Logano, Keselowski, Hamlin, Wallace, Elliott 

Long shots: Ricky Stenhouse (+ 2500), Chris Buescher (+ 3000), Chase Briscoe (+ 5000)

Expected to struggle: Larson, Kurt Busch, Harvick

The 500-mile event is set for Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time.

My initial simulation for the race will change based upon the qualifying, duels and practice results. The final simulations will be made available at VSiN.com on Saturday afternoon or maybe a little later. 

Again, I can’t say it enough: This is the most erratic race of the season to bet on and comes with a Handicap-Ability Grade of F. Other races down the line will prove far more predictable.

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