NASCAR: Underdogs flying at the start

April 19, 2022 09:46 PM
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When I previewed the NASCAR season in February, like many fans, I had great anticipation for what I expected to be one of the most intriguing seasons in recent memory. There was one specific reason for this — the new NextGen cars. The changes to the car were perhaps the biggest ever for the series, and I surmised that it could lead to some interesting and unpredictable racing results. Through the first 25% of the season, or nine races, it certainly has.

The season has seen just one race favorite win an event — Kyle Larson at Auto Club Speedway in February. Not coincidentally, ACS has proven to be the most predictable track in the series historically as designated by my Handicap-Ability Grades. Otherwise, there have been 12 other favorites or co-favorites that have failed to fulfill their designation.

Starting with the Daytona 500 in February, the Cup Series has seen eight different drivers win races, with William Byron the only repeat winner. That is interesting in itself because as I noted in my season preview, Byron was getting a ton of respect from oddsmakers, who had him fourth among all drivers to win the series title this year. The other race winners include three first-time visitors to Victory Lane and four seasoned veterans. Notably missing among winners thus far are Chase Elliott, Martin Truex, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, all among the preseason favorites.

Naturally, because of the unexpected start to the season, and the enhanced competition level from the top 20 drivers, rather than say, the top five or six, simulating races with statistics, qualifying and practice speeds and other factors has become more difficult. In fact, at this point a year ago, my final simulations had already pegged three winners. This year, they have yet to nail one, although one of the initial simulations did score on Larson at Auto Club.

However, that’s not to say there hasn’t been any success, as the season started fast with one of the bigger long shots winning the Daytona 500. Austin Cindric was priced at + 2500, and my simulation had him capable of a top-6 finish, the biggest surprise top-10 projection. Then, last week at Martinsville, my runner-up projection, Byron, won the race at + 900.

Studying my first nine simulations against the actual results, I was able to uncover one very profitable manner for picking winners that you should immediately give consideration to in your weekly handicapping:

Backing my entire top-10 simulation projections “to win” races has earned seven victories and + 22 units of profit in 2022.

Comparing my top-3, top-5 and top-10 projections against the actual odds for such wagers from DraftKings, most of the other best returns also came in backing all of the members of the top-10 projections. All of the other groups produced heavy losses. That said, I am making a greater statement against the pricing of these wagering options than I am against the simulations, as many of these options come with exorbitantly high “juice” associated. In fact, there have been 12 occasions this season in which top-10 options were available on drivers with prices of -400 or more. These drivers are just 5-7 in those bets for -29 units of loss.

As competitive as the series has been this year, even the supposed best drivers are being heavily affected by on-track trouble or pit mistakes. That’s a reason to stay away from such high-priced options. Instead, it seems to be a season in which underdog wagers make far more sense.

Consider the case of Ryan Blaney. He has been dominant at times, perhaps the best driver on the circuit this season. He is second in points. My simulations for Blaney based on his success as compared with where he finishes each race in terms of DRIVER RATING are only off by 1.78 positions per race. However, when comparing his actual finish in races, the difference balloons to 9.0. This signifies a driver who is susceptible to the errors I mentioned earlier, and for him, it has most often been time on pit road. In the end, as much as you feel you might have backed the best driver, these things can kill a bet.

The full-time drivers my simulations have projected most closely in this season’s first nine races are (with average margin):

1. Michael McDowell: 5.22

2. Darrell Wallace: 6

3. Cody Ware: 7.11

4. Chase Elliott: 7.33

5. Brad Keselowski: 7.33

6. Cole Custer: 7.33

7. Martin Truex: 7.33

8. Ricky Stenhouse: 7.44

9. Tyler Reddick: 7.44

10. Chris Buescher: 7.67

When comparing the driver’s AVERAGE RATING position for each race, these are the most closely projected guys (with average margin):

1. Ryan Blaney: 1.78

2. Cody Ware: 2.33

3. Michael McDowell: 2.78

4. Chris Buescher: 3.67

5. Darrell Wallace: 4.11

6. Joey Logano: 4.56

7. Corey LaJoie: 4.67

8. Ricky Stenhouse: 5.11

9. Kevin Harvick: 5.11

10. Chase Elliott: 5.33

On the opposite side of the coin, these are the drivers who have proven most difficult to project in my simulation, first by finish position. These are drivers who have either been wildly inconsistent or are outperforming or underperforming early expectations (with average margin):

1. Denny Hamlin: 18.22

2. Kyle Larson: 16.33

3. Kurt Busch: 11.89

4. Kyle Busch: 11.11

5. William Byron: 10.89

6. Christopher Bell: 10.67

7. Chase Briscoe: 10.44

8. Austin Dillon: 10.33

9. Ty Dillon: 10.22

10. Daniel Suarez: 10.22

Now by DRIVER RATING (with average margin):

1. Denny Hamlin: 10.11

2. Kyle Busch: 9.78

3. Kyle Larson: 9.67

4. Erik Jones: 7.44

5. Kurt Busch: 7.22

6. Austin Dillon: 7.11

7. Harrison Burton: 7

8. Martin Truex: 6.89

9. Justin Haley: 6.78

10. Chase Elliott: 5.33

Simulation factor importance

If you are going to rely on my simulations for your NASCAR handicapping needs, I would suggest they be utilized most for head-to-head wagering options rather than top-3, top-5 or top-10 props, for reasons I explained earlier. Again, though, the “to win” props based on my top-10 projections have remained successful and profitable.

For those of you interested in which statistics or parts of my simulation have proved to be most successful in predicting results in 2022, here is the order, with the average margin between my projection and the actual finish for all drivers in the nine races. Keep in mind that in past years, the average margins were in the 7-7.5 range, again speaking to the wild unpredictability we have seen this season.

1. OVERALL SIMULATION PROJECTION vs. DRIVER RATING: 5.65 positions

2. OVERALL SIMULATION PROJECTION vs. FINISH POSITION: 8.97 positions

3. PRACTICE RANK vs. FINISH POSITION: 9.09

4. TRACK DESIGNATION RANKING vs. FINISH POSITION: 9.32

5. QUALIFYING/STARTING POSITION vs. FINISH POSITION: 9.49

6. RECENT PERFORMANCE RANKING vs. FINISH POSITION: 9.5

7. AT TRACK RATING vs. FINISH POSITION: 9.56

Strangely, how a driver has performed recently at a specific track has been the least predictive factor of how they have fared this season. This is a direct result of the changing of the cars, as the recipes used by teams have changed dramatically. Keep in mind as well, this is perhaps the most mentioned stat by talking heads in any race broadcast.

Drivers to back for the foreseeable future

Ryan Blaney

Blaney has been the best driver in the field in terms of his DRIVER RATING this season, and it seems that some of his team’s struggles could be in the rearview mirror, having scored four straight top-7 finishes. He has yet to win in 2022 but is very capable of ending the drought on Sunday at Talladega.

Christopher Bell

Bell has earned driver ratings of 90+ in each of his last four races, with top-7 finishes in three of them. It has been a relatively quiet run for the forgotten man in the Joe Gibbs Racing garage. He might be the best betting option of the four right now, though.

Chris Buescher

If you’re looking for a driver a little lower down the ladder who presents a ton of great matchup value because he is both underrated and consistent, look no further than Buescher. He has three straight 15th-place finishes and an average of 14.4 in his last seven races.

William Byron

I believe oddsmakers were on to something when they pegged Byron among the series favorites this year. He has had two of the most dominant wins this season, on two completely different tracks, and seems capable of winning anywhere.

Joey Logano

Logano’s arrow is pointing up after finishing second and third in his last two races. Now he heads to perhaps his best track — Talladega — where he should be one of the favorites.

Tyler Reddick

Most bettors probably knew very little about Reddick heading into 2022. After his runner-up finish on Sunday night, to go along with three other top-7 finishes, he figures to be the next first-time winner.

Drivers to fade for the foreseeable future

Aric Almirola

Since starting the season with three straight top-6 finishes, Almirola has averaged a 17.5 finish. He has announced that he will retire after 2022, and his best racing for this season could already be behind him.

Kurt Busch

It’s not surprising with a first-year team, but Busch’s first season with Team23XI Racing has been wildly inconsistent and mistake-prone. He has countered four top-8 finishes with three finishes of 32nd or worse, all coming in the last four weeks. With Bubba Wallace also struggling, it seems this team is getting worse, not better.

Ross Chastain

Yes, I know, Chastain was the surprise of the season a few weeks ago after four straight top-3 finishes, including a stunning victory in Austin, Texas. If you weren’t part of the run, you probably missed the window, as since, he has finished 19th, fifth and 33rd with all DRIVER RATINGS under 87.

Chase Elliott

Elliott is still among the best drivers on the circuit, but as high as he’s typically priced, it doesn’t seem worth it. He has yet to secure a top-3 finish, and last week at Bristol got involved in skirmishes with some of the worst drivers in the field.

Denny Hamlin

Considered one of the favorites for the Cup title in 2022, Hamlin has won one race and failed to record a top-12 in the other eight races. His team is obviously struggling with the car changes and until something drastically changes, all the betting value will come in fading his high prices.

Kevin Harvick

During the COVID-19 season of 2020, Harvick was the series’ top driver and won me a lot of money. But he is so far off that level now, it is almost sad. He had a second-place finish a few weeks ago but was never really a threat. That is his only top-5 so far.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski and Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing teammate Chris Buescher have put up similar performances in 2022. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay anywhere near Keselowski-level pricing to buy Buescher’s performances.

Kyle Larson

As dominant as Larson was at the end of last season in winning the series title, he has experienced the biggest year-to-year drop-off with the car change. Before his strong run Sunday at Bristol, where he finished fourth with an astonishingly pricey + 350 to-win odds, Larson recorded five straight sub-90 driver ratings. He averaged about 119 during his playoff run last year.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, all of this gives you an idea of where we stand in NASCAR handicapping heading into the next quarter of the season. You will find my INITIAL simulation for Sunday’s GEICO 500 from Talladega alongside this article. This WILL change based on the qualifying and practice results. The final simulations will be made available on VSiN.com and in the newsletter sometime Saturday afternoon or later. A word of caution, though: Talladega races are always among the more erratic races of the season to bet on, and the track comes with a Handicap-Ability Grade of F. In this season of unpredictability, it’s the perfect track.

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