The 2022 NASCAR season was a crazy unpredictable ride, thanks in large part to the introduction of the “Next Gen” car that was mandated for all competitors. It was designed to level the playing field among the teams. In many ways, it worked, as there was no dominant team nor driver, and there were also some major surprises along the way, including the emergence of the Trackhouse Racing team, featuring Ross Chastain as its top driver. All of this made life difficult for bettors, who had become accustomed to backing certain drivers at certain tracks and assuming the usual suspects would run well week in and week out. It took me about half a season to get into a real betting groove, and I feel that what we learned last season about the new racing conditions will serve us well in the 2023 campaign. With that in mind, let’s dig into the 2023 season and this week’s Daytona 500 to see if we can find some wagering value.
Season championship odds
Joey Logano of Penske Racing comes into the season as the defending Cup champion but, according to DraftKings, is listed behind five other drivers in terms of his odds to win it again this year, at +1100. The odds-on favorite is Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports at +550, followed by teammate Kyle Larson at +600, and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing at +800. Ryan Blaney (+1000) of Penske and Martin Truex (Gibbs) are +1000 and +1100 to win the title. Interestingly, of that group, Blaney didn’t win a single race last season in a bit of a shocker because he ran well overall. Larson was the overwhelming favorite heading into 2022 but finished seventh, winning three races but failing to even make the championship four at Phoenix. Elliott actually won the most races in 2022, with five, a big reason he is the favorite.
Although I wouldn’t have considered Logano a major underdog last season, there are a couple of long shots to make a run at the title that I might consider in terms of good wagering value at the start of the season. The first is Christopher Bell of the Gibbs team. He is listed at +1200, coming off a season in which he won three races and finished as the top driver in my overall driver handicap ratings for the final 15 events. The other is Tyler Reddick, at +1500. He also won three races last year for Richard Childress Racing and now moves over to the No. 45 car for 23XI Racing. Reddick made the most of his equipment last year and has the hunger and potential to do well with his new, bigger team.
Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of betting season title odds until the playoffs arrive, as the format now makes it difficult to even predict the eventual final four drivers. Plus, the Next Gen car and its leveled playing field take some of the value out of betting obvious contenders. I prefer to bet race-by-race instead, and I use my weekly simulations as the foundation for my wagering.
Makinen’s Race Simulations for all 36 season races
You will find my INITIAL simulation for the race, as it stood on Tuesday, Feb. 14, here. This WILL change based on the qualifying, duels and practice results happening through Saturday morning. After that all concludes, there will be a final simulation made available on the VSiN.com website and newsletter sometime Saturday afternoon or later. In general, the weekly format will follow this schedule for all 36 races.
In looking back at last season, my initial simulations projected seven winners, 11 if you took both the first- and second-place projected finishers to win. My final simulations pegged six winners accurately, with again 11 had you opted for taking the top two projected drivers. The longest odds of a projected winner came from Tyler Reddick at the July Elkhart Lake race at 16-1! The lowest finishing odds of a projected winner were 4.5-1. On average it ended up being about 8-1. Doing the math, with the six race winners producing about 48 units in 36 races, the R.O.I. of simply taking the winners was about 33%. Again, this is just from using the winners. I would expect similar if not better results in 2023 with a full season’s worth of Next Gen data at our disposal.
Using the simulations for picking outright winners is just one way to take advantage. I use them just as much for finding value in top-3 and top-5 finishes, as well as over/under finishing positions, driver vs. driver matchups and daily fantasy options. Of course, the options available to wager vary greatly by book, but the simulations somewhat address all of it.
One of the biggest factors you are going to want to consider should you opt to get involved in handicapping and wagering on NASCAR races weekly is the track at which the races are happening. Not all venues are created equally and not all should be treated equally as far as their predictability. For this reason, I have been using what I refer to as Handicap-Ability Grades for every track. They range from A for most statistically predictable to F for the most erratic. In other words, I tend to trust my simulation projections more at the tracks graded A than I do those graded F. However, the odds offered by books tend to reflect this predictability. For instance, as of Tuesday, there was not a single driver listed at better than 12-1 to win at Daytona this weekend, and Daytona carries a grade of F. Does a Handicap-Ability grade of F mean you shouldn’t bet it? Not necessarily. Other races down the line will prove far more predictable, but the odds you’ll get will be much more attractive, and the chances for long shots to come in are significantly better.
Season driver/team changes
There are fewer rule changes this year, and most of them are subtle. Perhaps the change that has gotten magnified the most is NASCAR banning the “Hail Melon” move that Chastain used to perfection at Martinsville last season in order to clinch a spot in the championship four. If you aren’t familiar, I encourage you to look it up. It was quite honestly the most electric moment I have ever witnessed in NASCAR racing and defied all logic and safety concerns. Chastain was trailing in the race for a final four spot and in desperation simply floored the gas pedal and rode the wall around the outside of the track. In the process, he passed several cars to get the points he needed to advance. It is a moment that will live on in the sport's lore.
While several teams have changed crew chiefs, the more recognizable changes for this season come in the area of drivers switching teams. Kyle Busch has left Gibbs and taken over the No. 8 RCR car that Tyler Reddick piloted last season. Reddick in turn, slides into the 23XI Racing spot held formerly by Busch’s brother Kurt in the No. 45 car. Rookie Ty Gibbs now takes over the Kyle Busch car, although it has been renumbered No. 54 from No. 18. Also, Ryan Preece takes over for Cole Custer at Stewart-Haas Racing in the No. 41 ride. Elsewhere, Ty Dillon leaves what was Petty Motorsports and the No. 42 car for the No. 77 at Spire Motorsports. Rookie Noah Gragson takes over the No. 42 for Petty. Don’t look for the name Petty Motorsports any longer, however, as that organization has been rebranded to Legacy Motor Club. Oh, and one other small thing happening to that team in 2023 … seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to the scene in a part-time driver/owner role for LMC, in the No. 84 car. It remains to be seen how many races Johnson will run, or even qualify for, but he’ll begin his efforts this weekend at Daytona.
Early look at Sunday’s Daytona 500 odds and key stats
Unlike most sports, NASCAR’s biggest event of the season is its first, the Super Bowl of motorsports if you will. Referred to as “The Great American Race,” the Daytona 500 boasts NASCAR’s biggest prize purse as well as the coveted Harley J. Earl Trophy. Plus, the first playoff ticket gets punched for the winner. Daytona International Speedway becomes the center of the racing world again by offering up 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 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 closely drafting cars flying around the oval.
I’ll tell you straightforwardly as bettors that there is no track nor race in which it is more favorable to bet underdogs, as evidenced by the winners of the last two races, rookie Austin Cindric last year and Michael McDowell in 2021. Both went off at better than 30-1 to win those events. Incidentally, each is 20-1 or longer this year. Keep that in mind as you search for potential big-money plays.
Daytona is the only track that I assign a Handicap-Ability Grade of F to for my simulations, and not only for the surprise winners that come from out of nowhere here, but also because huge accidents, or “big ones,” can wipe out as many as 10-15 cars at a time, including expected contenders. In fact, last year’s race again featured sizable accidents, and in the end, only 15 of the race’s 40 entrants finished on the lead lap.
In terms of statistics at Daytona, Denny Hamlin (+1200) is the man to beat. He won the 2019 and 2020 500s. Overall, Hamlin boasts three wins at this track in his career, as well as eight other top-5s in 34 tries. His average finish is a modest 16.8 though, very low for a favorite at any track. Only Bubba Wallace (+1800) and Austin Dillon (+2500) show better average finish numbers among drivers who have run more than five Daytona races, at 12.4 and 14.7, respectively. Cindric owns the top spot in that stat category with an average finish of 6.3 in his three career starts.
Among the other statistical highlights, perhaps most importantly, those that go into figuring my race simulation, Kyle Busch (+1400) is second only to Hamlin in my handicapped track rating, followed by Brad Keselowski (+1800). In terms of the track designation ratings, which include other similar tracks, in this case Talladega, Keselowski sets the pace, followed by Todd Gilliland (+10000), Erik Jones (+3000) and Chase Elliott (+1200). Besides qualifying and practice speeds, the only other major statistical category that goes into projecting my race finishes is momentum, and there, Kyle Larson (+1200) is ahead of the field, followed by William Byron (+1200), Joey Logano (+1400) and Christopher Bell (+2500). Incidentally, Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney won the two most recent August races at Daytona, and have shown a penchant for navigating the draft well here. That should keep them among the contenders on Sunday, assuming they can avoid trouble. That is, of course, the big question mark for every car in the field.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 takes on a different look than all other races as only the top two cars in terms of qualifying lap speed earn their positions on the front row. The rest of the field is set by two 50-lap shootout events held on Thursday. This year’s front row will be decided on Wednesday evening. However, I caution you not to overreact to the starting positions, as they have little or nothing to do with how drivers finish. In fact, none of the last 12 pole starters at DIS has finished better than 14th, and the last pole winner to win a race was Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in July of 2015.
Typically, I love to watch the duel races on Thursday night, not only because they help set the field, but because they give bettors a good idea of which drivers have a good feel for the draft. That said, having to make my predictions at this point (which will assuredly change after the duels and practice sessions), I would go with the following:
Top 5: Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski
Top long shots: Brad Keselowski (+1800), Christopher Bell (+2500), Erik Jones (+3000), Justin Haley (+4000), AJ Allmendinger (+4000)
Favorites to struggle: Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney
The 500-mile event, which culminates a busy five days at the World’s Epicenter of Racing, is set for 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. If you watch any races all season long, this or the August event at this same track should be the ones. There are Xfinity and Truck Series races also lined up to get you primed for Sunday’s big one.