Trying to beat the Big 3 at Pocono

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

July 28, 2018 06:01 PM

NASCAR visits the Pocono mountains for the second time in seven weeks as the series pushes to the postseason. Last week at New Hampshire, we saw the long-awaited matchup between the seasons point leaders, and it did not disappoint. As the race came to a close, Kevin Harvick gently removed Kyle Busch from the lead and went on to win his sixth race of the season. There is little doubt that both Harvick and Busch should have a very deep run in the playoffs, and there is a competitive reason to believe that this incident was only the tip of the iceberg.  

This week at Pocono the “Big 3” should be well within contention as the race comes to a close. While that is not exactly breaking news, it does tell there is no viable way to bet any of them to win a race on most weeks. At miniscule combined odds of 15-2, the negative margin would become clear rather quickly if we were to start wagering on either the #4, #18 or #78 from the NASCAR Roulette Wheel. We will examine each of them closer, shortly.

As we have discussed, there is a much sharper edge if you take individual cars, and watch their progression during the weekend. Being focused on a few matchups that initially look appealing can really help quite some the noise generated by so many moving parts. Additionally, if wagering on a driver to win the race, then you are forced to deal with the strategy and progression of the entire field. Acquiring handicapping worthy data on a driver matchup is much more attainable in NASCAR, because of the very quick turnaround times over the course of a typical race weekend. 

Having an analytical base is really important in NASCAR handicapping. Understanding the value of starting in front of a matchup counterpart is key to identifying what the true odds are in comparison to what is currently on the board. Almost every track on the circuit has a deep analytical platform, and looking at some of track specific numbers in terms of driver movement is an unbiased mode of learning that is really encouraged. Below are some numbers to examine as we handicap Pocono

46-81 (56.7%) have been won from a top 4 starting position, including 3 straight.

Only one winner has come from outside the top 10 in the last 9 races at Pocono, and that race was shortened by weather.

In the last 10 races at Pocono there is an average of less than 100 position changes in the top 15 over the course of a race. This low number is important because it refers to how valuable starting positions should be in matchups. 

Let’s take a closer look below at some of the contenders for the race at Pocono.

Kevin Harvick (plus 150): Starting from the pole, Harvick has been in a class by himself so far this weekend. These odds are too low but if the race proceeds as figured, Harvick will be in Victory Lane.

Kyle Busch (3-1): Lining up right next to Harvick, Busch may look to engage Harvick early in the race as he is not one to let things go. With four straight top 10 finishes at Pocono, Busch looks to be securely in second among the favorites this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. (3-1): Starting in the 14th position, Truex will have a lot to do to be a contender late in the race. He has not been as strong this weekend during practice when examining both sessions, which could put him behind the competition once the race begins.

Kyle Larson (8-1): Lined up in fourth place, Larson is right on the margin of starting spots that produce the majority of winners. While Larson looks strong he will need drastic improvement over the course of the race to challenge Harvick. Incidentally, Larson spun his car without significant damage in the final moments of happy hour. 

Brad Keselowski (12-1): Coming from the ninth starting spot, Keselowski has recent history on his side. He has had six top-5 finishes in a row at Pocono which has made him a model of consistency among his peers. Keselowski had an electrical problem in the first practice session, which cost him almost 30 minutes in the garage. As a result he was not able to dial the car in as desired during the first practice session. However, in final practice he appeared to regain his form as he was sixth over a long run.

Denny Hamlin (15-1): Lined up in seventh place, Hamlin is just on the outskirts of a prime starting spot. This should not eliminate Hamlin from contention as he showed good speed during both practice sessions. Recently, Pocono has not been a track of great success for Hamlin, but there is little doubt that he will run well, provided he can stay out of trouble, especially on pit road where he has been caught for infractions several times this season.

Erik Jones (15-1): Looking strong in both practice session, Erik Jones appears to have a car that could challenge for a win, if Harvick and Kyle Busch do not perform to task. While Jones has only 3 starts at Pocono he has performed well, scoring two top-10 finishes. Jones is worth a look at current odds if playing against Harvick and Busch.

Joey Logano (16-1): Starting in the fifth spot, and basing a possible wager off track analytics alone, makes Logano a viable option. Pocono has not been Logano’s best track, but much like Erik Jones there is strength in numbers if playing against the Harvick and Busch.

Daniel Suarez  (75-1): Starting in the third position is Suarez, who is undervalued when it comes to considering what is on the line for him. Virtually his only shot to make the postseason at this point is to get a win. Suarez will likely be in a good spot as he can play his own strategy against Harvick and Busch. If playing against Harvick and Busch, Suarez should absolutely be on the ticket. 

Below are the matchups that have made the cut for Pocono.

Clint Bowyer (-110):

Denny Hamlin (-110): Hamlin is the play here, as he has a long history of outperforming Bowyer with an average finish of 14th in the last 5 races at Pocono. Additionally, Hamlin was stronger in both practice sessions this weekend. Further, Bowyer has recently undergone changes within the pit crew in order to polish themselves prior to the playoffs. As evidence from last week, there is still some work to do.

Aric Almirola (-105):

Chase Elliott (-115): Elliott has had success at Pocono in recent races, and aided by a good starting spot he appears to be drawing Almirola at a time when he still could be consider what might have been last weekend in New Hampshire. Almirola was the best car by a good margin last weekend, only to lose the race on Pit road and then stumble on the following restart by spinning his tires.

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