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What simulations tell bettors about this week's NASCAR races

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

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Kevin Harvick
© Imagn

This week provides a great opportunity to jump into the very engaging experience of NASCAR betting. From the sounds of it, a lot more people than usual watched and bet Sunday’s race from Darlington. Hopefully readers of “Point Spread Weekly” chose to partake after seeing my initial simulation, which accurately pegged Kevin Harvick as the winner. He was an 8-1 shot at some books. It was the third time in the first five races of 2020 that my initial or final simulation nailed the winner.

Of course, for anyone betting the sport with no experience or passion, the recommendation is always to get your feet wet first. NASCAR is a richly data-driven sport, so I find it a great match for my statistics-reliant betting endeavors. The simulations I run for every race are based on about 20 years of data and about 10 years of regression studies. In fact, after spending the duration of the playoffs analyzing the 10 races on RacersOdds, I found several areas in which I thought I could improve my projections. So I spent the offseason rebuilding the formulas I use to run the simulations. So far, the results have been fantastic. Three outright winners, all at least 6-1, in five races has been a great reward. Encouragingly, only one of the first five races was at a track I rate in my top eight for handicap-ability grade.

As we look ahead to this week’s races at Darlington and Charlotte, here are some thoughts to accompany my simulations.

Toyota 500, Darlington, Wednesday night

Before Sunday’s race, I said the event would be unlike any we’ve seen in NASCAR, not only because of the time off since the last race but also because the drivers would be racing with zero track time — no qualifying, no practice. Typically for me, that would be a deal-breaker in handicapping, as my simulations and methods of analysis rely heavily on prerace track data. Plus, with no driver having any momentum and no other track even similar to Darlington in my designations, handicapping The Real Heroes 400 turned into a glorified power rating analysis. I considered only two factors: which drivers and teams had been strongest early in the season, and which drivers had fared well recently at Darlington. Normally I consider about 10 factors, so my method was far simpler than usual.

That leads us into Wednesday’s race, which, while at the same track, will be a different animal from what we witnessed Sunday. The main differences will be that teams have had up to 293 laps of track time from which to make adjustments and that this race will be at night. Darlington in the daytime heat is a completely different track from the one drivers will take on after the sun goes down. Darlington is known as “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” and anyone who watched Sunday should be well versed as to why. The surface eats up tires, Turns 1 and 2 are different from 3 and 4, and the Cup Series has visited this track just once per season in recent years. On top of all that, this race will be 68 laps shorter than Sunday’s.

Difficulty aside, we know a lot more now than we did before Sunday in terms of how to handicap the Toyota 500. We have a whole race to go on. Here are some handicapping thoughts on the drivers to watch:

— Kevin Harvick: “The Closer” was the projected winner for my initial simulation of Sunday’s race and is Wednesday’s projected winner on the initial and final simulations. He has momentum on his side now, besides being the driver I picked as the eventual season champion after his strong start several weeks ago. Darlington fits Harvick perfectly, and with only three days between races, it would be no surprise to see him sweep.

— Chase Elliott: At one point early in Sunday’s race, Hendrick Motorsports looked like the team to beat. Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, William Byron and Elliott were running near the front. This was a continuation of the season’s first four races, when the new Chevrolets definitively answered all major questions about their ability to compete. Elliott was no threat to win Sunday, but under the lights he could be the torchbearer for Hendrick. My simulation has him No. 2.

— Martin Truex: After a horribly sluggish start to 2020, Truex’s season appeared to be picking up right where it left off through Stage 1 on Sunday. However, the team found something after that and became highly competitive the rest of the way, even taking the lead at one point. This could be a turning point in the season for the No. 19 car, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see him re-establish himself as a weekly threat to win. The good news is that bookmakers seemed to turn on him early, so the prices are much better now than they were going into 2020.

— Brad Keselwoski: As opposed to Penske Racing teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano, who were studs in the first four races, Keselowski seemed to be better at Darlington than when racing was suspended in March. Don’t be fooled by the 13th-place finish in The Real Heroes 400, as the No. 2 Ford driver had the third-best rating of any driver and his average running position was fourth.

These are some of the drivers I would be hesitant to back Wednesday night:

— Jimmie Johnson: He has been more competitive than expected this season, largely a result of the improvement the new Camaros have made. But he has been prone to uncharacteristic mistakes in the early part of 2020. On Sunday he crashed into a non-contending car on the final lap of what would have been a stage win for him. Instead it took him out of the race. Johnson might be pressing in the final season of his illustrious career. I like his chances much better at the Charlotte events.

— Kyle Busch: Whatever the reason, this team has not been firing on all cylinders going back to the 2019 season. Sure, Busch won the series title last year, but that was pretty much a one-race effort after coasting into the championship event. He was penalized Sunday after failing tech inspection and sent to the back of the field instead of what would have been the No. 4 starting spot. Busch never really recovered. Probably best to stay away until the tide turns in his favor. He is projected 13th in the Toyota 500 simulation, about as low as I can ever remember. 

— John Hunter Nemechek: It’s not often I’ll fade a driver coming off the best finishing effort of his career, but the truth with Nemechek’s run Sunday is that it wasn’t nearly as strong as his No. 9 finish indicated. He was 17th among the 40 entrants in driver rating, and his average running position was 18th. Prices will probably reflect a good Sunday run, but I wouldn’t trust an overpriced rookie in a nighttime Darlington race.

Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte, Sunday evening

This has been a Memorial Day weekend tradition in NASCAR for as long as I’ve been following and is one of its most prestigious events. It is NASCAR’s longest race of the season. The racing at Charlotte is very fast. In terms of similar tracks, I consider the Texas and Atlanta races as sisters when doing my analysis. Be careful, though: Put no stock into the last two fall races at Charlotte, as those were run on the ROVAL, a hybrid road-course layout at the facility.

Since we’ll have two races of momentum built up and a broader history of similar recent races by the time this race rolls around, Charlotte should more closely resemble my usual handicapping process. However, while we will have qualifying, no on-track practice sessions will be held, so we are still missing a major component of my formulas. Stay tuned to VSiN before the race for the release of my final simulation after qualifying is complete. Here are the drivers I expect to do well: 

— Martin Truex: As discussed earlier, Truex seems on the verge of a breakthrough, almost as if the season reset was exactly what he needed. He has the No. 1 track ranking in my simulation factors and is projected to finish fourth. This is despite a projected qualifying position of 19th. Should that latter figure improve, he would climb at least one or two spots in the simulation. I would be willing to risk To Win, Group, Matchup or any other forms of wagers on him.

— Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been one of the better drivers at Charlotte in recent years and has become known for stepping up big in the biggest events. He won the Daytona 500 in February, if you recall. He was good but not elite Sunday at Darlington, but I believe this will be a better situation for him.

— Kevin Harvick/Aric Almirola/Clint Bowyer/Cole Custer: The entire Stewart-Haas Racing team dominated the last time NASCAR was at a track similar to Charlotte. That was at Texas in November, with No. 1 Harvick, No. 2 Almirola and No. 3 Daniel Suarez pacing that day’s driver ratings. Custer is now in Suarez’s car and could be a long-shot underdog to consider as a rookie.

— Ryan Blaney: He was arguably the best driver on the circuit in the first three races, leading a lot of laps and essentially dominating at Daytona, California and Las Vegas. He seems to have lost that momentum, but I could easily see it returning on a fast track like Charlotte.

— Jimmie Johnson: Earlier in his career when Charlotte was known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s-sponsored machine was a lock to be running up front and contending for wins. With Johnson running well this season, a track he clearly knows how to get around could be a perfect match. If he can go 600 miles without major mistakes, Johnson should be a contender.

Now the drivers to avoid:

— Joey Logano: Somewhat surprisingly, the driver who won two of the season’s first four races was relatively ineffective at Darlington. Logano has also struggled a bit at Charlotte, ranking No. 22 in my track ratings that go into the simulation formula. Bettors typically pay a high price for backing Logano. This is not one of the best tracks to do that.

— Matt Kenseth: To see Kenseth score a top-10 in his first race back after replacing Kyle Larson at Darlington was remarkable. Keep in mind, though, that Larson and Ganassi Racing have shown a penchant for running well at Darlington. The same can’t really be said at tracks like Charlotte. The No. 42 team has the No. 11 ranking at that track grouping. The bottom line is the stars were aligned for Kenseth last week, and going 600 miles in his third race back will be a much bigger test.

— Ryan Newman: To his credit, Newman has been very good at getting finishes better than his car warrants. That might be a lot to ask as he pilots the No. 6 Roush Ford. The Roush team has not fared well at Charlotte, and the No. 6 car has rankings of No. 19 (track) and No. 22 (designation) to overcome. In his third race back from his horrific crash at Daytona, going 600 miles in an overmatched car will be a challenge.

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