One of the most difficult things in NASCAR is predicting the winner of an aero-restricted superspeedway. Quite simply, nothing is predictive. A driver’s track record is a key component because it often indicates who has been able to stay out of trouble, but when a car gets turned sideways at the head of the pack no one is safe.
Streaks are hard to come by. When they do, it makes them even more notable. Four drivers have swept the top 10 on aero-restricted tracks this year in two races. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have gone on to dominate most other track types, but even they are not safe and have their share of accidents over the past few years. Kyle Busch finished in the 30s at both Daytona and Talladega earlier this year – but he has as good a chance to win this week as anyone in the field.
Making this more difficult still is the fact that the Coke Zero 400 is the final regular season race of 2020. There are two spots open in the Round of 16. At least one of those will go to a driver based on points. The wild card is that winners advance into the playoffs and there are more than 20 drivers who want to be relevant over the course of the next three races before the field is trimmed to 12. These drivers are likely to take greater risks to get to and stay among the leaders. If they are too aggressive and make a mistake, half the field could be wiped out in a single incident.
Daytona has the potential to surprise everyone, however, and occasionally races that are supposed to be wild and exciting turn into single-file battles as no one wants to be the driver who makes a mistake. There are simply too many unknowns to make it worth risking large sums of money. And yet with long odds, almost any dark horse is worthy of a modest bet.
With 6/1 odds, Denny Hamlin (+600) is this week’s favorite on the Draft Kings sportsbook. It’s hard to argue against the Daytona 500 winner from the past two seasons especially when he has also scored top-fives in the last two Talladega races, but the night race on this track often has a much different feel and rewards a drivers who struggled in the February sunshine. Hamlin has not scored a top-15 in the Coke Zero 400 in four years; his last three attempts were outside the top 20.
Stats can be tricky, however, and often it’s a matter of how one looks at them as to what they inform. From 2014 through spring 2016, Hamlin scored five consecutive results of sixth or better on this track. That streak culminated in another Daytona 500 win. He deserves his designation as a favorite, but since he has the best odds, the return on investment is not going to be enough to warrant a sizeable bet when a longshot dark horse may very well run away with the trophy as well.
Best Bets for a top five
Ryan Blaney (+1200) is locked into the playoffs and does not need the win to advance. But he does need a strong run to give this team a little momentum entering the playoffs. He came within a bumper of winning this year’s Daytona 500 and if that had happened, he would have three consecutive plate victories.
There are few drivers more aggressive in the draft than Joey Logano (+1100). That occasionally works in his favor by keeping him near the front of the pack when accidents erupt behind him. On occasion, it means he has put himself in the eye of the storm.
Aric Almirola (+2000) finished 22nd in this year’s Daytona 500. That doesn’t factor into his handicap strongly, however, because last year after scoring a 32nd in that race he went on to sweep the top 10. In the first Talladega race, he finished third and could match his 2019 feat.
Exceptional value: Ryan Newman (+4000) tumbled across the finish line ninth in the Daytona 500 for what was to become his 10th top-10 on a plate track in the last 11 races. He has beaten the odds simply by returning to the cockpit after that horrendous crash and should contend for the win this week.
Best Bets for a top 10
Longshot alert: Last year the best Chris Buescher (+4000) could do was finish 17th in one of four plate races. This spring in the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17, he came home third in the Daytona 500 and backed that up a sixth at Talladega. He has a pair of top-fives on that same track in 2018 and could easily be this week’s strongest dark horse.
Kevin Harvick (+900) has managed to stay out of trouble in both plate races this year with a fifth at Daytona and a 10th at Talladega. In his previous 12 attempts on this track type, however, he had only one other top-10.
Kurt Busch (+2000) is consistent on nearly every track type in existence, but the aero-restricted superspeedways are among those where he is less of a sure thing. He is still one of the best plate races around, however, and has three top-10s in his last five attempts at Daytona and Talladega.
Jimmie Johnson (+2000) can still make the playoffs on points, but a safer avenue into the Round of 16 would be if he could win in this, his final season. Five of his 83 career wins came on this track type, but he’s sustained crash damage in five of his last six attempts at Daytona and Talladega.
Good Values outside the top 10
William Byron (+2800) needs the validation that would come with a win – even if it is on a wild card plate track. But he can also get into the Round of 16 with a solid run and is set at +145 to finish among the top 10.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (+2000) is one of the best plate racers in the field, which is why he has 20/1 odds this week. But he can also be impatient and causes a lot of accidents.
In the last four seasons before 2020, Michael McDowell (+5000) has earned at least one top-10 on an aero-restricted superspeedway. Last year he bookended his effort with fifth-place finishes in the Daytona 500 and fall Talladega race.
Ty Dillon (+6600) scored three top-10s in four races on this track type. In 2020, his best result is a 12th at Talladega, which makes him due for a strong run.
It’s unlikely that Corey LaJoie (+12500) will contend for the victory this week, but there is still money to be made with a wager for the No. 32 to finish among the top 10 at +550. LaJoie has earned top-10s in three of his last four plate races including an eighth at Daytona this February.
There are many ways Chase Elliott (+1400) is similar to Jeff Gordon. One of these is that he does not show a lot of patience in the draft. That often means he gets shuffled to the back while trying to make a risky pass.
Brad Keselowski (+1100) has several wins on the plate tracks to prove how strong he can be. He also crashes a lot with eight DNFs for accidents in his last 14 attempts.
This is not a good week to wager on Martin Truex Jr. (+1800) because he has managed to score only one top-10 in his last 17 attempts on this course type. Notably, that was a second in the 2018 Coke Zero 400.
Plate tracks can often smell desperation on a driver. Avoid Kyle Busch (1400) this week. If he stays out of trouble, you have the remainder of the playoffs to risk a bet on last year’s champion.
Facing an uncertain future, Erik Jones (+2500) needs to be part of the playoff picture to help secure a strong ride in 2021. There are still several dominoes that need to fall into place.