If last week’s Southern 500 taught anything, it’s that the early rounds of the playoffs will be unpredictable.
Typically Darlington is among the easiest tracks to handicap. Drivers develop long streaks of top-fives and -10s and are more than capable of sustaining them. But Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin’s domination of Victory Lane during the regular season has changed the dynamic considerably. The ultimate goal is to get to the Championship 4, but since 14 of the playoff contenders were so close in terms of points, it put an even heavier emphasis on winning.
In a regular season race, either Chase Elliott or Martin Truex Jr. might have behaved differently in the closing laps. Truex might not have made the poor decision to move into the high groove before he knew he was clear; Elliott might have given ground and attempted the crossover move in the next corner, but the automatic advancement to the Round of 15 that comes with a win – and equally important, the five bonus points – were too much to give up. The next two races will be contested on short tracks. Those races will be just as unpredictable as the Southern 500.
Harvick inherited the lead from a distant third. He brought Austin Dillon along with him in the battle for the victory. Harvick’s win was inconsequential in terms of playoff considerations because there was no way he would not be part of the final four drivers. But Dillon almost completely changed the battle for advancement to the Round of 12.
The next two races will be contested on short tracks. Those races will be just as unpredictable as the Southern 500.
Last week Harvick did not have the best car en route to victory, but he did have the best record at Darlington and was our pick to win. This week, it is highly likely that Hamlin will not only have the best record at Richmond, but he will also have the best car.
Hamlin is a flat track master and he is even more dangerous in his home state of Virginia. His mastery of Martinsville is legendary. So are his runs in Richmond with a victory in fall 2016 and top-fives in five of the next six races there. He struggled in fall 2018 and finished a lap off the pace in 16th. He had a few awkward years in the mid-2010s, but that will not affect him on Saturday night.
Hamlin is the favorite at PointsBet Sportsbook right now with +400 (4/1) odds. Harvick (+420) and Truex (+460) are close behind, which means a decision will need to be made among bettors as to whom the most money should go. Given Hamlin’s reputation and record on this track, a sizeable bet is indicated.
Best Bets for a top five
Harvick’s (+420) record is almost as strong as Hamlin. In the same span of races examined above, Harvick has five top-fives and a seventh-place finish. He’s lacking a win since 2013, but he was victorious that year after starting deep in the field in 17th. That was Harvick’s third victory on this track with the others coming in 2006 and 2011. Harvick capable of winning again this week and has nothing to lose – but that is a double-edged sword because he can also gamble on a flat track setup that might teach him something about Martinsville later in the season and to a lesser degree Phoenix in the finale.
Truex (+460) could have afforded to be more patient last week. He knew Richmond was next on the schedule and he swept Victory Lane there in convincing fashion last year. That was his third consecutive top-three Richmond finish. He should also have known how determined Elliott would be since Richmond is not a particularly good track for him. This .75-mile short track has not always been kind to Truex, but there was little doubt in either 2019 race that he would have a dominant car. Hamlin, Harvick, and Truex have a wide points’ gap over the field and the battle for the win is likely to come down to them.
Exceptional value: In any other year, Kyle Busch (+775) would be just as heavily favored as the Big Three at Richmond. In regard to our Fantasy Power Average (a look at a driver’s record plus strength-based stats) he sits at the top of the list with a 4.21. Harvick is the closest competitor with a 5.42. Busch swept Victory Lane at Richmond in 2018. He finished second last fall on this track. And of all the places where he could finally get the monkey off his back, this has to rate high on the list. With a return of $7.75 on every dollar you wager this week, he is worth more than a casual bet.
Joey Logano (+900) finished only 11th in last year’s Federated Auto Parts 400. He was 14th in the 2018 edition of this race, but he was in a position where his results really didn’t matter as much as they do this week. There is no doubting his talent. He finished second in last spring’s race, fourth in 2018, and was first and second in the two events from 2017. In fact, in 12 races since 2014 the only times he failed to crack the top 10 were the two we just mentioned. Logano is coming off a solid run at Darlington and should keep his momentum alive.
Best Bets for a top 10
There is not a lot of room in the top five and with the Big Three taking up a majority of those slots, we are relegating Brad Keselowski (+900) to a position just outside the mark. Don’t be fooled, however; we might very well be wrong because the driver of the No. 2 has been almost perfect in regard to top-fives in the past two years on short tracks. Dating back to the fall 2018 Martinsville race (in which he finished fifth) through this spring’s event on that same track (a third-place finish), he has two wins, seven top-fives, and a seventh-place finish in nine races. If you can find appropriate odds for a top-five finish, make the wager with confidence.
One of the reasons Elliott (+900) wanted to win so badly last week was his 2019 record at Richmond. He failed to crack the top 10 in either race with a 15th in the spring and a 13th in the fall. That set a dissonant tone for the playoffs and it seemed that he was forced to play catch-up for the remainder of the stretch. His overall record on this flat .75-mile track is not great with top-10s in only a third of his starts. But there is some good news. Elliott swept the top five in 2018 and was the runner-up to Ky Busch that spring.
Longshot alert: Austin Dillon (+6000) almost redefined the Round of 16 last week. He made a determined charge for the Southern 500 victory and its automatic berth to the Round of 12. If he had been successful, it would have put even more pressure on the drivers ranked third through 16th in the points standings. As it is, he moved up to eighth. He does not need to be as desperate for a win as he was last week and he should be able to record a solid result. Dillon finished sixth in back-to-back Richmond races in fall 2018 / spring 2019, so he knows how to get around this track.
At +3300, Clint Bowyer is worth a modest layoff-bet. Richmond suits his driving style. He earned his second career win there in 2008 after starting deep in the field in 31st. He won again in fall 2012 from seventh and finished second the next year. While he has not come that close again, he does have a pair of thirds more recently, including last spring in the Toyota Owners 400. That is part of a current streak of four consecutive top-10s on this track.
Longshot alert: Every year there is a Cinderella contender that finds out the glass slipper is more brittle than they believed. In all likelihood, that will be Matt DiBenedetto (+9000) in 2020 and one would not want to place a wager against his PointsBet odds of +10000 to win the championship. If you can find a good Prop Bet for him to finish among the top 10 at Richmond, however, he could provide a pleasant surprise. On another sports book, his current odds to finish in the top 10 are listed at +210, so there is a little money to be had there.
Good Values outside the top 10
Kurt Busch (+2800) is on the cusp of being a top-10 pick this week, but we think he will barely miss. He has top-12 finishes in all but one short track race during the past two years with his dissenting result being an 18th in last year’s Federated Auto Parts 400.
There will be a lot of disappointment if Jimmie Johnson (+3500) gets to the end of his final season without scoring his 84th win, but that is likely to happen. He should earn his 374th top-10, however, because he has 11 consecutive top-12 finishes at Richmond.
If you have a few dollars to spare and like to bet on longshots, Ryan Newman (+12500) swept the top 10 on this track last year and loves Richmond Raceway.
Bettors can ignore William Byron’s (+5000) record on a number of tracks this year. That is because he has a lot of momentum on his side with three consecutive top-fives.
Cole Custer (+9000) got some laps on this track last fall and finished 26th. That will help him find the groove on a course that is traditionally very kind to dark horses.
Last week we predicted a top-10 for Erik Jones (+3500) and he rewarded us with a fourth. He has not been quite as strong at Richmond as Darlington, however.
Ryan Blaney (+2500) did not want to enter Richmond sitting last in the points because he has not cracked the top 15 on this track in eight career starts. His average finish there is 25.5.
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