Beaver’s Best Bets for the Goodyear 400

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Last week NASCAR visited their fourth similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track with the Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway. This week they head to a course that does not have a strong comparative. Rough surface courses like Dover International Speedway or Bristol Motor Speedway with their concrete pavement come close, but nothing is like Darlington Raceway now that North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham is not on the schedule.

Last year Darlington played host to NASCAR’s return from the COVID-19 break and it was an emotional weekend for most fans who watched on television. With empty grandstands, no practice or qualification, and a quietness to the event, we saw a race that started the road back to normalcy.

In a sense, the same may be true this week. In the doubleheader week run May 17 and 20, two drivers who went on to dominate the regular season won. Kevin Harvick was victorious on Sunday; three days later, Denny Hamlin won a Wednesday race after one of his teammates spun the most dominant driver, Chase Elliott out of the lead. Those three drivers went on to win the most races of 2020, but in this extremely hard to predict season, they have not yet found Victory Lane in 2021. Will that change for any of those three? Maybe – and if so, we could see our 11th different winner in the first 12 races.

Proposed Winner

The Real Heroes 400 was notable for another reason. It was the first Cup race since April 2015 that Kyle Larson (+450) was not in attendance. One of NASCAR’s most popular drivers had recently been suspended by NASCAR and was subsequently released from Chip Ganassi Racing for the use of a racial slur during an online event. He almost certainly would have factored into the battle for the top five.

Larson was coming off back-to-back top-fives and three such results in his last four Darlington attempts. He finished second in his most recent effort in 2019 and was third in 2018 and 2016. In his first attempt since 2018, a rusty Matt Kenseth brought Larson’s old car home 10th.

Larson has been one of this season’s top performers. He won the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and dominated the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Last week he was just as impressive at Kansas Speedway until his team made the wrong call on tires near the end of the race. Trapped in traffic, he made another mistake and almost wrecked himself and Ryan Blaney. This week strategy will not play a role; if a caution waves, drivers will come in for tires no matter what time of the race and Larson will almost certainly be in contention.

Best Bets for a top five

Last week’s performance by Harvick (+700) was one of the first real signs of strength we’ve seen from Stewart-Haas Racing. Two weeks ago he drew the fourth pill from the Talladega lottery and that gave the team confidence. They will be riding even higher this week in the Goodyear 400 and more importantly they have last year’s Real Heroes 400 and Southern 500 wins to buoy them. Harvick has nine top-fives and a ninth in his last 10 Darlington races.

Hamlin (+540) also returned to action with a vengeance. He finished fifth in the Sunday race and won on Wednesday. Over the course of his career, Hamlin has earned top-fives in 53 percent of starts and top-10s 77 percent of the time at Darlington. If he misses, it won’t be by much. He is the current points’ leader because of his consistency and strength. This week, he could seal his playoff bid with a win.

This time last year, bettors and gamers did not yet know how badly Kyle Busch (+800) would struggle without practice and qualification, but early signs were apparent in the Sunday race when he finished outside the top 25. Using the notes from that race, his setup was much better on Wednesday and he was in a position to battle for the top five in the closing laps. As he was getting passed by a much superior Elliott, the two made contact. Busch survived to finish second, which was his eighth Darlington top-10 in 10 races. Dating back to 2010, Busch has finished 11th of better in 12 of the last 13 events on this track.

Could this be the race that turns Elliott’s season around? We think so. The oddsmakers are not quite as certain and have him listed at +1100. That ranks him seventh on the chart. Elliott was strong in both spring Darlington races last year. Without the contact from Busch, he almost certainly would have won the Real Heroes 400. To prove his championship worthiness, he needs to run well prior to the road course race at the Circuit of the Americas and this could be his last, best opportunity.

Best Bets for a top 10

Longshot: Erik Jones (+10000) would be one of our favorites for the outright win this week if he was still driving the No. 20. In six starts at Darlington, he has never finished outside the top 10; his worst finish has been eighth. Four of these efforts were top-fives and one was a Southern 500 victory in 2019. Darlington is a driver’s track where skill is a much larger part of the equation to other courses. That is going to make a difference this weekend and could very well make Jones a repeat winner. Given his long odds, it’s worth a modest bet to find out.

In the equation of driver versus machine, the eternal question is which is most important. The bottom line is that both are needed. Christopher Bell (+2500) has not yet earned a top-10 on this course, but that is likely to change this week given how well Jones was in the equipment. Bell’s chances of winning are not stellar, but his 25/1 odds for the outright win drag his top-three odds to +650 and that is worth a modest bet.

Martin Truex Jr. (+750) has arguably been the strongest driver this season. He has spent the most time among the top 15 [https://edit-edge.nbcsports.com/edge/article/statistically-speaking/battling-front-laps-top-15] and, through a third of the 2021, season is still the only driver with multiple wins. The only times he has stumbled in the last nine attempts has been at Bristol where he cut a tire late in the going after running with leaders all afternoon and at Talladega when he was caught up in someone else’s accident. Otherwise he has swept the top 10 since Week 3 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Brad Keselowski (+900) was inconsistent last year at Darlington and has been less than reliable in 2021. He is beginning to gain momentum, however, with back-to-back top-fives after winning Talladega and finishing third last week. He also has a Darlington victory from 2018 and top-fives in 2019 and 2020. Whether or not you wager on him will depend on how deep into your pockets you dig each week.

Joey Logano (+1400) has been erratic at Darlington and in the past couple of weeks, but he is the best remaining option for a top-10 before you get to longshots and dark horses. He has not yet won on this track, but came close in 2018 with a runner-up finish to teammate Keselowski. In last year’s Toyota 500k, he finished sixth and was third in the Southern 500.

Notable Others

Ryan Blaney (+2000) has been one of the top performers this year, so it is difficult to disregard him completely, but he has never earned a Darlington top-10 with an average that is worse than 20th.

We expected much more from Alex Bowman (+2200), but he did not perform particularly well at Kansas before he experienced a tire problem.

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