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In the final weeks of the regular season, the COVID-19 pandemic has one of its most significant impacts on the NASCAR schedule.
Postponements of a large number of races forced the series into accelerating plans to run doubleheader races as a way to trim weekends from future schedules. Pocono was to be the guinea pig before circumstances allowed Darlington and Charlotte to run back-to-back races there.
NASCAR has long been attempting to acclimate fans to shorter races. The doubleheader format allows them to do so on the premise that there are more laps in a weekend, so the individual lap counts don’t matter as much. Once upon a time, Pocono races were 500-mile affairs. They got trimmed to 400 miles in 2012. With the doubleheader format, the Saturday race this year was 325 miles. Sunday’s race was 350 miles, which combines for a reduction of about 16 percent of the laps.
Michigan gets shortened even more. With the exception of the first year it was in existence, races have always been 400 milers. This week, both events will be 312 milers, which is a reduction of 22 percent. In two weeks the same thing will happen at Dover.
That makes these four events 500 kilometer races such as we’ve seen at Phoenix throughout most of its history. Last week’s event at New Hampshire was a little shorter still. The impact on the drivers will be that a premium gets placed on having the setup perfect when the cars roll onto the track. Some have excelled while others struggled. Look for teams that did well at Pocono and New Hampshire to run well at Michigan, even though the tracks are significantly different in style.
This is becoming redundant, but Kevin Harvick (+400) remains the favorite for another week with 4/1 odds. He has performed well in the sprint races since the return to action this season and has the best recent record at Michigan.
Harvick had an arguably better car than his teammate Clint Bowyer last spring, but rain shortened the event and kept him from taking the checkers. Harvick finished second instead and went on to win the summer race. Last year he was seventh in the spring and the winner in the summer. In 2013 and 2014, he scored four consecutive runner-up finishes and swept the top five in 2016.
In the Pocono doubleheader, Harvick won on Saturday and finished second on Sunday. That kicked off a seven-race streak of top-fives that continued through last week’s sprint race at New Hampshire. It’s simply hard to imagine that he is going to lose any of his speed on a track that has been so kind in the past.
Best Bets for a top five
Brad Keselowski entered last week with a little uncertainty hanging over his head. He was still officially a free agent and in the 10 races since his most recent victory at Bristol – a win he inherited when Chase Elliott and Joey Logano wrecked while battling for the top spot – he was not getting a lot of air time. His results were good, but he did not show dominant form in any of those events. That all changed at New Hampshire. Keselowski was one of two challengers for the Foxwoods Casino 301 and his win helped get that final signature on his contract extension. It will also give him a lot of confidence entering this week’s doubleheader.
We would prefer to see a little more Michigan strength from Denny Hamlin (+550) before making him a favorite to finish in the top three, but a top-five should be obtainable. After scoring four consecutive top-fives from Homestead through Pocono, he slid in three races and failed to get a top-10. Hamlin reversed that trend dramatically at Kansas with a convincing win. Last week he was the only driver who could keep up with Keselowski before he finished second. Hamlin’s last Michigan finish was as runner-up to Harvick last summer, but he was 11th and 12th in the past two spring races. He is listed with +160 odds to finish in the top three this week, which is not going to provide much reward for the risk.
Exceptional value: Logano (+800) is currently the fourth-most favored driver on the Draft Kings sportsbook, so it’s impossible to say that he is being overlooked. With 8/1 odds, however, he is an exceptional value because he has the capacity to win this week and reset his season. Logano won the spring race last year, which is one of three wins there. He was running third in the summer with three laps remaining before he was forced to pit for fuel. He’s been almost perfect on this track since joining Team Penske and should easily land in the top three. Logano’s opening odds to finish that well are set at +225.
Martin Truex Jr. (+800) is one of two drivers who swept the top five at Michigan last year. He finished third in the spring and fourth in the fall. Truex is aggressive when he needs to be, but that is not generally how he is portrayed. As a result, tracks like Michigan that reward smoothness and patience are great for the No. 19. He has also surged in the past four weeks with three top-three finishes. Two of these were on unrestricted, intermediate speedways and the other was last week in the brief New Hampshire race.
Best Bets for a top 10
Was Ryan Blaney’s (+1000) Talladega effort a pyrrhic victory? It was the culmination of four consecutive top-fives and six such finishes in seven races. He has not finished that well since, although he came close on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways of Kentucky and Texas with a sixth and seventh respectively. His last two efforts netted 20th-place finishes. Both Keselowski and Logano showed signs of improvement last week. It’s Blaney’s turn to step up to the plate.
Aric Almirola’s (+1500) top-10 streak is now at nine. We’ve seen better drivers struggle to get a 10th consecutive, but until Almirola actually stumbles it’s hard to bet against him. Michigan has not always been his best track, but he finished seventh there in 2018 and has top-10s in his last two Auto Club attempts. We’re willing to bet that he remains among the top 10 for another week.
If Elliott (+900) does not sweep the top 10 at Michigan, he is in serious jeopardy of becoming irrelevant. During late spring and early summer, he had some bad finishes, but could be consoled by the fact that he ran well. In the last month or so, he has not performed well in route to finishes mostly outside the top 10. Last week he said he would be happy with a top-10 finish; he barely managed as much with a ninth. At the start of his career, Michigan was incredibly kind with three consecutive second-place results. Top-10s should be achievable this week because he’s finished worse than that only once in eight attempts.
The 2-mile tracks have traditionally been kind to Roger Penske and that should carry over to Matt DiBenedetto (+4000) and the satellite effort of the Wood Brothers. Last week’s sixth-place finish at New Hampshire was his fourth top-10 and sixth top-15 in the last 10 races. Most importantly, it elevated him into playoff consideration with six regular season races remaining. He needs to keep that performance up in order to be one of the dark horse contenders for the championship. For this week, his +145 odds to finish in the top 10 make him an attractive proposition.
Longshot alert: Can lightning strike twice? Alex Bowman (+3300) hopes so. He punched his ticket to the playoffs early with a win on the similarly-configured 2-mile track of Auto Club. He did not luck into that race through pit strategy or with a car that was strong for only the final portion of the race. The No. 88 team gave him a solid machine from start to finish and he was one of the most dominant drivers that day. If the setup notes translate well to Michigan, a top-10 is easily achievable and with +800 odds to finish in the top three, he deserves a modest bet.
Good Values outside the top 10
Precisely where one places Kurt Busch (+2800) depends on which stats are considered. He’s lost some momentum in recent races of 2020 but has three top-six finishes in his last four Michigan starts.
Tyler Reddick’s (+5000) second-place finish at Texas taught him how to contend for the win and at 50/1 for an outright victory, he could be these week’s Cinderella Story. Reddick’s odds to finish in the top 10 are +175.
Erik Jones (+3300) will have more pressure on his shoulders this week than ever before as he and Christopher Bell intensify the competition to drive the No. 20 in 2021. Jones has one top-10 in six Michigan starts. That was a third in 2017.
In seven efforts on 2-mile tracks, William Byron (+4000) has managed to crack the top 10 only once. That came last summer in the Consumers Energy 400. Hendrick has a great record at Michigan, however, and that should make a difference.
If he happens to have the right setup, Kyle Busch (+1000) could very well finish inside the top 15 this week, but he is unlikely to be a very good value unless he contends for the outright victory. It’s hard to imagine this team will fix all of their problems overnight.
The bookmakers are losing confidence in Jimmie Johnson (+5000), which is why his outright odds to win are so high. This is a track where both he and Hendrick Motorsports have been solid in the past and a longshot victory is not out of the question.
Bowyer (+4000) showed a ton of grit and determination in 2018 when he held off a hard charging Harvick as rain slickened the Michigan track. Last year he finished in the 30s both times, however.
Bell (+5000) has not lived up to expectations this year in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota and now that they’ve announced they have sold the team, things are unlikely to improve.
Along with Truex, Daniel Suarez (+75000) is the only other driver who swept the top five in 2019. He should have a better than average finish this week, but is unlikely to contend for a top-15.