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NASCAR’s new love affair with road courses did not significantly shift their focus off similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, but is has spread them a little more judiciously around the calendar.
When the green flag waves over the Quaker State 400 by Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it will have been six weeks since the last "cookie-cutter" race, the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. At the time, Hendrick Motorsports’ domination was just seriously getting underway with their four drivers taking eight of the available 10 top-five slots on the last two ovals. While they have not cooled down, the remainder of the field has caught up a little.
Now the series rolls onto a 1.5-mile track and so far in 2021 the complexion of these races has been different. Kyle Larson and William Byron won three of the five races, but Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch were able to beat Hendrick in the other two events.
Equally important, in the last three races on this track type three dark horses, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, and Chris Buescher, have earned eight top-10 results. "Cookie-cutters" were once the playground of only the top-funded teams. Now, they are much more egalitarian, which opens up a world of opportunities.
Smart money is likely to be predominantly allocated to Larson because no matter how you look at the numbers. He tops the lists. He opened on Monday at +250 and has already has 25 points shaved from his total. But races are not won on paper and it is difficult to win every race. Ky. Busch (+775) has been incredibly strong on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks at the end of last year and beginning of 2021.
Busch snapped long winless streaks at both Texas Motor Speedway last fall and Kansas Speedway this spring. In the last 13 races on this track type he finished worse than 11th only once and outside the top 10 twice. He has eight top-fives in that span, which in an average of .615. Since winning at Kansas, Busch has gathered momentum and he is the only driver not racing for HMS to have won in the last eight races.
Better still, at nearly 8/1 he has a much greater Return on Investment than Larson. Those longer odds help in another regard. Busch’s top-three odds midweek are +200, which allows you to cover the outright win bet.
Best Bets for a top five
Larson (+225) remains the hottest driver on the circuit despite two results outside the top five in the last three weeks. To phrase that differently, if not for a cut tire at Pocono, he would have entered last week’s Road America race with eight straight top-two finishes. And if not for contact from teammate Alex Bowman on the road course, he would have a current nine-race streak of top-fives. The only profitable bet this week is for the outright win, however, and that is difficult to predict. Larson shows odds of -150 for a top-three.
Martin Truex, Jr. (+1000) has been incredibly uneven since his second win of the year at Darlington Raceway. We are still not certain if he is experimenting or if this team is in serious trouble, but they have the infrastructure to put together a race-winning car on tracks and track types where the driver is strong. Truex enters Atlanta with a current seven-race streak of top-10s there. Three of those were top-fives, so this is a good place for him to rebound.
We are aware that we may be taking a few risks with this week’s top-fives by concentrating on veterans, but the tide seems to be slowly turning in their favor. Disregard Kevin Harvick’s (+1000) last two road course attempts and he enters the Quaker State 400 with nine straight top-10s. Four of those were top-fives and another two were just outside that mark in sixth. A win this season is inevitable and when it comes, Harvick is liable to have relatively long odds.
William Byron’s (+1200) Homestead-Miami Speedway win was a little surprising at the time, but less so now because of Hendrick’s current dominance. After winning the Dixie Vodka 400, he scored three more top-10s on this track type. None of them were top-fives. He would not be listed this high if not for a fourth-place finish in the Coke 600, but for now he seems to be heading in the right direction.
Best Bets for a top 10
Chase Elliott (+900) is coming off his second win of the season and will be racing in front of a home state crowd. So why isn’t he featured among the top five? Because this has not been a particularly strong track for him during his career. On tracks where he has more than two starts, Atlanta ranks 17th of 25 with an average of 14.7 in six attempts. Only one of these was a top-five and that came four years ago.
We might just have easily put Denny Hamlin (+1000) in the top five as Harvick. Both drivers have a lot to recommend them and both are hungry for a win after they dominated the 2020 regular season. Hamlin enters the Quaker State 400 with three top-five finishes and an 11th in his last four Atlanta attempts. His fourth-place finish at Atlanta earlier in the year is one of only two top-fives on this track type, however, and that dulls our enthusiasm somewhat.
If Ryan Blaney (+1200) is going to rebound, Atlanta is a good place to do so. We don’t think he will be able to defend his QuikTrip 500 victory, but he will have some extra spring to his step and that should get him inside the top 10. Atlanta has not always been a great track for the driver, but with a fourth-place finish there last year, he has a two-race, top-five streak. Last year he scored nine top-10s and an 11th in 11 races on this track type.
Bowman’s (+1600) "cookie-cutter" results resemble a hillbilly’s teeth: only every other one is good this season. He was ninth at Homestead, third at Atlanta, and fifth at Charlotte. If the pattern holds, he is due to finish outside the top 15, but it is incredibly difficult not predict a solid run for any of the Hendrick drivers.
Brad Keselowski (+1500) has run well in the "cookie-cutter" races in which Bowman struggled. If his pattern holds, he is due a strong run after scoring a second at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and third at Kansas. While you don’t want to make a sizeable wager on statistical anomalies, of far greater significance is the fact that Keselowski has a near-perfect record of top-10s on this track type.
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