FireKeepers Casino 400 Dark Horses

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Lined up seventh through 10th last week on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, four dark horses added to the list of drivers earning top-10s in 2021. Justin Haley in eighth and ninth-place Austin Cindric earned their first of the season, bringing the total to 34 drivers who achieved that mark this year. Erik Jones finished seventh for his third top-10 of 2021 and Ryan Newman was 10th for his fourth such finish.

Their effort was certainly aided by the chaos that erupted in the final laps of the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard as a track-limiting curb deteriorated under the stress of competition, but it underscores a tendency that we’ve seen all season long. NASCAR has achieved the parity they have long sought – for the moment at least – and on any given Sunday, strong drivers can find the front of the pack.

Through 24 races, Kyle Larson has the most top-10s at 17. Last year’s regular season dominators, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have 16, while William Byron and Kyle Busch sit at 15. Another seven drivers join them with double digits, but that leaves 22 racers with nine or fewer top-10s.


Six drivers, (Corey LaJoie, Bubba Wallace, Haley, Kaz Grala, Cindric, and Jamie McMurray), have only one top-10. Another eight (Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez, AJ Allmendinger, Jones, Ryan Preece, Cole Custer, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) have three or fewer.

Notably, two winners are included in the list of drivers with three or fewer top-10s. Almirola and Allmendinger both visited Victory Lane recently with long odds for the outright win. Briscoe came close to winning last week and Suarez had a serious opportunity to win on the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

With only one race contested on 2-mile tracks this year, we need to look back at the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks to find some comparatives. And there have been plenty of drivers who could accurately be called dark horses on these tracks with top-10s in 2021.

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Unless both Richard Childress Racing drivers win the next two races, the battle for the final transfer spot in the playoffs will come down to either Tyler Reddick or Austin Dillon. The competition between the two raised their effort at Indy last week with Reddick scoring stage wins and Dillon in sight of the lead. If not for late-race accidents, they would most likely have scored a top-10.

That will continue into Michigan. In NASCAR, there is no such thing a lock, but there are definitely good bets.

Reddick (~ +150 for a top-10) has more recent momentum and he leads Dillon in points for the moment. He can still be knocked out of contention if a driver below him in the standings wins either Michigan or next week in the Daytona International Speedway lottery, but he has to drive as if his fate is in his own hands.

Reddick enters the weekend with three consecutive top-10s on 1.5-mile tracks this year and a second at Homestead. Last year, he failed to crack the top 15 at Michigan, but an 11th at Auto Club Speedway suggests his skill translates to the 2-milers.

Meanwhile, Dillon (~ +250/top-10) earned an eighth-place finish at Michigan in the second race of last year’s doubleheader. On the 1.5-mile versions of the unrestricted, intermediate speedways, he has not finished worse than 12th in his last eight attempts. Last year he won the O'Reilly 500 at Texas with Reddick finishing second.

It is not out of the question that either driver could win – but it will take strategy to gain track position in the closing laps and Larson will most likely need to make a mistake to clear the path. Still with outright odds to win of 50/1 for Reddick and 60/1 for Dillon, it may be worth a unit or two.

Chris Buescher (~ +700/top-10) has not made a lot of noise lately, but he has four top-10s to his credit this season on unrestricted, intermediate speedways as well as a 14th and 16th. That leaves only one race, a 19th at Homestead, in which he didn’t contend for a top-15. He has not cracked the top 10 on a 2-milers since he was sixth at Michigan in 2017, but he makes up for that with consistency in recent seasons and enters with a seven-race streak of top-20s. He represents quite a bit more risk than either Reddick or Dillon, but that is why he will have about (~) 7/1 odds for a top-10 when the green flag waves.

Aric Almirola (~ +280/top-10) does not have to worry about making the playoffs after winning at New Hampshire, but he needs the momentum a strong run with provide. He found the right setup last year in the Sunday race at Michigan, finished eighth earlier in 2021 at Auto Club, and has five top-12s on 2-mile tracks in the seven races preceding. The risk of wagering on Almirola will be that the lion’s share of resources at Stewart-Haas Racing will to Kevin Harvick in his effort to win and secure a playoff berth.

Only one driver can win, but there are some solid top-three options this week. Most notably, with outright odds of +1600, Ryan Blaney will land ~ +600 for a top-three and ~ +300 for a top-five. He finished fourth in the Saturday doubleheader last year and was racing for the win with teammate Brad Keselowski (~ +230/top-5) when the two Penske pals crashed.

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2021 Top-10s

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