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Thank goodness NASCAR scheduled practice sessions for the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Before Friday’s practice, conventional wisdom held that there would be enough of a difference between Bristol’s asphalt and dirt surface that this race should be handicapped radically different than other short track events. If practice is a gauge, then that assumption was entirely false.
When Bristol shaved about 10 degrees of banking off the corners by laying a thicker layer to the bottom of the track, they created a groove that is not overly dependent on hanging the right rear out. As a result, the attitude of the cars was much straighter than anticipated. That is going to better play into the strength of the NASCAR Cup regulars.
In Practice 1, three drivers with a lot of dirt experience landed in the top 10. In Happy Hour, only one of those drivers was still among the leaders. The remainder of the top 10 was made up by familiar faces with asphalt success. And that has caused us to change our opinion and suggest this race should be handicapped like a normal short track event.
In this week’s Dark Horse column, we suggested that a bet for the outright win was appropriate for Alex Bowman (+1500), but we stopped short of placing him among the top 10 in the Best Bets editorial. It’s important to stay flexible as a bettor/handicapper and admit when one is wrong. And that is precisely what happened at the close of Friday’s sessions.
Bowman posted the fastest (89.308 mph in Practice 1) and third-fastest (89.135 mph in Happy Hour) times in practice, but the attitude of his car was remarkably solid. We are going to amend our recommendation and elevate Bowman to top-five status. His line moved significantly over the course of a couple of hours after the conclusion of practice, but with a +1500 at PointsBet Sportsbook, he is still a good value. Watch him closely, however, because he has already moved to +1000 on another book.
Ryan Blaney (+1300) is another driver who was not originally on our radar screen. That changed after he topped Happy Hour with a speed of 89.233 mph. It is not enough to make him a favorite because his Practice 1 speed was 31st on the chart. While he did find speed during the afternoon, our opinion remains that he does not have the experience necessary to manage a successful race on dirt – at least not well enough to score a top-10.
On the other hand, Kyle Busch (+1400) is one of the top short track drivers in the field. His sojourns into the Truck series provides experience in how to race around competitors with significantly less talent. That will come in handy as the majority of the field figures out how best to navigate the dirt.
Denny Hamlin (+1600) posted top-five times in both sessions. He landed fourth on the board in Practice 1 and third in Happy Hour. In this week’s Best Bets column we placed him in the list of drivers capable of scoring a top-10. That should be upgraded so that he gets listed for a top-five. Hamlin is better on short, flat tracks than the high banks, but he swept Bristol two years ago and landed the fall victory.
Practice 1 showcased the talents of the two pre-weekend favorites.
Christopher Bell (+850) landed second on the practice sheet with a lap of 88.999 mph that has him in sight of Bowman. Bell has greater experience on dirt and as a result, we will stick with our determination that he should be the favorite to win on Sunday – especially in light of what happened to Kyle Larson.
Larson (+300) proved he’s fallible on dirt. He is a dirt track rock star. Larson spent most of 2020 whipping the butts of local dirt track stars with 45 victories in 97 starts. But he overheated his engine in Happy Hour and forced the team to replace it. Under the one-engine rule, Larson will start at the back of the field on Sunday regardless of what happens in Saturday’s heat races.
As we wrote this article we witnessed his betting line shift significantly from +235 to +300 and it is likely that he has not stabilized. Granted he’s a better value at 3/1 than 5/2, but the Return on Investment (ROI) is still not great.
We were already enthusiastic about Chase Briscoe before practice and even more so afterward. He landed 10th on the Practice 1 chart and fifth in Happy Hour. He was the only driver with significant dirt experience in the top 10 in that session. Briscoe and Bowman are the two winless drivers in 2021 with the best opportunity to keep the streak of unique victors alive.
Other notables in practice were Joey Logano (+2000) with the fourth-best time in Happy Hour (HH) and the seventh-best speed in P1, Martin Truex Jr. (+2500) with the sixth-fastest time in HH, Chase Elliott (+1300) who was sixth-fastest in P1 and seventh in HH, Michael McDowell (+9000) who was eighth in HH, William Byron (+3000) who was ninth in both HH and P1, and Cole Custer (+8000) who was eighth in P1,