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The first real action of the season kicks off Thursday night with the twin Bluegreen Vacations 150 Duels in Daytona.
Most of the same caveats apply to this race as the big one on Sunday, but with only 22 cars in each field as opposed to 40 for the Daytona 500, the variables are a little more controllable.
If previous patterns hold, one of the two Bluegreen Duels will be quiet and sedate; the other will be wild and crash-marred. Unfortunately, no one is able to predict which will be which. Typically if there are several accidents in Duel 1, the second qualification race is the tamer of the two. If the lines stay open long enough bet the favorites for the second race as the first one approaches the green flag.
Denny Hamlin is the favorite for the 500 with +800 odds, so it should come as no surprise that he is also at the top of his group for the 150. His odds of winning this race are better given the smaller field, but with a +550 for the overall win and a +165 to finish in the top three, there is still a lot of upside to starting him.
Joey Logano (+650) is the second-favored. Despite having a bad finishing record in points paying races at Daytona, Logano is one of the strongest drivers each year on this track. He typically leads a lot of laps, posts a great Average Running Position, and Driver Rating. But his aggression is often not sustainable and he gets swept into too many 'Big One' crashes to recommend starting him in the big show. On Thursday he only has to go about one-third of the distance, however.
One factor that might play against Logano is that Austin Cindric (+2000) is also in the field and he must race his way into the 500. If Logano gets hung up trying to help Cindric, he will not be in a position to win on the final lap. The Wood Brothers’ Matt DiBenedetto (+1200) is also in this race, and while he is not officially a Penske driver, he knows who butters his bread.
Logano won his duel last year; DiBenedetto was seventh.
Kyle Larson (+700) ranks third. This will be his first attempt in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and the odds are good that he will keep his nose clean and run to the checkers. If he does, he has as good an opportunity to win as Hamlin. Larson is joined by teammate Alex Bowman (+900) in this race, but since that driver is guaranteed to start on the pole unless he has to roll out a backup car, don’t expect him to be of much help to Larson.
Notably Larson finished third in his Duel last year. The two drivers in front of him were both Hendrick pilots.
One of the most interesting dark horses of Duel 1 is Tyler Reddick (+2000). There hasn’t been much practice yet on this track, but he looked solid in the single session. He could not back that up in qualification and rolls off the grid 16th, but the handling characteristics of a good car in race trim are radically different.
Chase Elliott (+650) is the favorite in the second Duel, but the difference between the top-ranked driver and the field is not as great as it is in Duel 1.
Even while Elliott has struggled to finish well on this superspeedway, he has been solid during the race. The same things apply to him as Logano: He is aggressive and strong, but often gets into too many accidents to make him a good value. If he has indeed turned a corner and reversed his luck, this will be the first opportunity to showcase that because he was 13th in last year’s edition of this race.
Ryan Blaney (+700) shares the second-lowest odds for Duel 2 in a race that oddsmakers believe is the more competitive of the two. They may well be correct since he is joined near the top of the grid by Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and teammate Brad Keselowski. Unlike Logano in the first duel, however, the two Penske mates will be able to race unfettered by corporate considerations and should link up in an draft that will be hard to break.
Busch and Harvick tend to be crash prone on plate tracks and represent a much higher risk than the other three drivers with odds of 7/1 or better. Ford driver Harvick stayed out of trouble in his qualification race last year, however, and finished fourth behind three Chevrolets that worked well together. Busch was a distant 13th.
One of the best values of the second Duel may well be Bubba Wallace (+1000). He is out to establish this new Michael Jordan / Hamlin team as a front runner and has been solid on plate tracks in the past. He is capable of winning outright and deserves a modest bet in that regard. His odds of a top-three are +275 – and that is a safer wager. He was fifth in his Duel last year and starts on the outside pole of his Duel.
Kurt Busch (+1200) should also be considered a good value. He typically runs strong on plate tracks as long as his luck holds. He finished eighth in his qualification race last year before getting eliminated from the Daytona 500 in a late-race accident.
The two rookie contenders Chase Briscoe (+2200) and Anthony Alfredo (+6600) are in this race, which could be a recipe for excitement, but since they both have charters and know they will race on Sunday, that should cut down on the butterflies.