Rise of Parity; Fall of Hamlin and Harvick

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Anyone who has followed our coverage for any amount of time knows one of our favorite truisms is that NASCAR is a zero sum game. Each time a driver moves up in the standings, he pushes another down the chart.

And perhaps most importantly at the moment: There can be only one winner.

With new first time winners in each of the last two Cup events, the series is four races away from the playoffs and we are still pondering the implications of there being 16 or more winners. NASCAR drivers have dusted off the rule book and know that the tiebreaking procedure will fall to points, which means Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell are in the greatest jeopardy of missing the playoffs despite their wins.

But two other drivers are also at peril – and at the beginning of the season, nearly every expert, pundit, or soothsayer would have given long odds that Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick would fail to have multiple wins at this stage of the season. That is because they combined for 13 wins in 26 regular season races last year.

Hamlin scored six victories before the playoffs; Harvick had seven. On a couple of occasions, they alternated wins in doubleheader weekends and it appeared they would dominate the final 10 races. In fact, given his dominance at Phoenix Raceway and a high number of bonus points, it is quite likely that the Cup already had Harvick’s name outlined – until back-to-back, sub-15th-place finishes in the Round of 8 eliminated him ahead of the Championship Round.

Harvick and Hamlin’s loss of momentum this year opened the door for quite a few drivers to find Victory Lane. For that matter, with the exception of Kyle Larson and his four wins – three of which came in consecutive races – no driver has been truly dominant.

Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman each have three wins, but those victories are a little spread out. Truex has not won in the last 10 races and has only two more top-fives in that span; Bowman’s last victory came five races ago, but there are some significant gaps between each of those wins.

NASCAR has pursued parity throughout the Modern Era only to see innovative crew chiefs and strong drivers deny the goal. This year William Byron, McDowell, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, and Almirola proved that on any given Sunday, strong drivers can win.

McDowell and Keselowski scored their wins in the aero-restricted superspeedway lotteries. Logano’s victory on the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt track and Bell’s Daytona Road Course win could also be considered wild cards, but the remainder of the drivers – as well as two-timer Kyle Busch – won on unrestricted ovals.

With four races remaining, Hamlin and Harvick still have an opportunity to add their names to the unique winners list, which would bring the total to 15. If you can find a bet that gives odds that NASCAR’s tiebreaker procedure will be used, it is worth a unit or two because three of the final four races are going to be held on wild card tracks with a pair of road courses and Daytona on the horizon.

But you may also wish to fade Hamlin and Harvick. Currently Harvick has +1500 odds of winning the championship. Hamlin is listed at +900 at PointsBet Sportsbook, but first they have to qualify among the Top 16 before Darlington Raceway rolls around.

Harvick’s trouble began last October when he was slowed by crash damage during the playoffs at Talladega Superspeedway. The shift in momentum saw him finish outside the top 10 in three of the next four races and eliminated him from Cup competition. Desperate to make the finale on points, he attempted to wreck Ky. Busch on the last lap at Martinsville Speedway and crashed himself instead.

This year, Harvick has only six top-fives in the first 22 races; two of those came on restricted tracks.

Hamlin’s regular-season bonus points and a win on the restricted Talladega Superspeedway helped him successfully navigate the playoffs despite finishing outside of the top 10 in six of nine races before the finale.

The change in fortune for these two drivers has also changed bettor perspective. While Hamlin has not won yet, he has 11 top-fives in 22 races and that means his odds have been uniformly low for top-threes, -fives, or -10s. The only viable bet is for the outright win – and the problem there is he has not run as well as anticipated on tracks where he is expected to challenge for victory.

Harvick has just six top-fives this year. Two of those – plus a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire in the most recent race – came in the last six weeks, but each time is seems he has turned his season around, the team stumbles again. Harvick is good on road courses and has won there, but it is hard to imagine him outrunning Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen or Indy.

Increasing the likelihood that neither of these two 2020 dominators will win in the next four weeks is the fact that Hamlin seems to have put all of his eggs in one basket. He has been racing for consistently strong finishes in order to protect his points’ lead, which will give him the 16th and final berth in the playoffs if he does not win in the next four weeks.

Hamlin clings to a slight 13-point margin, or the difference of about three finishing positions per race.

The only driver who could spoil his regular season points’ championship is Larson – who has been stronger on occasion and is capable of winning another race before the playoffs begin.

Should they make the playoffs, neither Harvick nor Hamlin will have the same bonus-point cushion they had in 2020. Entering Watkins Glen, Hamlin has only five playoff points; Harvick has zero. Hamlin could get another 15 points if he wins the regular season championship and that will certainly help. If Harvick is lucky, he will get one or two for his standing.

One way or another, the 2021 regular season will go in the record books and it’s just a matter of how much hyperbole gets attached to it.

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