We are right back at Daytona International Speedway this Sunday. The drivers won’t be racing around the speedway, but instead through the infield on the "road course" setup. This will be the third time that NASCAR has raced here - the first time being in August 2020 - as well as last Tuesday at the Busch Clash.
Now racing at the road course in 2021 is nothing new, sure, but let's add some historical context here before we dive into this weekend's race. The first time it happened, it was in fact a six-hour sports car race in 1959. After a couple of modifications, the race then moved to 24 hours in 1966, which Ford driver Ken Miles won, and this 1966 race was subsequently featured in the movie Ford vs. Ferrari. Expect a lot of mistakes, especially in turn one, as the cup series is back to having no practices. The 14-turn, 3.61 mile road course "oval hybrid" offers something not viewed much by fans, which is drivers turning left and right.
King of the Road Course?
It appears that Chase Elliott has picked up right where he left off last year. After a second place finish at the Busch Clash (exhibition race) on February 9th, he then took second place at the Daytona 500. In five previous starts in the Daytona 500, he had never placed better than 14th, except for this year (second).
This series is now moving to a style of track that Elliott has dominated to the point where possibly no one else has a chance - the road course. Looking back at the last four regular season road courses, two at the Charlotte Roval, and then one each at the Daytona Road Course and Watkins Glen, Elliott has won every time. Even in the 2019 Charlotte Roval race, with 45 laps left, he missed the turn and wrecked into the wall, but after his pit crew worked on the car, Elliott proceeded to drive up through the field for the win.
In the three road course races in 2018, he also has 6th, 1st and 4th place finishes. The last driver to reach such a feat was four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who won six straight road courses at a point during his career. What could possibly be the reason as to why Elliott has been so dominant on these tracks? The answer may point to the aforementioned Gordon, arguably the greatest NASCAR road racer of all time.
Elliott’s current crew chief, Alan Gustafson, was also the crew chief for Jeff Gordon from 2011 until his retirement in 2015. Gordon knew exactly what he wanted out of his car, as he leads all cup drivers with nine road course victories throughout the course of his illustrious career. And from working closely with Gordon, Gustafson is now putting the talented young Elliott in cars that are far superior to his competitors.
Taking Advantage of Driver vs. Driver Matchups
Sportsbooks offer a variety of ways to bet on NASCAR, from picking the winning car manufacturer, team, and car number. The list goes on and on. Want to win a lot of money though? Well, just pick the correct driver to win the race. Sounds easy, right? Not until you realize you’re picking one driver to win out of 39 others. Case in point - Michael McDowell sported +10,000 odds (!) to win the Daytona 500 last Sunday.
If you took a chance on someone who has never won a race, congratulations, as McDowell was very kind to you. One area that you can take advantage of when betting NASCAR, however, is betting on driver vs. driver matchups. In this form, you simply need the driver you picked to finish ahead of the other driver.
Most matchups will have an underdog and a favorite for these odds. Keselowski (+110) vs. Elliott (-130) would be an example. You don’t need Keselowski to win the race, but instead finish just one place ahead of Elliott or vice versa. Big name racers will be featured in multiple matchups this weekend too, including drivers like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano, giving you plenty of matchup options to choose from against "lower tiered" drivers. As the season goes on, one thing you'll notice is that the books can often get into a routine of always favoring the big name driver, even if they are currently struggling or the upcoming track is not their strong point. For example, '19 champion Kyle Busch was the favorite in most races last year even though he was having the worst season since his rookie year in 2005.
Prior to COVID-19, NASCAR would hold 2 practices and 1 qualifying session before each race on Sunday. That was always a great way to tell who had a great car and who’s car might be struggling. This year, however, only eight tracks are allowing practices before the race and one has already passed - the Daytona 500. This means that most teams who show up to the track will use car setups from previous years. What we need to do here is look into a driver’s history at the current track. Each driver has a certain style of racing at tracks that they prefer and at tracks where they have always struggled. If you don’t mind paying a lot of juice, you can hit up the favorite who does really well at said style of track. If you search hard enough, you can also find an underdog who has a statistical advantage over the listed favorite.
While most of these driver matchups don’t come out until race day - about three hours before the scheduled green flag, in most cases - before placing any bets make sure that you check if the driver you picked has passed his pre-race inspection. If a driver fails inspection more than once, then they are subject to start at the rear of the field and lose crew members, dealing a potential big blow to your upcoming bet.
Drivers to Look Out For
Martin Truex Jr - Before Chase Elliott’s late surge in road courses, Martin Truex Jr was once the top dog on this type of track. Truex Jr has top 10 finishes in eight out of the last nine races, which includes six top 5 finishes and three total wins. Truex Jr was running really well at the Daytona Road Course Busch Clash -leading the race in fact - until a mistake sent him into the wall. It's hard to pass up MTJ on any road course.
Kevin Harvick - We normally don’t think of Harvick as being a road course racer, but he does have a pretty good history here. While he didn’t do well in 2020, all six races from 2018-2019 were top 10 finishes. He may not be flashy and lead a lot of laps, but he will have his car in the right position late in this race.
Denny Hamlin - Denny Hamlin has become a contender every week, no matter the track type. In his last six road course races, Hamlin has four top-10 finishes. Look for Hamlin to push his Toyota through the field early and try to out-duel his JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. in this weekend's road course event.