The Busch Light Clash is over and the NASCAR regular season is almost here. NASCAR is unique in sports in that its marquee event is at the start of its season. On February 18th 40 cars will take to the 2.5-mile tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway to run 500 miles.
Daytona is a track with steep banking. The turns are banked at 31 degrees, the tri-oval is banked at 18 degrees and the back straightaway is banked at 3 degrees. This allows for drivers to achieve high speeds through pack drafting. The track at Daytona is also quite narrow, measuring just 40 feet across. Going three wide is possible, but trying to form a third line at 180mph is risky. The pack racing that Daytona rewards can often lead to large crashes. Its not unheard of for half the field to be out of the race by the time the drivers complete the 200 scheduled laps.
The unpredictable nature of Daytona means that it can be hard to accurately handicap. There are some drivers that consistently perform well here though. Drivers like Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin have demonstrated an uncanny ability to know when to bail out of risky situations and when to be aggressive and try to make passes. If you have watched NASCAR Full Speed on Netflix you heard the talk about this sixth sense that Denny has. Between Daytona and its sister track at Talladega Brad has seven wins. Denny earned 5 of his 60 wins at these two tracks, including winning the Daytona 500 twice.
Why I’m betting now
Unlike the other five drafting races, there will be practice before qualifying. However, unlike at non-drafting ovals and road courses, practice won’t provide a lot of useful information. Ironically, despite the high speeds that Daytona produces, single car speed isn’t that important in the race. As long as a driver can stay within the pack what matters is the ability to survive, have friends who can help push, and knowing when to make your move late in the race.
Starting position is also not important to handicapping the race. There is almost no correlation between starting and finishing position here. The r squared of starting to fishing position was .02 in 2023 (1 being perfect positive correlation, 0 being no correlation and -1 being perfect negative correlation). The lack of useful practice data means that I don’t need any more info before I start making all of my bets.
Given the unpredictability of racing at Daytona in the past few years there have not been many head to head matchups with one driver offering plus money. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of such matchups offered by Superbook. Three of those matchups feature matchups of excellent drafting drivers that should be even money bets at worst in my opinion. So let’s get into it.
Denny Hamlin +105 over Brad Keselowski (Superbook)
Denny is an elite drafting driver. As noted above he has five wins between Daytona and Talladega. Brad is also an elite drafting driver. In fact, I think this could well be Brad’s year to finally win a Daytona 500. Brad finished second at Daytona last fall. That second was to his teammate Chris Buescher. In short, in addition to being good historically, he is running well right at this track type.
Despite how well he is running, given the unpredictability of racing at Daytona, this matchup is really a coin flip. So getting plus money on one of the drivers is a good bet. If Brad was +105 to Denny I would take that. I want some edge, so I wouldn’t bet this at even money, but at +105 I’m in for a unit.
Ryan Blaney +105 over Brad Keselowski (Superbook)
Blaney is a four time winner between Daytona and Talladega. He won the most recent drafting race at Talladega last fall. In the Gen 7 car no one has led more laps at Daytona and Talladega than Blaney (150). He has led multiple laps in six of eight races over the past two years. Arguably Blaney should be the favorite in this matchup. At worst this should be another coin flip. So I’ll take the a unit on the driver I’m getting plus money on.
Bubba Wallace +110 over Chase Elliott (Superbook)
Both of these drivers are very good at drafting. Elliott has a pair of wins at Talladega and Bubba got his first cup win at Talladega. Neither has managed to win at Daytona but both have been close. They each have a pair of second place finishes here. Again, this should probably be a toss up, so I’m going to take the driver that I’m getting plus money on for a unit.
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