After two months off and a brief stint in virtual reality, NASCAR is returning to racing on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX) to begin a unique schedule that is proving to be a challenge for the betting market.
The Cup Series will return at Darlington Raceway for the first of four races over an 11-day span. The compact return is complicated by the fact there will be no practice sessions for any event, and qualifying will only be held for the Coca-Cola 600. Bettors and bookmakers are essentially going into Sunday’s race with only historical data, but so are the race teams with the lack of pre-race adjustments.
“I think it’s going to be a little tough jumping back into the swing of things after, I think I counted 62 days off,” Ryan Blaney said in a release. “But I feel like everyone will be pretty responsible getting going, being smart. Even though it’s not a super-long race (400 miles), you’ve still got time to work on your car, especially at the competition caution.”
NASCAR will have a modified competition caution in the early portions of each race. Those stoppages will include freezing the field to accommodate longer pit stops, allowing teams to make more extended in-race adjustments that might normally be made during practice.
“You have no idea what has happened the last two-and-a-half months in the shops,” Westgate vice president of risk management Ed Salmons told BetIndiana News. “They are keeping it close to the vest. All I hear is ‘oh we haven’t even looked at the cars’ I don’t believe that. We’ll see on the track. Where we left off Hendrick cars were the fastest cars out there. The Penske cars were really solid and the (Joe) Gibbs cars were slow compared to where they usually are.
“Based on my prices I gave the Gibbs cars a lot of respect because they are such a good organization and their track history is so good. From what we have seen this year it would lead you to believe they won’t have enough speed to win, but they’ll eventually rise to the top.”
Joe Gibbs driver Kyle Busch is the 5/1 favorite at Westgate and will start fourth after a random draw set the starting lineup for Sunday’s race. Busch owns a series-best 113.1 driver rating over the past three races at Darlington with a 4.0 average finish.
Busch checks several boxes for Salmons — track history, success at similar tracks and veteran experience.
“Even though the Gibbs cars have been slow to start, their history at Darlington is so good it’s hard to make their odds too high.
“Should Kyle Busch be 5/1? Probably not, but people always bet him. It’s like the Chiefs in the NFL, we have to set his odds lower than higher just because of the name.”
Instead, Salmons will have his eye on Chase Elliott, a driver the Westgate bookmaker personally bet on to win at 12/1.
“It’s a race for Chase Elliott to win,” Salmons said. “He’s had a bunch of decent runs here and his team has been fast to begin the season. We opened 12/1 based on track history but after I started thinking about the Vegas and Fontana race, I shortened him to 8/1. I think he’s got a real shot here.”
The Westgate has taken sharp action in matchups on Blaney and Kurt Busch over Jimmie Johnson, and against Austin Dillon. Salmons also said there is an anti-Matt Kenseth movement from his respected players, but it’s not one he particularly agrees with.
Kenseth, who hasn’t raced since 2018 (with Roush Fenway Racing), will take over for Kyle Larson in the No. 42 Chevrolet starting Sunday. Larson was the favorite for last year’s Southern 500 and led 500 laps over the past six races at Darlington. The No. 42 car should be fast on Sunday and with all drivers a little rusty getting back behind the wheel, perhaps it will create an evening of the playing field for Kenseth.
“My notes last year said in the race Erik Jones, Kyle Busch and Larson were 20 seconds ahead of the fourth place every time they would have a long run,” Salmons said. “Two years ago, Larson dominated the race until the end. Kenseth is going into a good car and he has done well at this track. We’ve had some respected play fade him in matchups, but I’m not so sure I would want to join in that thinking because he is such a good driver.”
When racing with Gibbs in the No. 20 car from 2013-17, Kenseth had one win and an addition three top-6 finishes at Darlington. He’ll start 12th and is an enticing 30/1 to win on Sunday in what should be a fast racecar.
Darlington odds, starting lineup
Odds provided by Westgate SuperBook as of Friday
|Martin Truex Jr.||8/1|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||200/1|
|John Hunter Nemechek||1000/1|
Notable betting matchups
Kyle Busch -130 vs. Denny Hamlin +110
Kyle Busch -135 vs. Kevin Harvick +115
Denny Hamlin -125 vs. Kevin Harvick +105
Denny Hamlin -140 vs. Joey Logano +120
Brad Keselowski +105 vs. Martin Truex Jr. -125
Chase Elliott -120 vs. Brad Keselowski EVEN
Kurt Busch -120 vs. Jimmie Johnson EVEN
Matt Kenseth +115 vs. William Byron -135
Ryan Blaney -120 vs. Jimmie Johnson EVEN
Darlington track breakdown, rules package
Pole-sitter Keselowski told NBC Sports on Wednesday if drivers had to pick the most-challenging track to resume racing — and do it without practice or qualifying — Darlington would be near the top of the list.
Nicknamed “Too Tough to Tame” or “The Lady in Black,” Darlington’s 1.366-mile asphalt track is very abrasive like the tracks at Atlanta, Auto Club and Chicagoland. The high tire fall-off often creates loose racecars that become known coming in contact with the outside wall.
One of the most unique tracks in NASCAR features 25 degrees of banking in Turns 1 and 2, and 23 degrees in Turns 3 and 4 as the track narrows by 17 feet as the car rounds the egg-shaped oval.
According to NASCAR, the rules package for intermediate-sized tracks will be in effect on Sunday with a tapered spacer used to set a target of 550 horsepower. The cars will use aero ducts in addition to other aerodynamic devices to increase downforce. The 550-horsepower package was already used twice this season at Las Vegas and Auto Club, and bettors should look at those two tracks in addition to Atlanta and Chicagoland for clues to who will be successful with similar car setups.
Over the past four races at those tracks, only Keselowski has finished in the top five at each race. At Darlington alone, Keselowski has one win, four top fives and six top 10s in 11 races. Last year at Darlington, Keselowski was 6/1 at Westgate along with Hamlin and Harvick.
Darlington driver stats and notes
Here is an advanced boxscore of the past three races at Darlington and relevant stats for the first four races of the 2020 season.
• Passing at Darlington is tough, as evidenced by nearly 85% of Darlington winners having started the race from a top-10 position.
• Kurt Busch leads the series among active drivers with the most NASCAR Cup Series starts at Darlington without visiting Victory Lane at 23; followed by Ryan Newman with 21.
• Newman has been medically cleared to race the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford after his recovery from serious injuries in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
• Newman leads all active series drivers with 13 top 10s; followed by Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson with 12 each.
• Erik Jones leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series in average finishing position at Darlington with a 4.67 in three starts.
• Kyle Busch leads all active NASCAR Cup Series drivers with 716 laps led in 15 starts.
• Nine different drivers have won the past nine races at Darlington. Jimmie Johnson (three) and Denny Hamlin (two) are the only active multiple race winners.
Statistical information from NASCAR Media releases was used in this report
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