Last week with the second race of the Dover Doubleheader, NASCAR got completely back on schedule following a break in the action for the current pandemic. Unless something drastic happens, the final 10 races will be run as planned in their original order. There was a lot of thought that went into this season’s playoffs.
Beginning with the wild card race at Daytona, which saw its 21st first-time winner, the races surrounding the end of the regular season and the opening of the playoffs were designed to be special. The Southern 500 has long been one of the most iconic races in NASCAR. Darlington is one of the toughest tracks to master and its position as the kickoff to the final 10 races will make this year’s Round of 16 one of the roughest on record.
Darlington returns to the playoffs for the first time since the inaugural year of 2004. Jimmie Johnson won that event.
Short tracks are featured for the next two weeks with Richmond finally hosting a race after canceling its spring event due to the pandemic. Bristol makes its debut in the playoffs in week three and with the win-and-in formula, it could become just as unpredictable as Daytona was last week.
With major bonus points for each driver, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are heavily favored to make the Championship Round. But it gets a lot tighter from the third driver back through 12th. Winning is more important than ever. Over the course of the last four seasons, only one non-contender has won a playoff race. That was Matt Kenseth in 2017 at Phoenix, and he entered that playoff as one of the Chasers.
It can’t come as a surprise that Kevin Harvick (+300) is this week’s favorite to win at Darlington. Since 2013, he has finished in the top five in all but one of nine races. That outlier was a ninth in 2017. In this nine-race stretch, he has an average finish of 3.8.
Darlington hosted the first two races back after the COVID-19 break as NASCAR rushed to add races within driving distance as soon as stay-at-home orders were lifted in the Carolinas and some surrounding states. Harvick dominated that weekend with a victory on Sunday and a third-place finish the following Wednesday.
Harvick lost a little momentum at Daytona in recent weeks – both on the road course and the superspeedway, but those are wild card races that will not affect his confidence entering this weekend. Every other race dating back to Pocono in June has been a top-five with victories on that track, Indy, a sweep of Michigan’s doubled header, and a win at Dover. You won’t make much money with an outright wager to win this week, but Harvick is the bookmakers’ favorite for a good reason.
Best Bets for a top five
The bookmakers see little difference in Harvick and Denny Hamlin (+300) this week. It would seem they are caught in the conundrum of which is more important, track record or recent momentum. In both statistics, however, Hamlin lags behind Harvick somewhat with top-six finishes in seven of his last eight races and five top-fives in the most recent six Darlington events. Both drivers were the class of the field this May, however, with Hamlin winning on Wednesday and finishing fifth on Sunday.
Hamlin was not the driver destined to win Wednesday night, however. Chase Elliott (+1000) easily had the dominant car until he was wrecked from behind by Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch, who was growing frustrated with his season already at that point. If Elliott saved his race notes, he should contend for a victory Sunday night and that will help close the bonus gap to the two points’ leaders.
Brad Keselowski (+1100) is an old school driver. He can be extremely aggressive when the need arises, but he also knows how to take care of his equipment. That is the balance needed at Darlington when drivers have to manage their tires over the course of a full run. Kez won the 2018 Southern 500, finished fifth in 2019, and was fourth in one of the two return races this May.
Exceptional value: For a while last week, it appeared Kyle Busch (+1100) might snap his winless streak at Daytona. The 2020 season has not been kind to him, however, so it was with resignation that he climbed from his mangled car after being wrecked ty Tyler Reddick. Busch has finished third or better in three of the last five Darlington races with another seventh-place finish tossed in.
Best Bets for a top 10
Martin Truex Jr. (+800) won the 2016 Southern 500, but in general this is not his best track. He has been solid during the years immediately preceding and following that victory and enters the weekend with seven consecutive top-15s. Two of his five top-10s in that period came this May in the return from the COVID-19 break.
There are several tracks on which Joey Logano (+1600) has been erratic. Darlington is among them with four results of sixth or better in the last seven races there. His other efforts were 14th or worse. Logano opened this week at +1300, but his line moved 300 points by midweek. He finished second in the 2018 edition of this race and could be worth a modest bet to finish in the top three at +400.
Erik Jones (+2000) established himself as a tough driver when he tamed the Lady in Black in 2019. This is not a track that often gets decided by strategy, so winning there is a mark of greatness. Jones has not yet failed to finish in the top 10 at Darlington in five starts. Three of his efforts ended in top-fives.
Kurt Busch entered the Toyota 500k this May with a four-race streak of Darlington top-10s. Two of these were third-place finishes. His consistency was tested with a 15th in that race, but he went on to score five more top-10s in the following weeks. He will certainly challenge for another top 10, but with a career average of 15.9, he is unlikely to contend for the outright victory.
Longshot alert: Based on his Dover record, Alex Bowman (+2800) could be a surprisingly good value this week. With its concrete surface, that 1-mile oval is another rough track and is remotely comparable to Darlington. Bowman swept the top three there in 2019 and finished fifth in the second half of the doubleheader this year. He is listed at +650 to finish in the top three.
Good Values outside the top 10
It’s difficult to think of Ryan Blaney (+2000) as having little chance of scoring a top-10. He has been one of the top drivers all season, but one of the places he struggled was at Darlington this May. He finished 14th on Sunday and 12th on Wednesday, which is part of a four-race streak outside the top 10 there.
Matt DiBenedetto (+5000) has been surprisingly good at Darlington with two top-10s and a 14th in his last three starts. This is a good place to kick off his playoff hopes.
All Jimmie Johnson (+2800) has to race for now is pride. He enters Darlington with a three-race streak of top-10s on this track.
Clint Bowyer (+5000) has been strong at Dover and Bristol – two other rough tracks – but his Darlington record has only two top-10s in a 16-race career.
With his dramatic first win last week and a spot in the playoffs, it is time for William Byron (+4000) to shine. He earned his first Darlington top-15 in four starts this May when he crossed under the checkers 12th.
It will be important for each of the playoff contenders to get off to a good start this week. Unfortunately, Aric Almirola (+2800) has only one top-10 finish at Darlington in 10 starts. That came in the most recent race this May.
Reddick (+5000) took to Darlington right away with a seventh-place finish in his first attempt and a 13th three days later.
Darlington is not supposed to be kind to rookies, but in the Toyota 500k Christopher Bell (+8000) joined Reddick among the top 15. He finished 11th.
Darlington is a track that rewards tenacity and a big neck. That describes Ryan Newman (+15000) to a tee.
Austin Dillon (+8000) is listed at +215 to finish among the top 10. Bettors might want to take notice that he was 10th there in 2019 and 11th in the first race back from the COVID-19 break.