The first three races of 2021 have been hard to predict with a wide range of dark horses in the top 10 on all three tracks. If you don’t believe that trend can continue, simply look back at last spring’s Pennzoil 400 when three unexpected drivers scored top-fives after a frenetic two-lap shootout at the end. Matt DiBenedetto’s second-place finish was followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in third and Austin Dillon in fifth.
And while there is no clear-cut pattern is developing this season, oddsmakers are carrying on as if nothing has changed. Last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the Dixie Vodka 400, William Byron became the third driver in as many races to win after garnering odds of 30/1 or greater.
The longshot victories have changed the betting lines, however. Dark horses are still dark horses, but the odds on the favorites are significantly higher than was seen last fall. For the South Point 400 in September, the top three in terms of odds were Kevin Harvick (+400), Martin Truex Jr. (+540), Brad Keselowski (+625).
This spring, the top-ranked drivers at PointsBet Sportsbook are Truex and Harvick at +650 and that may yet change before Sunday if enough money pours in.
Both are perennial favorites on 1.5-mile tracks, but neither came out of the gates strong in the first three races of 2021. With a sweep of the top 10, Harvick’s numbers are by far the better of the two, but he has not shown the dominance one would like. Truex finally ran well at Homestead and that may be the boost he needed.
Harvick (+650) may still be feeling a bit of a hangover from the bad ending to his 2020 season. He missed the Championship 4 cutoff for only the second time in his career and failed to dominate Phoenix Raceway in the finale like he should. While he has swept the top 10, he hasn’t made a lot of noise and a big part of that has been because of the types of tracks that have been run.
Harvick wasn’t expected to run well at Daytona International Speedway in the 500 and he didn’t. He scored a top-10 largely by staying out of trouble and avoiding the last-lap 'Big One' crash. He spent about as much time off course as on the pavement in the road course race, but got elevated when a late-race caution shuffled the field. Last week, no one really seemed to know what was happening as drivers surged and waned at Homestead.
That level of uncertainty is unsustainable, however. In the next few weeks the favorites will start to drive like favorites and there is going to be a race in which one driver pulls away. This probably won’t be that race as Truex and other 1.5-mile dominators keep Harvick in sight. Harvick swept the top 10 at Vegas last year with a best result of eighth, but he was in the top five in both 2019 races.
Best Bets for a top five
Gamblers don’t make money waiting for clear patterns to form. Truex (+650) is one of this week’s favorites for the outright win even though his statistics do not scream out, but then again that is why you can currently get another buck out of your bet. Truex had trouble in this race last year and finished 20th, but he rebounded with a fourth in the fall. Better still, he has victories in 2017 and 2019 to recommend him. Those victories are part of seven top-10s in his last nine Vegas attempts.
Longshot Alert: We struggled with whether to go ahead and make Matt DiBenedetto (+5000) a favorite for the outright win this week. And if a bettor believes that the trend of longshots will continue for one more week, there are two compelling reasons to place a sizeable bet on him. DiBenedetto finished second in both Vegas races last year, so he obviously has a feel for this track. Equally important, he has one more season to make a big name for himself before Austin Cindric takes over the No. 21 ride in 2022 and he ran strong at the end of last year. On another book he is listed at +1600 odds to finish in the top three and +250 for a top-10.
Kyle Larson (+900) has always had an affinity for Vegas. He scored his first top-10 in his second start there and his first top-five in his fourth attempt. That strong run was a second in 2017, the last year Vegas hosted a single race. The next year, he swept the top-three. Since 2017 the worst he has finished was 12th and every other race has ended in the top 10. No one is going to be surprised if he gets his first win for Hendrick Motorsports this week.
Now that Byron has won, Alex Bowman (+2200) will be even more highly motivated to contend for the victory. He’s been close in his last five races on 1.5-mile tracks with top-fives at Vegas, Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway last fall, an eighth in the first Kansas race last year, and a ninth last week in Homestead. Even a tiny improvement could mean a lot on this progressively banked course.
Best Bets for a top 10
The top 10 has been eclectic so far in 2021. So far, 20 different drivers have scored at least one top-10, which has been aided by the fact that two of the three events have been run on wild card tracks. But last week at Homestead, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Newman, and Michael McDowell proved that the 1.5-milers can be just as unpredictable.
If not for last week’s 25th in the Dixie Vodka 400 and a generally lackluster performance at Homestead, Joey Logano (+850) would easily be one of the favorites to finish in the top five. Feel free to disagree and place a bet for the outright win if you are so inclined because he is the defending champion of this race. With the exception of Kansas 2, he was not particularly strong on other 1.5-milers in 2021 with three top-fives and an average of 12.3, however.
Ryan Blaney (+1300) needs a wakeup call. He finished 11th or better in all but one of the 11 1.5-mile races last year and earned top-fives in about half his attempts. Vegas was not the sight of any of those, however; Blaney was 11th in the spring and seventh in the fall. On the other hand, he swept the top five there in 2018 and scored another fifth in fall 2019.
Dark horse: Can Tyler Reddick (+4000) back up last week’s strong run at Homestead. It’s possible since both tracks have progressive banking and reward drivers capable of seeking out the right groove. It is much more likely that he will contend for a top-10 and his outright win odds have drug that to +200. If you get really enthused, he posts a +1200 for a top-three.
Keselowski (+850) did not live up to expectations last week. He struggled to finish 16th in a race that held a lot of surprises, but that was the first time in two seasons he has been outside the top 15 on this course type. In 11 1.5-mile races last year, he won once (the World 600), scored three top-fives and 10 top-10s with an average of 7.0.
One will; one probably won’t: We’re just not entirely sure which of the other two Gibbs’ superstars will find the right setup this week. Kyle Busch (+1400) will be racing in front of the hometown crowd this week, but that did not help him last spring as he finished 15th. His most recent podium finish came in spring 2019. Denny Hamlin (+1000) finished third in his most recent Vegas outing, but that was his first top-five and only his third top-10 in the last eight races there.
Chase Elliott (+850) remains a favorite for this week with the third-best odds (tied with Logano and Keselowski). It just doesn’t seem all that likely given his poor showing at Homestead last week. Since his odds of finishing in the top 10 are listed at -225, it doesn’t seem favorable to make him part of this week’s betting strategy.
We want to jump on McDowell’s (+15000) bandwagon, but it isn’t easy. His sixth last week in the Dixie Vodka 400 comes on the heels of an average finish of 21.7 on 1.5-milers last year. Then again, with odds that high, he’s worth a modest bet if you can find some change in the couch cushions.
Wallace’s (+9000) sixth-place finish was his only top-10 in 11 starts on 1.5-milers, but he is in better equipment this week and could surprise the field.
Newman (+12500) could be another interesting bet for a top-10 this week. He was one of Homestead’s most pleasant surprises last week and has top-15s in four of his last five Vegas attempts.
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