If preseason odds can be used as a gauge, oddsmakers have a clear picture of who they believe will be next year’s Championship 4.
With just over a month to go before the Daytona 500, PointsBet Sportsbook has grouped four drivers at the top of the board. At +550 (11/2) odds, their best bets to survive the season and contend for the championship are the 2020 title holder Chase Elliott, title contenders Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, and the perennial favorite Kevin Harvick.
All four are solid picks since we currently rank these drivers among the top seven on short, flat tracks. The last two races of the 2021 season will once more be contested at Martinsville and Phoenix, which are minimally-banked courses of 1-mile or less in length.
Elliott’s victory in both of these races last year makes him a solid bet, but one cannot forget the unpredictability of the current system of rounds. Elliott was listed at +2500 to win the championship last year after the Kansas race in which he finished 22nd. Talladega almost compounded the problem for the second generation driver as he was initially penalized for passing below the yellow line in a frantic dash to the checkers. But NASCAR reversed the decision and credited him with fifth instead when it was adjudged that he had been pushed down there by another competitor. Talladega continues to loom large on the playoff schedule and it will be just as erratic as ever in 2021.
The best factor in Elliott’s favor is the addition of so many twisty tracks races this year. NASCAR will visit seven road courses in 2021, which is scheduled to be about 20 percent of the races available. All but one of these are in the regular season and the Charlotte Roval continues to be the cutoff race for Round 2 of the playoffs. Elliott enters the season with four consecutive road course wins dating back to the 2019 Watkins Glen event and that means he has a better than average chance to build up playoff points during the first 26 races—which in turn increases his odds of getting into Rounds 2 and 3.
Two of the remaining three favorites are also flat track masters.
Keselowski won two of six races on this track type last year with victories at New Hampshire and Richmond. He finished third and fourth at Martinsville before coming up just one position shy of the championship at Phoenix with a second-place finish. Keselowski did not turn many heads during the playoffs, but he got through the finals with consistency. Unless the team finds more speed, however, he could have a difficult time getting past the 1.5-mile races in the playoffs. He is the least likely driver to make it all the way to Phoenix among the top four.
Hamlin’s ability on flat tracks is legendary, but he failed to live up to that reputation last year. Before Phoenix, he had only one top-five on minimally-banked courses 1-mile or less in length in 2020. That second-place finish in the Foxwoods Casino 301 at New Hampshire barely raised his average above 14th as he entered the finale. Being in the championship race galvanized the team, but his fourth-place finish was the worst among the title contenders.
So that leaves Harvick.
Was last year a fluke for Stewart-Haas Racing and their lead driver?
To look at the preseason odds for him, the answer is yes. PointsBet and all the other major sportsbooks all have him listed at the top—and all the books are in the same +550 range.
Bettors want to remember just how long it took the books to pivot on his odds last year, however, and exercise a little caution. At the end of the regular season, Harvick was listed with +200 odds—barely doubling your money. During the next nine races he ranged from +140 to +175—even entering Martinsville at +160 when there was significant risk that he might not advance.
Harvick struggled on that bullring and wrecked himself while trying to intentionally spin Kyle Busch coming off the final corner. He was not much better at Phoenix—by Harvick standards at least—and finished seventh. Oddsmakers continued to put a lot of stock in Harvick despite the fact that he was not a championship contender. A non-title contender has not won a race under the current points format, but such was their love for the Phoenix master that they had him listed as the favorite with a +360. Still, Harvick has a 15-race top-10 streak going on that course with all but two being among the top five.
Bettors should place a modest bet now if they believe the oddsmakers will continue to treat Harvick with kid gloves, but if he struggles early and ranks higher than 6/1 it will be time to place an additional wager.
Logano is another good driver to fade for the moment. He spent much of the 2020 season with odds greater than +650, getting as high as +1400 after the Dover Doubleheader. During the playoffs he was available for +1200 after a second-place finish at the Charlotte Roval. In fact, it was not until his victory at Kansas, when he became the first driver to punch his ticket to the Championship 4, that oddsmakers treated him with respect and lowered his odds into the mid-+200 range.
The best dark horse is Kyle Busch. Opening at a sixth-ranked +900 is much better than he finished 2020 when he was regularly the seventh- or eighth-ranked driver in terms of odds with a +1100 or greater. Busch struggled through the entirety of the regular season without a trophy and then became the first driver in several years to win a playoff race while not currently in contention for the Cup.
It’s worth a modest bet that his Autotrader 500 victory at Texas three weeks from the end of the season broke the malaise experienced by this team.
Kyle Larson is another driver that warrants a modest bet. After sitting most of the 2020 season on the sidelines because of a suspension for the use of a racial slur during an online event during the COVID-19 lockdown, he is being given another chance with Hendrick Motorsports. Many believe the only thing keeping him from contending for a championship was the lack of great equipment. In 2021, he has access to the same parts, service, and brain trust that won the 2020 NASCAR Cup.
PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner, and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.