What a thrill it was to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. come away with the Daytona 500 win on Sunday, and it wasn’t just because he paid out at 10-to-1 odds.
It was more like an emotional rush, kind of like watching a young family member excel in a sporting event. I have no ties to Junior, but somehow there was a feeling of real joy as if I was witnessing something that had never happened before.
Junior winning a race is a rare occurrence. He’d only won twice in the past six seasons, and he hadn’t won at Daytona since 2004. But as a huge fan of NASCAR, everything just seemed perfect. Dale Jr. is NASCAR royalty and the sport needs him to be good. The sport needs him to be motivated. The sport needs him to matter and lately, Junior hasn’t mattered at all.
And on the day we saw the No. 3 black car race for the first time in 13 years, the car his father intimidated the entire series with before passing at Daytona in 2001, Junior shows up to take the checkers.
It’s so fitting, and almost seems scripted as part of the story that goes back to 2001 where the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars won at Daytona and Rockingham followed by a young driver named Kevin Harvick winning at Atlanta in his second career start behind Earnhardt’s crew, and then culminating with Junior’s big 2001 summer win at Daytona on his first return to the track since his father’s death.
So when Junior crossed the finish line first on Sunday, it just seemed like that was how it was supposed to be. It was perfect, and a thrilling moment for most no matter what driver usually rooting for.
This week at Phoenix, Junior will be a candidate to win and should fetch 12-to-1 odds. He’s a two-time winner at Phoenix and had top-5 finishes in both races last season. The big difference in handicapping Daytona and Phoenix is that you can narrow the quality candidates down to about 10 with a legitimate chance at winning while at Daytona, there were about 35 drivers that could win.
Last week at Daytona the practice times and start position meant very little and the biggest factor in selecting a driver with restrictor-plates was looking at their past history at the track. This week that formula is turned upside down where practice times are about 60 percent of the equation with past history playing a smaller role.
Since we won’t see any practice times until Friday and Saturday, you have to try and do your best at guessing who the best drivers might be to get the best odds available now. Once the practice times start rolling in, the sports books will also take notice and lower the odds on the drivers who showed they’re fast on both single lap speeds and 10-consecutive lap averages.
We don’t need to see any speeds to realize that Jimmie Johnson is going to be very good and it is why he is the 5-to-1 favorite – if you’re lucky enough to get a price that high. Johnson is a four-time winner at Phoenix – the last in 2009 – and has a 5.9 average finish in his past 20 starts there. He didn’t win last season there, but in the two races, he finished second and third.
Just because he was good last year doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be good on Sunday, but because the cars are relatively the same and he’s excelled in every Hendrick Motorsports car given to him whether it was the old car, car of tomorrow or now the Gen-6 car, he’s been fast at Phoenix. Why would that change now just because it’s a new year?
But who wants to take 5-to-1 odds, even though it is good value? Most bettors want some odds that they can really sink their teeth into. However, past history shows that the favorites usually do win at Phoenix. Carl Edwards paid out at 18-to-1 in this race last season and Kevin Harvick was 12-to-1 in the fall race, and that’s about as good as it gets at Phoenix.
The cream rises to the top here and the sports book knows what that is.
What I like to do with Phoenix is dig deep into similar tracks to try and find some angle. The one-mile layout of Phoenix is similar, at least in setting the car up, to New Hampshire and Richmond. All three are relatively small and flat.
If a driver does well on one, they’ll likely do well on the other two. Last season, Edwards and Harvick each won two of the six races between the three tracks. Brian Vickers won at New Hampshire in the spring and Matt Kenseth won there in the fall.
Harvick is no longer in the RCR No. 29, and all those great rides were shifted over to the No. 3 garage driven by rookie Austin Dillon. Dillon will get about 35-to-1 odds and might be worth a shot in the dark just because of the equipment.
The best strategy here is to stay with the meat and potatoes, someone that always runs well here, and someone that is hungry for a win like Denny Hamlin. This guy is on a major roll right now having won at Homestead to close out 2013, winning the Sprint Unlimited and Bud Duel last week at Daytona and then finishing second in the 500 Sunday.
At Phoenix, only Johnson has been better overall than Hamlin’s 10.9 average finish. He won this race in 2012 and he should be considered a favorite to win this week.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].