Dillon takes Dale Earnhardt’s iconic 3 car to 500 pole

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As always with restrictor-plate races, Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be a crap shoot with up to 35 drivers having a legitimate shot at winning.

After watching Denny Hamlin capture Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, it was apparent the slight height increase on the spoiler give these cars a lot more stability.

Last season, the cars were slipping all over the place as though they were on ice. Drivers got in line and stayed there, which created dull racing. They were afraid to jump out of the line and pass, because they couldn’t pass, nor were they confident the car would stick.

That appears to be fixed now, which should provide a lot more passes and additional daring moves. It also means we could see more cautions with drivers having more confidence. At the same time, with the car handling so much better, they’ll have more control, so maybe not.

The LVH has posted dozens of Daytona 500 propositions and they have a thought provoking number of 7.5 on the cautions. With so many candidates having the ability to win and so many variables that can wipe out your driver wagered on in an instant, I stress moderation when betting the race.

At a venue like Phoenix or Las Vegas, where the possible winners are dropped down to about 14 drivers and where they hold their form better, a bettor has a much likelier chance of cashing tickets from all the hard work labored into finding the best betting candidates. The final practices in those races give a huge amount of detail that can narrow your selections even more.

At Daytona, practices mean little and betting driver matchups are almost impossible. Still, it is the 500, an American institution, and it just wouldn’t be right if not throwing a few dollars on a couple drivers and rolling the dice.

Crapshoot? Yes, but what a thrill it is. And because it is so wide open, the sports books at least give you a fair shake on all the drivers. The LVH and William Hill sports books don’t have any driver listed under 10-to-1. You can get Jimmie Johnson, who won both Daytona races last season, at 10-to-1 when in three weeks at Las Vegas, he’ll be around 4-to-1 and bet down to 7-to-2.

While the odds on all the heavyweights have been raised, the odds on the drivers who usually have 500-to-1 attached to them weekly, such as David Ragan, are lowered considerably just because they have a good chance of riding the draft wave to the checkered flag. Ragan, who has won both his career races on restrictor-plate tracks, is 75-to-1 to win Sunday.

My best advice is to mix up the wagers a little bit. Take one or two of the favorites, take a driver in the middle at around 25-to-1, and go bold with Ragan or someone like him at 50-to-1 or higher, and then stagger the wager amounts based on who you think has the best chance of winning.

Although I say practice means little, I still will be formulating my last set of opinions Thursday night when the Budweiser Duels run, which will determine the starting lineup. Austin Dillon (25/1) and Martin Truex Jr (30/1) are locked into the front already from qualifying, but everyone else will be battling for position. For six drivers, if they don’t perform well, they go home.

I will be looking for how each of the top drivers gets out and passes, who has the giddy-up and is able to figure out the best places to make the move.

The team of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers should all have the equipment to shine as one of the best. Last season Matt Kenseth (10/1) led more laps than anyone in plate races, but didn’t get any of the four wins. He’s a two-time Daytona 500 winner and should be in a good position to be one of the drivers in the lead pack.

The same goes for Hamlin (12/1) and Kyle Busch (10/1), both of whom have never won the Daytona 500.

The Hendrick Motorsports cars proved to be strong in plate races last season, but I was a little concerned when I saw three of their engines sold to other teams blow up in qualifying. It doesn’t mean that much, but it’s something that sticks in the back of my head and raises a caution flag.

The Hendrick driver I can’t seem to get out of my mind is Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10/1). The guy has won only two races in six seasons with Hendrick and he hasn’t won a plate race since 2004, but there is this allure to him I can’t shake.

It doesn’t help that since he last won the Daytona 500 in 2004 his 12.9 average finish at Daytona – a span of 20 races – is the best among all drivers. His loyal followers also have the same problem I do, and will line up at the bet windows to have a ticket on him just for that chance to be a part of his victory if it does happen.

The Stewart-Haas Racing program took a dive last season, but with Kevin Harvick (10/1) and Kurt Busch (18/1) added to the stables they are quality candidates to win Sunday.

Harvick is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and might be the best plate driver in the series. Busch might be the best plate driver never to win a plate race, but with teammates like Stewart and Harvick helping in the draft, he might be in store for his first win.

The Richard Childress Racing drivers should all be fast and the great thing about them is they have nice attractive odds attached to them. They were the most impressive during pre-season testing and also qualified well collectively.

Ryan Newman (30/1) won the 2008 Daytona 500, thanks to a Kurt Busch push, and will have rookie Dillon – welcome back No. 3 – and Paul Menard (40/1) helping him out. Could a rookie actually win the Daytona 500? Trevor Bayne did in 2011 and paid out 125-to-1.

The Roush Racing drivers should all be competitive as well, along with Jamie McMurray (25/1) who has four career wins on restrictor-plate tracks, including the 2010 Daytona 500.

Sounds like I like everyone, but that’s the point. No driver can be discounted and no one can make a legitimate argument against anyone winning the race. Even Danica Patrick (40/1) has a chance. So I’ll leave it at that and offer the five drivers who appeal to me the most (see chart). Enjoy the race.

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].

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