Look for Hamlin to bring home the opening race

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In all my life of loyally following NASCAR I have never had to wait so long to see some type of racing before an actual season has started like 2015 has done.

Usually we have some preseason Daytona testing in early January that gives an idea of who will be fast in February and then later in the month Las Vegas would have a test session to give an idea of who will be fast on 1.5-mile tracks.

But not this year because of NASCAR’s new policy on testing aimed at keeping competition equal for lesser funded teams.

On Friday, we’ll all get our first real look at 2015 NASCAR as 25 cars will be practicing for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, which is a 75-lap non-points race consisting mostly of past pole winners and all those who participated in last year’s Chase.

After examining what happened in those practices and the actual race, we should have a good idea of who will fare the best in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22.

Despite almost five dozen changes to the rules package for 2015, I’ve been told by a few guys in the garages that racing at Daytona will be very similar to what we saw last season, which basically means anyone can win the race.

So after all the rule changes, we can pretty much say picking a winner at Daytona is just as hard as it’s been for the past few years where we’ve seen the likes of long shots David Ragan and Trevor Bayne sneak in for victories.

Just about every book has odds posted for Saturday night’s race. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch listed as 10-to-1 co-favorites followed by seven drivers at 12-to-1. The longest shots of the bunch are Danica Patrick and Martin Truex Jr. at 40-to-1 each.

Any type of wager on the Sprint Unlimited is not a smart wager because there’s nothing to really go off of, but I don’t really care at this point because I’m so starved for any kind of NASCAR action I have to throw a few dollars down just to feel like I’m part of it again.

 

But we can fool ourselves by looking at some past history that at least will make us feel a little more confident at the bet window. It’s still a crap shoot, but there’s nothing wrong with feeling like you’ve made a good choice by having some solid statistical data behind the selections. So let’s talk about who some of the top candidates might be.

Denny Hamlin (12/1): For the past two seasons, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars have been consistent performers in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, despite wins not reflecting it. Last year Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, won one of the Budweiser Duels and then finished second in the Daytona 500. He would later win at Talladega for his only points-paying victory of the season. Armed with new crew chief Dave Rogers, who moved over from Kyle Busch’s team, and also a keen sense of how the draft works, Hamlin appears to be the top candidate to win Saturday night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10/1): He’s won this race twice, the last being in 2008, but he also won the Daytona 500 last year, which was his first plate win since 2004. He’ll have a car that can compete for the win and he’s fired up about the season after piling up four wins last year.

Brad Keselowski (12/1): He’s got multiple wins at Talladega, but Daytona has eluded him somehow, although he finished a career best third-place in last year’s Daytona 500. After racking up a series-high six wins last season and getting screwed by the new Chase format, he should be hungry and ready for the season to start.

Jeff Gordon (12/1): He last won this race in 1997 when it was called the Busch Clash and he last won at Daytona in 2005, but this year might be different as every race he enters will be the last of his career this season. He’s calling it quits following the season, so for nostalgia purposes there’s nothing wrong with betting him to win and if he doesn’t, you’ve got yourself a souvenir slip – Gordon’s last Clash/Shootout/Sprint Unlimited start. He also has piled up a NASCAR record 12 wins in restrictor-plate races.

Kurt Busch (15/1): He’s never won a restrictor-plate points race, but he did win this race in 2011 while driving for Roger Penske. I liked what I saw out of him at Daytona last year – most of all leading a race-high 36 laps in the rain-shortened July race at Daytona. He finished third that day. With pending litigation in Delaware over a domestic dispute with his girlfriend, the Las Vegan probably can’t wait to get in his car this weekend and finally go to work.

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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