Other sports like to have build-up story lines throughout their seasons into one final crescendo such as the Super Bowl or World Series, but NASCAR goes the complete opposite. The season kicks off for the 58th straight year Sunday with the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.
It will be the second most wagered upon race of the year in Nevada next to the Las Vegas NASCAR weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a four time winner at Daytona, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500, and comes in as the 6-to-1 favorite at most Las Vegas sportsbooks. However, Sunday’s race is as wide-open as any restrictor-plate race has been over the past three seasons.
There really is no bad bet to made because you can make a case for up to 38 drivers to win. The cars are as equal as you’ll see in any race all season. In the Las Vegas race in two weeks, there will be only 12 drivers that have a legitimate chance to win, and Danica Patrick will have odds at around 500-1. For Sunday’s race she’s 80-1.
A case can be made for taking a long shot in the plate races because we’ve seen it happen often lately at Talladega and Daytona. In 2011 Trevor Bayne became the youngest driver at 20 to win the Daytona 500 and he was at 100-1. Aric Almirola won a rain shortened race in the summer of 2014 at Daytona and paid out 50-1. Yes, you cash with a long shot at Daytona like nowhere else.
A glimpse of what we might see Sunday came during Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, a 75-lap non-points race won by Denny Hamlin. With no points we saw drivers get really aggressive and lots of wrecks ensued. Earnhardt Jr. got knocked out early, so we didn’t get to see him in the draft, but we’re almost certain to see him running up near the front Sunday, which is where every driver should want to be.
After watching the Unlimited, I was pumped and felt the racing was good. I thought the added 10 horsepower made a bigger impact than I first expected. But was I just disillusioned simply because I was starved for some NASCAR racing after not seeing anything since November.
When I looked at the box score, I saw that 23 of 25 cars had damage. There were only three drivers to lead a lap and seven cautions. Maybe the racing wasn’t all that good, and I’m not the type of fan who likes wrecks.
If Sunday’s race mimics what happened Saturday, this thing is going to be wild – maybe too wild. The tough thing about playing the favorites in plate races is your driver is more apt to be involved in a wreck than a place like Las Vegas. You’ve got the cars bunched up all together going side-by-side – sometimes three wide – for the entire race. When one driver makes an error, the wreck usually takes out a half-dozen innocent drivers.
Now if we put all that aside and analyze what happened with the actual racing in the Unlimited, you’ll see a few drivers really stood out and you’ll see that passing the leader was almost impossible. The driver who can get out front is likely to stay there.
Hamlin was obviously good while winning his third career Unlimited, and so were his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. The Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are going to be major forces. Ford was the only manufacturer to have a new body change for 2016, and coupled with their already strong horsepower, seeing Logano be the first back-to-back Daytona 500 winner since Sterling Marlin in 1995 wouldn’t be a surprise.
For long shot bettors, Ryan Blaney in the famed Wood Brothers No. 21, the car Bayne won with in 2011, has an alliance with those Penske cars so he’s worth a poke at 30-1 odds or higher.
The Ganassi drivers of Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson looked great Saturday as well. McMurray has two wins at Daytona, including the 2010 Daytona 500. He can be found at 30-1. His best success has come in plate races over his career.
I’m going to ride Toyota again this week with Hamlin being the key. Sure, a Toyota has never won the Daytona 500 and Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t won the Daytona 500 since 1993 with Dale Jarrett in Chevrolet, but they appear to be just a little bit stronger.
Hamlin has never won a points race at Daytona, but he’s been sixth or better in his past four starts there. The last driver to win the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona 500 in the same year was Jarrett in 2000 – he also did it in 1996.
Forget all that negative history, let’s roll with the No. 11, who saw his odds drop at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook from 15-1 down to 10-1 following Saturday’s win. Also, if looking for a great place to watch the race with sound, the SuperBook’s new room is the perfect place to go.
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. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].