Let’s drop that green flag and get this 2020 NASCAR season re-started.
Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway comes 70 days after its last race at Phoenix Raceway just before America getting shut down due to the pandemic. More than just the race itself, NASCAR jumping back into business is a small sign for many that normalcy will soon be upon us.
We all may not be back to work yet, but watching old games from any sport has run its course. We need our live sports that flow with the seasons, and spring has been rough. But last Saturday’s UFC event in an empty Jacksonville arena started the ball rolling. My friends who follow it closely loved it, especially the betting aspect.
Sunday’s Darlington race can do the same and perhaps capture more of an audience than usual just because live sporting events are so scarce these days as we wait for MLB, the NBA and NHL to announce a game plan.
While the sportsbooks and casinos remain closed in Las Vegas, the UFC and NASCAR events were big enough for South Point owner Michael Gaughan to open a drive-thru for signing up new sports betting phone accounts, which in turn spurred Circa and William Hill books to do the same. It also opened the phone app at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook which had been closed.
To catch up with races on dates that have already passed to maintain 36 races for a full Cup season, NASCAR will run seven races in 10 days between its top three touring series at Darlington and then Charlotte Motor Speedway over Memorial Day weekend. All seven races will run with no fans in attendance and crew members and TV crews will all be under strict guidelines of maintaining social distance.
NASCAR is expected to announce more changes to the schedule this week but did reveal that three tracks will have races eliminated this season due to the coronavirus. Sonoma Raceway, Michigan International Speedway (first date), and Chicagoland Speedway will lose their scheduled dates.
The Cup Series will race on Sunday and Tuesday at Darlington while the Xfinity Series will race on Monday night. Charlotte will host racing four straight nights with the Cup Series racing Sunday and Wednesday, Xfinity on Monday, and the Truck Series on Tuesday.
The races being bunched together with so little time in between will be something new for the sportsbooks to factor in with their oddsmaking.
“We’re excited to see the two (Cup) races within a few days at one of NASCAR’s premier tracks,” said Circa Sports director Matt Metcalf. “It should be amazing to see them run Sunday and then apply what they’ve learned on the quick turnaround that week.”
That type of quick turnaround scenario was originally going to happen for the June 27-28 races at Pocono Raceway. Of the four Cup dates about to happen at Darlington and Charlotte, only the Coca-Cola 600 will have qualifying and none of the four will have practices.
SuperBook manager Ed Salmons said that no practices or qualifying will make his process of creating odds and booking the race through the week easier because he won’t have to take the odds down to readjust while important practices are going on. No need to babysit the numbers so much. Usually, the final practice of a race is the most insightful means of finding the weekly winner in odds to win and driver matchups.
It makes it easier for the book, but it’s going to be a little more awkward for the driver’s usual process on a race weekend.
“I’ve run probably 300 or 400 laps already at Darlington (on a simulator) just to get the rhythm and the feel and the idea of what to expect,” three-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson said.” Because I’ve never been cold turkey at a track before and rolled straight in and lined it up and raced.”
In many ways, Sunday’s 400-mile race at Darlington will be the practice session for Tuesday’s 312-mile race. Both pay the same amount of points and count separately in the standings, but if one team comes dialed in right off the hauler they’re going to have a huge advantage for both races. The Circa and SuperBook both said they’ll wait to post Tuesday’s odds until Sunday’s race finishes, in part because it will confuse the customer but also because the book wants to soak in what it saw in Sunday’s race before posting numbers.
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series has been a welcomed replacement for the last eight weeks, but I think we’re all starving for the real stuff, as well as betting on the real stuff.
The SuperBook and Circa Sports posted odds last week on Sunday’s Darlington 400 and the first thing I had to do was review what happened in the first four races before the shutdown, in particular, the two races at Las Vegas and Fontana using the 550 horsepower race package that will come cold off the hauler to the start line. No practices and no qualifying.
I don’t find the lack of practices too important coming in because when I write this space weekly it’s usually on a Sunday night with seven days to go before a race happens. I have a few drivers stuck in my head that are either great on the layout or their team has performed well recently using the same race package, and I do well with the strategy.
The practices just help me finalize driver matchups or jump in on a driver to win that wasn’t in my betting equation. But sometimes practices can steer a bet in a different direction and I try to avoid that, and now there’s no choice.
While some teams may have found something during the shutdown, chances are those who were good at Las Vegas and Fontana will be strong at Darlington despite it’s 1.366-mile high banked egg-shaped oval being unique to only itself.
Some teams have this particular package figured out better than others. Team Penske’s three drivers all appeared to be on their game better collectively than others with Joey Logano winning at Las Vegas. But Alex Bowman dominated at Fontana with teammate Chase Elliott finishing fourth and Jimmie Johnson getting finishes of seventh or better in both.
The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers appeared behind in those races, but we should consider that all four of them rank in the top-6 of best active finishers at Darlington whose nickname is the track too tough tame. Denny Hamlin is a two-time winner with a 7.7 average finish and Erik Jones won last season and averaged a 4.6 finish in three Cup starts.
The best longshots are Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth driving the No. 42 that former driver Kyle Larson drove. Busch doesn’t have a win at Darlington while Kenseth has a 2013 win.