Thursday, May 20, 2010

NASCAR All-Star Race: Handicapping Who Humpy Wheeler Might Have Picked This Week

by Micah Roberts

The NASCAR All-Star race was the brilliant creation of former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler, one of the greatest marketeers in the history of sports. He created the concept as a means to excite the motor sports world and entice more curiosity for the Coca-Cola 600 because that race was always going head to head with the Indy 500.

Since getting NASCAR and the then sponsorship of RJ Reynolds on board, the race and the unique format has more than did as it was intended and in way has helped place NASCAR where it is today. The Indy 500 is less than two weeks away, yet no one is paying attention while all eyes are focused on this weeks race, which is essentially a non-point exhibition race.

From a betting stand point in Las Vegas, as NASCAR began to take off in the sports books, Wheeler was always paid close attention to for his famed All-Star race predictions. His selection would always come a day or two before the race and when the pick was announced, odds were quickly shuffled to reflect the respect of his choice.

At one juncture Wheeler had picked an amazing 9 of 14 winners, before finally ending his picking career in 2008 with a mark of 10 winners out of 19. The greatest thing about Wheeler’s picks were that he rarely ever chose the favorite. He chose Dale Earnhardt Jr to win in 2000 during his rookie season when Junior had opening odds of 20 to 1 on him and he was right on the money.

Wheeler had a method to his picks and why he was so good.

"I wish I could say that I have famed mystic powers," said Wheeler, "I don't. What I did, was my office during most of the time I was there, I could see the cars going through the third and fourth turns. So while I was talking on the phone, I'd revert back to my tire days and I would get my stopwatch out. Knowing all those guys were playing games while they were practicing, they don't play games when they're in the corners. So I'd take their corner speeds. So I would have a pretty good idea of who was going the fastest, particularly when they made their longer runs, which usually was 10 laps."

"And I began to get a picture for who had the fastest race cars. And also, getting down into the pits and talking to the guys about what was going on helped a lot. Of course, we all know guys lie terribly down there. There's no sin about lying how fast you are, because everybody tells you their car doesn't work well. They don't want anybody chasing them. But you can't hide from the stopwatch. So I guess that's the best explanation I could give you for that."

That type of information gained wasn't out there the way it is today with the internet. Practice speeds and times over a certain amount of laps are the name of the game today and what is used by bettors and bookmakers alike to get the best weekly read on who will do well for each race. Prior to the wide world web of information, past history and current state of a team were the focal points in placing odds on a driver. Knowing that Wheeler was doing serious work at the track for the betterment of his personal record, just like a bettor would, and then to see his predictions come true, made him sort of a legend to myself in my early initial days of creating NASCAR odds.

I used to handicap not only the All-Star race, but also try to handicap who Humpy was going to pick. As soon as the announcements were made, I’d have the information quickly thanks to a friend who worked in the Charlotte Motor Speedway PR department. By the time the rest of the NASCAR world had to read about it the next day, I already had the juicy tip and the odds were properly adjusted to reflect the messiah‘s choice.

In light of Wheeler no longer affiliated with the event, and to keep his genius alive, this week I am going to try and do my best to handicap who Humpy Wheeler would have taken this week.

Without seeing any practice, we have to first take a look at who was good on the similar 1.5-mile sister tracks of Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Texas. All three of the tracks are similar to Charlotte in configuration and banking.

By using that model, five drivers come to mind immediately based on their performance, with two others who are wild cards. The first one that immediately comes up is Jeff Gordon just because he had the best cars at Texas and Las Vegas. Even though he didn’t win any of those races, the consistency is what might have caught Wheeler’s eye.

Wheeler has always had pretty good luck with Gordon as he correctly picked him twice to win in the past out of the three All-Star races Gordon did win. The format of the race should be to Gordon’s liking, especially the last 10 laps where they’ll have to take a mandatory four-tire change before restarting. He’s got one of the best pit crews in NASCAR and they should be able to help him get a quick stop.

The only negative for Gordon is the restarting part, a place that Gordon has been repeatedly beat out of wins this season. Let’s see how much more motivated Gordon can be with a $1 Million dollar carrot dangling in front of his windshield.

Unlike all the other major sports where their athletes loaf around going through the motions during their All-Star events, NASCAR’s event has them racing for hard core cash, a better prize amount than every race other than the Daytona 500.

The next bunch of drivers Humpy might look at include Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and Kurt Busch.

Johnson won at Las Vegas and finished second at Texas. He hasn’t had a win yet in the seven races since the new spoiler has been in place, but he did have the great Texas run with it on. He’s a two-time All-Star winner, one of which Humpy correctly picked. Lowe’s no longer sponsors the Speedway, so perhaps Johnson wants to get his car’s sponsor a little more air time with a win this week.

Harvick and Kahne are the only drivers to finish in the top-10 of all three 1.5-mile tracks this season. For Kahne, those three races are his only top-10’s of the season. Kahne is a winner from two years ago which may give Wheeler some sentimental value because it was the last time he gave out a selection as President of the track. However, in that race, he chose Carl Edwards to win.

Harvick may be a good look for Humpy just because of his close ties to Richard Childress and the late Dale Earnhardt. It was Wheeler who gave Earnhardt his first shot at driving in NASCAR after he brokered a deal that fell through which was to have Willy T. Ribbs drive a car. Ribbs never showed up leaving the car with no driver close to race day. Wheeler suggested that “the Earnhardt boy” take over and the rest is history.

Harvick won this race in 2007 and has shown this season to have lots of horsepower on these type of tracks. Harvick is also a driver who can really get after it in the late 10 lap dash.

Kurt Busch won in Atlanta the last two seasons and is someone to take very seriously in this race; that is if his brother doesn’t wreck him like he did in 2007. In that race, Kurt Busch had just taken over second-place in the final segment when Kyle Busch made a bold move that wrecked both of them.

The two wild cards are the hottest drivers on tour right now, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. A Joe Gibbs driver has never won the All-Star race, but these guys are too hot right now to ignore and both are the best in the business on restarts.

After all is said and done, I believe Humpy Wheeler would have taken Jeff Gordon this week just because he’s way overdue with the type of cars he's been given. Wheeler would also be quick to note that every year Gordon has won the All-Star race, he’s gone on to win the Championship too.

Sprint Showdown Prediction (Qualifying race: First two finishers get in and another will be voted in by the fans):
1) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya (5/1)
2) #16 Greg Biffle (5/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (6/1)
4) #98 Paul Menard (25/1)
5) #33 Clint Bowyer (8/1)

All-Star Race Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (6/1)
2) #9 Kasey Kahne (15/1)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (15/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)

You can listen to Micah Roberts guest hosting Sports Book radio on ESPN radio in Las Vegas from 2-3 pm (PDT). The shows can be listened to live or archived on Thursday's guests includes Las Vegas Motor Speedway Vice-President of Public Relations, Jeff Motley, and they'll be talking more about the All-Star race.

Old All-Star Links
I found an old press release Charlotte Motor Speedway did with My odds for the All-Star race back in 2000. Man does time go by!
Here's another press release dated May, 23, 2001 from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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