|Hamlin called his shot at Loudon last year|
But if we compare apples to apples, and stay specifically within the type of track that Loudon falls into -- tied in with other shorter flat tracks like Phoenix and Richmond -- there really isn't anyone better than Hamlin. Last fall he guaranteed a win at Loudon and made good on it for his second career win there. His 7.9 average finish in 16 starts is the best among all active drivers.
Last spring he also won at Phoenix and followed it with a runner-up finish in the fall and then was third in early March this season. At his home track in Richmond where he has two wins, only Kyle Busch has a better average finish since Hamlin made his Cup debut in the 2006 season. Hamlin was unable to participate in the first Richmond race this season because it was one of the four races he missed due to a compression fracture in his back.
Before the season started, Hamlin was one of the preseason favorites to win the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. Even after missing four races, Las Vegas sports books didn't flinch with his odds because of the way the Chase for the Championship is set up with two wild-card births given to drivers having the most wins who are within the top 20 in points.
Why shouldn't we think that a driver who won five races in 2012 -- and is part of a Joe Gibbs team that has shown the most horsepower this season -- could race his way into the Chase by capturing wins?
Instead of gaining positive finishes and getting closer to 20th in points as most sports books in Las Vegas expected, Hamlin has gone the other way, sitting 26th in points, 122 behind Paul Menard in 20th and five points behind Danica Patrick in 25th. Over a six race stretch, his odds to win the Championship have gone up from 10-to-1 all the way to 60-to-1 with seven races to go until the Chase field is set.
A Chase appearance for Hamlin looks to be a major longshot, as his odds suggest, but in six of the seven upcoming races, Hamlin will be considered one of the favorites to win. After New Hampshire, he'll get to use similar set-ups for back-to-back races at Indianapolis and Pocono (four-time winner). He should be able to get a top-10 finish at Watkins Glen, the faster and less technical of the two road courses. Then he goes to Michigan where he's won twice, Atlanta (won last year), Bristol (won last year) and then back home to Richmond for the final race, a place at which he always excels.
There might be two -- maybe three wins -- in store for Hamlin over the next seven races, which would likely qualify him for a wild card, but the biggest problem right now is getting points and into the 20th position where he would then be eligible to claim a wild card.
When making odds for each race, we like to make comparisons to other tracks that run similar. Phoenix, Richmond and New Hampshire look nothing alike, but when crew chiefs routinely bring the same chassis to each of those tracks, it's a telling sign. An even better sign is to look at drivers over the course of history that have collectively dominated on these three tracks, ranging from Jeff Burton at the turn of the century, and more recently Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Hamlin last season.
Carl Edwards won at Phoenix this season and is posted at attractive odds of 25-to-1 at the LVH. He's never won at Loudon over his career, but should be considered a quality candidate to win this week.
The same goes for Harvick listed at 12-to-1 odds because of his Richmond win. Harvick completed the triple during the 2006 season by winning on all three tracks during the season, including a sweep of Phoenix.
Tony Stewart has the top NASCAR Driver Rating (111.7) over the past 16 Loudon races since NASCAR has been accumulating their loop data. He's had three Loudon wins over his career, the last coming in 2011 during the Chase. He's listed at 15-to-1 odds this week.
The best looking longshot of the bunch is Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton at 75-to-1. He won four consecutive seasons at Loudon from 1997-2000, but he hasn't had a top-five finish there since 2008 when he was fourth. His candidacy to step up this week comes not only from Harvick's success, but also his own this year where he was 10th at Phoenix and fifth at Richmond.
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