Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Talladega Preview: Throwing Darts a Good Handicapping System

By Micah Roberts

The unexpected is expected in every Talladega race (Getty)
When restrictor-plate races come around, it has usually been a foregone conclusion that a Chevrolet would wind up in the winner’s circle just because they usually did.

From 2001 to 2007 a Chevy won 11 of the 14 races at Daytona. From 1999 through 2007, a Chevy won 17 of the 18 Talladega races. Between the program of Hendrick, DEI and Childress, they pretty much gobbled up all the competition and wins.

In 2009, that dominance was over,  and between a few changes in aero-dynamics and other technical aspects to slow the cars down, the racing has never been more equal at Daytona and Talladega. At Daytona, we’ve seen a Ford win four of the last seven races. At Talladega, Chevy has won four of the last eight, the last four coming in a row heading into this Sunday’s race.

Just the thought of racing four-wide, with the driver’s foot mashed on the pedal for the entire Talladega race gets most fans juiced up like no other race. It’s the biggest, baddest track on the circuit and while some fans won’t admit that they like crashes as part of their intrigue in watching NASCAR, it is Talladega that offers some of the most spectacular wrecks of the year. It’s that type of racing and possibility of ’The Big One’ happening that keeps fans on the edge of their seats for the entire duration.

From a betting standpoint, the problem with having more parity than ever before and a high propensity for massive wreckage is that it’s one of the hardest races of the year to handicap. In a usual race week, we have past trends and then get some valuable data from practices. But at Talladega, all that goes out the window and when wagering on the race. It’s almost like throwing darts.

The last four races at Talladega have gone to favorites like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer twice, but just prior to that, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray won at huge odds. If we throw Daytona into the mix, we’ve got the likes of Trevor Bayne, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth winning at large odds.

It’s a tough race to handicap, but no matter how much your mind tells you to limit the normal bankroll for the race, the heart tells you that you have to have action on the race because it’s Talladega and just maybe, this might be the week to hit a 100-to-1 long shot like Bayne or 125-to-1 odds like Keselowski had.

If we use this years Daytona 500 as a reference, we can identify a few drivers that should compete well Sunday. The Roush Ford’s were strong led by eventual Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. For whatever reason, Kenseth hasn’t fared too well Talladega with his last top-5 finish coming there in 2006. But we know the Roush program is strong and anything is possible, so Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Kenseth all have to be considered.

For Biffle, he's got a lot of reasons to be excited this week. Not only is he bringing his third-place Daytona car, but he can seemingly do no wrong thus far as he leads the series in points.

“I’m really looking forward to Talladega; we had such a good run at Daytona," said Biffle. "We feel like the Roush-Yates engines will be the talk of the weekend again about how fast our cars will be in Talladega. I’m hoping for good side-by-side racing, big-pack racing, sort of like it was at Daytona. You’ve got to be there at the end to have a shot. It’s going to be a two-car tandem push for the win and hopefully the No. 16 3M / O’Reilly’s Ford will be out front.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr will be one of the favorites this week and might find himself being one of the top bet drivers as far as ticket counts go. Talladega would seem like the appropriate place for him to end his massive winless streak and he comes off a runner-up finish at Daytona, as well as runner-up last week at Richmond. It could be argued that he is having the best year of all the Hendrick drivers which is high praise for a team that has five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time winner Jeff Gordon.

One of the long shots to take a strong look at this week is Kurt Busch. I was high on him coming into Daytona and he would have ran well, but got involved in an accident early on. He is one of the drivers that could pull off the upset, driving in the same car that Keselowski won with at Talladega at big odds in 2009. Because of his poor finish at Daytona, and not doing anything spectacular in the other seven races, his odds should be quite high for this race and fetch over 50-to-1.

Remember, you can’t think of the obvious for this race like we do everywhere else. This is a race where David Gilliland and Dave Blaney also have a shot to win, something we would never think about in the 32 other races. Had the Daytona 500 not been completed because of the fire Juan Pablo Montoya ignited, Blaney would have been the winner.

So while Earnhardt Jr, Harvick and Bowyer get a lot of the attention this week, don’t forget about the Aric Almirola’s, AJ Allmendinger’s, Regan Smith’s and Kurt Busch’s. Throwing darts can sometimes pay off pretty big under these circumstances.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #16 Greg Biffle (25/1)
2) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (12/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (25/1)
4) #29 Kevin Harvick (10/1)
5) #51 Kurt Busch (60/1)

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