Another season of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing starts up on Sunday afternoon with the annual running of the Daytona 500 (1 PM ET, Fox). That meant it was time for TheSportsNotebook to call in its NASCAR expert to get us ready for the coming season. What follows is a brief discussion of the outlook for the top 15 drivers on the circuit. Most of the focus is on the entire season, from now through November, but we’ll mix some thoughts on everyone’s chances at Daytona.
The media attention has focused on Danica Patrick grabbing the pole position. A win by Patrick would be historic beyond all measure, but we also need to be realistic. The pole position means less at Daytona than almost any other track because of the wide-open style the track allows. It’s much easier for a driver to come from the back of the pack here than at most places. Furthermore, let’s remember that Patrick is still a rookie—she only ran a part-time schedule last year, so 2013 will be a learning process. All of which is why she’s not where the focus of TheSportsNotebook is at as we preview the coming season.
As the readers who followed NASCAR Sprint Cup coverage here in 2012 know, I’m a casual observer of the sport. My brother Bill is the diehard, so I sat down with him this evening to review the top drivers and get his thoughts. Next to each driver’s name are two sets of betting odds. The first is for winning the Sprint Cup championship, the second is the odds just for Sunday in Daytona. When we get to the end, Bill offered his thoughts on what he’d do if he were in Las Vegas with a hundred bucks burning a hole in his pocket.
Jimmie Johnson (4-1, 9-1), Brad Keselowski (13-2, 12-1)—A year ago Johnson seemed to have the championship in hand before he let it slip away at the end. Keselowski was the one in position to pick up the pieces and drive off with the Cup. “He was very consistent, especially as the year went on,” Bill said. “He just got better as the season progressed.”
That progression has marked Keselowski’s career on the circuit. He broke in with a 57th-place finish in the final 2008 standings. From there he improved to 38th, then 25th, then a big leap to fifth and finally winning the whole thing last year. As for Johnson, he won the championship every year from 2006-10, so his two-year drought has to feel like years in a desert. Despite Bill’s personal disaster for JJ—“I hope he blows an engine or crashes,” was the blunt commentary, he concedes there’s no denying the quality of Johnson’s team or the caliber of his driving. He remains a worthy favorite at 4-1.
THE TOP CHALLENGERS
Kyle Busch (8-1, 12-1), Denny Hamlin (8-1, 15-1), Kasey Kahne (8-1, 18-1)—If you thought Johnson’s failure to close out the championship was bad, Busch’s letting a spot in the 12-driver playoffs might have been worse. With a spot in the Chase For The Cup seemingly sewn up, he had a disastrous race just prior to the Chase and allowed Jeff Gordon to slip in ahead. “It was pretty bad,” Bill said of Busch’s collapse. “He’s got to learn to calm down…he’s got a temper, when things go wrong he pouts and he tends to screw up.” Busch has only cracked the Top 10 three times since 2007—obviously not bad, but it leaves me surprised that he’s only priced at 8-1 to win the whole thing.
Kahne had a huge breakout year in 2012. With only one previous Top 10 finish (2006) and never having reached the top five, Kahne reached fourth place overall. But the big surge has left Bill—a Kahne fan—concerned. “He hasn’t been consistent year-to-year,” Bill told TheSportsNotebook. We’ll see if 2012 was a fluke or a sign of a true breakout.
As for Hamlin, 2012 will be the year of what might have been. He was one of the drivers breathing down Johnson’s neck in the stretch drive, but things went wrong and Keselowski moved in ahead of him. “Luck was not with him at the end,” Bill said. “He had a chance, but it was a tough ending.” Hamlin finished sixth.
Five drivers who have either won the Cup or least come close are priced at odds of 10-1 or higher. In all of these cases, I’m surprised to see them behind the drivers one tier above.
Matt Kenseth (10-1, 8-1), Jeff Gordon (10-1, 12-1), Tony Stewart (12-1, 8-1), Carl Edwards (12-1, 20-1), Greg Biffle (12-1, 20-1).
Here’s the particulars on these five…
*Kenseth was at or near the top of the standings most of last year. After winning the Daytona he didn’t have a lot of other wins, so when the playoffs came and the standings were re-calibrated to reward wins, he slipped, but this is still a driver who clearly demonstrated his ability to win the biggest race and maintain consistency throughout. “Now it’s about how he and his new team mesh,” Bill said, regarding Kenseth’s highly publicized move to leave the Roush Fenway team and join Joe Gibbs Racing. As for myself, I’m a Red Sox and Redskins fan, so I’m not sure how to react to a choice between the Fenway Racing Group (yes, the same owners who run the Red Sox) and the group owned by the Hall of Fame NFL coach who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl victories.
*Gordon might be at the end of his career, having not won a Cup since 2001, but he’s been in the top 10 each of the last five years.
*Stewart is only a year removed from the 2011 title, he also won it all in 2005 and 2002, and took second in 2001. And he’s been in the Top 10 every year. “Last year was a letdown,” Bill said, regarding Stewart’s ninth-place finish. “But he’s got a strong team.” Again, I ask—is he really a longer shot to win the whole thing than Kyle Busch? Please.
*Carl Edwards had the toughest of years in 2012, missing out on the playoffs, so of all the drivers in this group, he’s the one where I get the longer odds. But he was this-close to beating out Stewart in ’11, with a tiebreaker settling the championship. Edwards was second in 2008 and fourth in 2010. “I would look for a very good year,” Bill opined, sensing a turnaround in store—if nothing else, based on better luck.
*Greg Biffle joined Kenseth at or near the top of the leader board all summer in 2012, has three Top 10 finishes in the last five years, with two of those being in the top five. He was arguably the most consistent driver in the sport last year, but just couldn’t get the wins. “That’s what I like about the points system.” Bill said regarding changes made a couple years ago to re-emphasize actually winning races and not just generically finishing strong. While praising Biffle’s consistency, Bill believes NASCAR was right to put the focus on getting wins. If Biffle just closes a little better in 2012, he’s got a chance to cash in at 12-1 come November.
Martin Truex (15-1, 25-1), Clint Bowyer (15-1, 18-1), Dale Earnhardt Jr (15-1, 10-1), Kevin Harvick (25-1, 10-1), Joey Logano (40-1, 30-1).
You can make a pretty good case that Logano shouldn’t be mentioned with any of these other drivers and I would respect that view. But the man who put his first full year on the circuit in 2009 is the last driver whose odds are higher than the “Anyone Else In The Field” price, so he made the cut. What he hasn’t done before is make the Top 10, or for that matter, ever get higher than 16th. Truex isn’t quite the same longshot, but his 11th-place finish from last year is still his career-high. He’s unlikely to contend for the championship, but Bill expressed confidence he’d at least improve one more rung and get that first Top 10 finish.
It’s the other three drivers who have their own reasons for being intriguing at this level…
*Bowyer actually ended up second in the standings last year, slipping in between JJ and Keselowski. It broke a string of so-so finishes, and put Bowyer back in the top 5 for the first time since 2008. “He’ll make the Chase again,” Bill said of last year’s runner-up, though he seemed to think winning the championship was a little beyond the pale.
*Earnhardt has the reputation, but Bill pulled no punches in declaring Junior to be an overrated driver who is rolling along on his father’s name. The record backs this up—Junior only has one Top 10 finish in the last five years, topping out at seventh. If you casually follow the sport it would be easy to think he’s much better than he actually is.
*Harvick is the driver that Bill’s high on. He’s been in the Top 10 four times in the last five years, plus a few more times prior to ’08. “One of these years he’s going to win it,” Bill firmly declared. He also likes Harvick’s chances on Sunday in Daytona, along with Stewart, citing both drivers as ones who’ve proven they can win in the chaotic atmosphere of a super speedway.
To bring it back full circle to the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s big story, Bill was supportive of Danica’s long-term chances, but also cautions fans to be careful with expectations. One thing Patrick has going for her is the tough training program she went on last year—even though she raced part-time, she ran on the toughest tracks NASCAR had. It’s something that will bear her in good stead as she continues to learn and take her lumps. Bill felt Danica would finish at least 15th in the final overall standings, something that would at least keep her in the playoff conversation (the top 12 make it) all year lg.
STEPPING UP TO THE WINDOW
After running through the drivers and the odds, I challenged Bill to give some betting advice. With a $100 bankroll, he’d put his chips on Harvick with a fifty-dollar bet at 25-1. Then with the remaining money, you hedge with a $25 wager on Johnson. The logic here is that if the favorite comes through at 4-1 you at least get your original hundred back and break even. And with $25 still to spare, put ten bucks apiece on Edwards and Stewart, and then toss five on Logano just in case the 40-1 shot comes through. We’ll revisit this in November and see if this advice brought home any profit.
In the meantime, another NASCAR Sprint Cup season is ready to roll. Let’s settle in for a long nine-month ride.