Makinen: Food City Dirt Race betting preview

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A handful of races on each NASCAR yearly schedule naturally mean more than others. The Daytona 500, of course, tops them all, but the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte, the Southern 500 at Darlington, and any race at Talladega is just behind. Then there is the action at Bristol, the circuit’s shortest track. Bristol’s races have been widely known for their competitiveness and the beating and banging that occurs because of it. Two years ago, NASCAR added a whole new equation to the racing at Bristol, choosing to convert the track for its annual spring race to a dirt surface. Most drivers hadn’t raced for years on dirt, and if they did, it was typically only for fun or charity. Sure, many of the drivers cut their roots on regional dirt tracks throughout the country, but throwing 39 of the world’s best drivers on a new and untested surface at the World’s Last Great Colosseum seemed like an insane idea at the time. Suffice it to say, the two races run here under the dirt conditions have been intriguing. For 2023, throw in some Easter holiday pageantry, and it makes the Food City Dirt Race must-see and must-bet, TV.

Two years ago, the inaugural dirt race at BMS marked the first such race in the series in over 50 seasons. I recall wondering at the time whether it was worth trying to predict who might have a shot to win or run up front. As a race bettor, I had to admit I never felt less competent in making a prediction. There was no past track or race designation data to go off of. Fortunately, since then, we have had two past races to go off of and nearly a year-and-a-half of performance results from the teams and drivers running the next-gen car. This has led to my simulations performing better than ever in the first seven races of this young season.

Plus, we will have qualifying races on Saturday night to help us interpret which drivers have the best feel for getting around the half-mile track in preparation for Sunday. Unfortunately, the track events at BMS for Friday, which were to include two practice sessions, were rained out. For those wondering, when this occurs, I assign equal practice ratings to all drivers.

Before digging into some of the info nuggets that might help us get a better handle on the Food City Dirt Race handicapping, here is a quick review of what we’ve seen so far this season. At the season-opening Daytona 500, underdog Ricky Stenhouse took the checkered flag, emerging after last-lap chaos that knocked the frontrunners at the time, specifically leader Joey Logano. At Fontana, the season’s second race went to Kyle Busch, who won his first race for his new Richard Childress Racing team. Since then, William Byron (2x), Logano, Tyler Reddick, and most recently, Kyle Larson took home checkered flags. In terms of the overall standings, which have been impacted by penalties to various teams in the early going, Ross Chastain leads, followed by Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick. Ironically, none of those top 3 have won a race yet, although I feel with Bell, that trend could end on Sunday.

Before last year’s running at the Daytona Road Course, it had been over a decade since the circuit took on a new track or track layout. Strangely, for 2021, there are four other fresh looks on the slate besides the Bristol Dirt Track. We will also see new events in Austin, Nashville, Elkhart Lake, and the Indianapolis Grand Prix course. At those facilities, we will at least be able to point to similar tracks for past key statistics, as three are road courses, and one is a short track with a familiar layout. The race at Bristol this week has no relation to anything we’ve seen, which leads me to my first of six key handicapping factors to consider. Let’s go through them one by one.

Prior to the first race at Bristol Dirt Track in 2021, I felt that experience in dirt racing would be huge. A lot of Midwest drivers have a rich resume of running and faring well on dirt tracks. You’ll find the names Chase Briscoe and Bell listed often in this regard if you do a Google search. Larson and Busch are known for playing around on these tracks in their spare time, as are other drivers such as Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Reddick, and Stenhouse.

 

What have we learned in the first two races on the Bristol Dirt Track?

Besides the wins by Logano and Busch in the first two races at this arrangement, we have learned that these races are a test of survival. Avoiding trouble is paramount and, unfortunately, tricky. Being the shortest track on the circuit, there is much more dealing with laps cars at Bristol than other tracks. A driver can run his own race to the best of his ability and still be impacted by a mistake from a driver 20 or 30 spots back. This is definitely a wrench thrown into the handicapping process. Also, starting position has not proven to be as important as being able to work in traffic and make passes. In fact, Logano and Busch started 10th and 11th in their two wins. However, both did lead each race in Driver Rating, proving that what happens in the scheduled 250 race laps is most important. Of the two winners, only Busch spent just a single lap outside the Top 15 in their victories, so being consistently in contention is important.

 

Who are the statistical leaders in the first two races at Bristol Dirt Track?

These are the leaders from the first two races run on this configuration in some categories I deem to be key in analyzing race data:

 

Steve’s Track Handicap Ratings

  1.    Christopher Bell – 125.8
  2.    Joey Logano – 122.4
  3.    Denny Hamlin – 120
  4.    Tyler Reddick – 111.1
  5.    Kyle Busch – 104.4

Average Running Position

  1.   Joey Logano – 5.0
  2.   Tyler Reddick – 8.5
  3.   Daniel Suarez – 9.0
  4.   Ryan Blaney – 10.5
  5.   William Byron – 11.0

Total Number of Fastest Laps (out of 503)

  1.   Martin Truex – 40
  2.   Kyle Larson – 33
  3.   Chase Briscoe – 31
  4.   Denny Hamlin – 29
  5.   Tyler Reddick – 28
  6.   Daniel Suarez – 28

Total Laps Run in Top 15 (out of 503)

  1.  Joey Logano -503
  2.  Tyler Reddick – 450
  3.  Chris Buescher – 450
  4.  Ryan Blaney – 392
  5.  Daniel Suarez – 351

Average Finish Position

  1. Joey Logano – 2.0
  2. Tyler Reddick – 4.5
  3. Ryan Blaney – 6.5
  4. Daniel Suarez – 8.0
  5. Kyle Busch 9.0

Steve’s Last 10 Overall Ratings (Momentum)

  1. William Byron – 106.4
  2. Kyle Larson – 105.4
  3. Joey Logano – 102.3
  4. Ross Chastain – 97.7
  5. Christopher Bell – 97.3

Honestly, anyone appearing on any of the lists above should be in the hunt on Sunday. However, if you’re looking for a few of my top picks for Sunday heading into the weekend (before qualifying on Saturday night), here are some of my top predictions, with odds courtesy of DraftKings:

Top 5: Bell (+650), Logano (+1000), Hamlin (+1800), Reddick (+600), Briscoe (+1000)

Top longshots: Hamlin (+1800), Truex (+2500), Suarez (+2500), Ty Gibbs (+8000)

Favorites to struggle: Chastain (+1500), Harvick (+4000), Erik Jones (+15000)

I will have my final race simulation for the Food City Dirt Race available on VSiN.com sometime between the wrap-up of the qualifying races on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. I will also offer my final race analysis on Sirius XM’s Fantasy Racing Preview show with Brendan Gaughan on Sunday before the race at 4:30 PM ET. If you have the time and wherewithal, I would appreciate you tuning in.

For those of you that think every race is the same or it’s “boring until the end”, I can assure you that this race will not be. Do yourself a favor and give it a watch. If you’re up for it, place a few bets at the window as well. That will spice it up even further. Just realize like a bunch of 10-year-olds playing in the dirt, things are bound to get messy. Enjoy!