Beaver’s Best Bets for the Geico 500

Odds can change quickly.

On Tuesday, there were only two drivers with odds less than 10/1 for the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. On Wednesday, there was only one. Denny Hamlin retained his +700 odds while Joey Logano moved from +900 to +1000. Favorites are hard to come by on a track where a single mistake in the draft can have major implications.

While they don’t happen every single time the series hits the aero-restricted superspeedways of Talladega Superspeedway or Daytona International Speedway, accidents involving 10 or more cars can thin the field quickly. If that accident happens on the last lap, anyone can win.

This February, Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500. In summer 2019, Justin Haley guessed correctly on a rain-delay and won the Coke Zero 400. Last year, he was 11th in the fall Talladega race.

Mistakes do not always contribute to ‘Big One’ crashes. Drivers who attempt to make an ill-timed pass without any drafting help can drop from the top five to the back of the pack in a lap or two instead. Meanwhile, a driver who finds the right help can move forward quickly.

A lot can happen on the tapered-spacer tracks and a driver’s strength is not the only factor that contributes to success. In fact, strength is often weakness since it puts his car in the eye of the storm.

Proposed Winner

This week’s favorite hasn’t scored a top-10 at Talladega or Daytona in seven races. But that almost changed this February before he was knocked out of contention by his teammate.

Logano (+1000) was leading the Dayton 500 on the final lap when he was spun from behind by Brad Keselowski. The driver of the No. 2 has made no secret of the fact that he does not like to be blocked and he put his bumper where his mouth is. As Logano came down to protect his spot and put himself in position to win, he was turned sideways in front of the field. Most of the favorites that day were collected while McDowell, Chase Elliott, and Austin Dillon squeezed through.

Logano’s average finish of 20.6 over the past seven years does not accurately reflect his strength. In the seven races preceding that span, he accumulated six top-fives. One of these was a victory in the 2018 edition of this race. Logano’s string of bad luck has to end eventually.

Best Bets for a top five

Ryan Blaney (+1000) picked up the mantle for Team Penske when Logano dropped it. He won back-to-back Talladega races in fall 2019 and in last year’s first race on the track. He finished second in the 2020 Daytona 500 and was sixth in the Coke Zero 400. As with his teammate Logano, he has not finished well in the last two races, but will contend for the win if he stays out of trouble.

On the other hand, Elliott (+1000) does have some big track momentum on his side. He enters the weekend with three consecutive top-fives on this track type. Elliott won the 2019 Geico 500 and was third in this race the previous season. The only word of caution is that he sometimes lacks patience in the draft and can get shuffled backward with an ill-timed move.

Hamlin (+700) has a much longer streak to his credit. He finished third in the fall 2019 Talladega race and has not been outside the top five since. He won last fall with odds of +900. Then – as now – he was the only driver below the 10/1 mark. He hasn’t given oddsmakers any reason to doubt him and we have to go along with their assessment.

Longshot: Talladega and Daytona are similar enough to make them great comparatives, but the tracks are different. Slightly longer and wider, the superspeedway in Alabama gives drivers a little extra room to maneuver. Every now and then a driver excels on one and struggles on the other. Erik Jones (+6600) swept the top five on this track last year with a fifth in the first race and a runner-up to his then-teammate Hamlin in the fall event. The argument against him is that he is not in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment this year, but Richard Petty Motorsports has had a measure of success on the big tracks as well.

Best Bets for a top 10

One of the drivers who gave Petty as lot of success on aero-restricted superspeedways was Aric Almirola (+2000). In his last four attempts with them on this track type, he scored three top-fives and an eighth. This is part of an eight-race streak of top-10s at Talladega that resulted in a win in 2018 and an average finish of 5.1. Unfortunately he was involved in an accident early in the YellaWood 500 and finished 37th, but racers have short memories for the bad stuff and can rebound quickly. It’s time for Stewart-Haas Racing to shine.

If we are going to handicap based on strength instead of simply raw finishes, it would be unfair to drop Keselowski (+1200) from the likely top-10 contenders. Five of his six plate wins came at Talladega, but the most recent of these was earned in 2017. That is about the same time he proclaimed he would wreck anyone who tried to block him. Since that last win, he has been eliminated or severely slowed by crash damage in seven of the last 13 races on this track type.

It’s easy to underestimate William Byron (+2000) given his relative inexperience at the Cup level. It pays to note that he rose quickly through the ranks because Rick Hendrick saw so much potential in the Young Gun, however. Byron got off to a slow start on this track type with results of 20th or worse in his rookie season. Since then he has had more results outside the top 20 than inside the top 10, but like Keselowski and Logano, he has competed near the front of the field before experiencing trouble.

After such a bad race last week at Richmond Raceway, Kyle Larson (+1500) has something to prove. That will either make him tenacious in the draft or reckless. One way of the other, it’s going to be exciting to watch him in the pack and if he triggers an accident it will undoubtedly affect a high percentage of the top-ranked drivers as well.

Longshot: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (+2500) developed a reputation as an aero-restricted superspeedway master early in his career with six top-15s in his first seven races. That four of these came with crash damage to his car only added to the mystique. Since joining JTG-Daugherty Racing last year, he has only one more solid run, but that was a second in this race. He paid the price in the fall with a crash that eliminated him on Lap 8 of the YellaWood 500.

Notable Others

Christopher Bell (+2500) has come on strong in recent events and has a big pack of teammates to help him in the draft, but he’s wrecked in three of his five plate races.

Kurt Busch (+2800) has a great reputation as a plate racer, but he has 10 accidents to his credit in the last 15 races on this track type.

Could this be the week Kevin Harvick (+1800) turns things around? It’s unlikely since Talladega and Daytona are statistically his worst tracks in terms of career-average finishes.

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