There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding last week’s Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Lines opened with the assumption that this event would be like none other during the season, but the newness of the venue and track type encouraged NASCAR to run practice on Friday.
Thank goodness they did.
After practice was in the books, it became increasingly apparent that the dirt track would behave pretty much like a short track. There were some fresh faces among the top 10 and a few of them had a lot of dirt track experience, but with Joey Logano’s victory, Denny Hamlin’s third-place finish, and Ryan Blaney’s eighth, the top-10 had a familiar feel. Despite finishing 19th with late-race issues, Martin Truex Jr. also had a top-10-capable car.
With a one-week break for Easter, the series heads to another short track for what will essentially be a three-race stand on this course type.
Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond Raceway are about as dissimilar as short tracks can be. Bristol is high-banked and now has a dirt iteration. Richmond behaves like a tiny doglegged intermediate speedway. Martinsville is a flat paperclip that has as much similarity to Phoenix Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the two tracks less than a mile in length.
But it’s a rhythm track and with Bristol fresh in the drivers’ minds, the top contenders will find that rhythm again very quickly.
Bristol was not of the best tracks for Truex (+525), but that has not kept him from running well on this paperclip. He got off to a slow start at Martinsville, but as is often the case on this track, once he found the rhythm he took off. Truex finished second in the 2017 Tums 500, swept the top five in 2018, and finished eighth in spring 2019.
Last week, he was great at Bristol before fading at the end.
Truex was not expected to be a dominator in fall 2019 at Martinsville either, but he handily won that race. That performance was enough to cause handicappers to highly regard him in spring 2020 with +550 odds in the spring. He won the Blue-Emu 500 and saw his odds drop to +320 for the fall. This season, dark horses have dominated the first seven weeks and that has made handicappers a little nervous, so Truex is back in the 5/1 range, but he remains their favorite and it’s hard to overlook him in a straight up consideration for the first driver to win two races in 2021.
Best Bets for a top five
Chase Elliott (+625) is experiencing the same learning curve as Truex. In his first five Martinsville races, he scored only one top-10 and two top-15s. The good news was that his spring 2017 attempt ended in a third-place finish behind two of the best short track racers at the time: Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Elliott truly turned the corner in spring 2019 with a second-place finish. Last year he swept the top five and won the fall race with odds of +800.
Ryan Blaney (+800) finished second to Truex last spring and Elliott last fall. In 2019 he also swept the top five, which gives him a four-race streak of strong runs. In 2018, he finished third in this race. It’s easy to say that he is due. More importantly, his odds are attractive enough to give bettors a solid return on investment. In additions, with odds of +225 to finish in the top three, he deserves a side bet to cover the outright wager.
Keselowski (+600) is the second-ranked driver this week and that is an accustomed position on a short track. In the past three seasons he has nine top-fives and 13 top-10s in 17 events. He was out of his element last week at Bristol and yet rallied to narrowly miss the top 10 with an 11th-place result. Last year Team Penske swept the top five in both Martinsville races and that gives them a great set of notes.
Longshot: The 2021 season has been dominated by dark horses. Could it be Matt DiBenedetto’s (+6600) opportunity to win his first Cup race? We’re willing to place a modest bet that could happen. Last year he swept the top 10 in this car with a seventh in the spring and a 10th in the fall. Still, his odds for the 2021 contest opened the same as they closed in fall 2020 at 66/1. Yes, he’s a longshot, but he is one that could provide a huge upside.
Best Bets for a top 10
By his numbers Joey Logano (+725) should be ranked among the top five and if we were not tempted to put a longshot in the final slot of that category, he would be. Coming off last week’s win, Logano has a ton of momentum on his side and he swept the top five at Martinsville last year. Logano has been equally strong at Richmond with top-10s in 71 percent of his starts since 2011. He could keep his momentum going and—like Truex and Blaney—has the potential to be this year’s first repeat winner.
Denny Hamlin (+750) is a short, flat track master. Like Logano, he well deserves attention as a driver capable of finishing in the top five, but last year’s performance on this bullring gives us pause. Hamlin finished 24th in the spring and failed to rebound in the fall with only an 11th-place finish. He had a three-race, top-five streak on this course entering 2020, however, and that cannot be ignored.
Longshot: Kyle Larson (+1300) is not getting a lot of respect this week at Martinsville and based on his track record he doesn’t deserve it. He finished third in spring 2016 and was ninth in fall 2019, which was his last trip to this track. Those are his only top-10s and two of just five lead lap finishes. He’s never been to this track in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, though—and that team has dominated the paperclip with several different drivers. Because of his record, he actually lost 100 points among smart bettors early in the week and dropped from +1200. You need to decide it’s better to be cautious or bold.
Longshot: Alex Bowman (+2800) is standing on the precipice at Martinsville. He has not yet scored a top-five on this course, but he came as close as possible last year with his pair of sixth-place finishes. He was seventh in his first attempt with Hendrick in 2018. Bowman is much riskier than teammate Larson because he is just not getting up to speed in the No. 48 as quickly as expected, but he did score a top-five in the last paved race. That could be the result that commands his attention this week.
Longshot: Kurt Busch (+3300) is another driver with long odds that should be part of this week’s betting strategy. Martinsville has been a great track for him recently and in the past three years he has not finished worse than 12th. He has only one top-five, however. That came last fall. Busch’s list of tracks on which he’s won is varied, so it is difficult to know exactly when he is going to find a special setup. With two previous wins on this track—one of which came as recently as 2014—he’s worth the risk.
It’s been a while since we handicapped Kevin Harvick (+1600) as one of the favorites, but it’s difficult to start at Martinsville. He failed to finish in the top 10 in either race last year and has not had a top-five since 2018.
Kyle Busch (+1200) will become one of the top-five contenders soon, but he has not scored a top-five at Martinsville since 2019 and it’s best to watch him from a distance for a little while longer.