Thursday night, NASCAR hosts their third consecutive 1.5-mile race in a row and the second in five days. That repetition is good for drivers and bettors alike since it replaces the lack of practice to some degree. While the last two races have been won by dark horse contenders with Cole Custer taking Kentucky and Austin Dillon holding off a determined field through multiple late-race restarts, several of the favorites were able to work their way into contention after struggling for part of the day.
Kansas joined the schedule in 2001. By 2011, the attendance was great enough to expand to two races per year and that gives teams and drivers a thick set of notes. Since the track went to two events, there have been quite a few multiple winners. Often the wins come in close proximity. Twice, drivers posted back-to-back wins with Matt Kenseth (+8000) doing so in 2012/2013 and Martin Truex Jr. sweeping the track in 2017.
Last year, however, both the spring (Brad Keselowski) and fall (Denny Hamlin) winner finished outside the top 15 in the other race. One reason for that was the spring race was a bit of an anomaly with three of the favorites, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Truex finishing outside the top 10. All three rebounded in the fall when playoff contention was on the line.
Chase Elliott (+650) remains one of the favorites to win the championship, currently ranked third behind Harvick and Hamlin. If he is going to live up to that, he’s going to get rid of the peaks and valleys that have marked this season. And, he’s going to have to win races that he is expected to win.
Every race in the playoffs is important. Two years ago Elliott solidified his spot with a victory in the fall Kansas race. Last year, he finished second in that same race. With fourth-place finishes last spring and in fall 2017, he has four top-fives in the last five races on this track.
In order to put himself in a position to win, he’s going to need to establish and maintain track position, which could make him a good bet to lead the field in at least one of the two stages. He will also need to make certain to be on one of the first two rows for any late-race restarts because he is among the least skillful coming back to green.
Best Bets for a top five
It’s hard to bet against Kevin Harvick (+400) during any week, especially when he has the kind of momentum he is currently experiencing. If you’re going to fade him, however, Kansas is a good place to do so based on his recent record. Yes, Harvick has three wins on this track with the most recent coming in spring 2018. Since then, he has failed to crack the top five with a best of ninth. At -500, Harvick is heavily favored to finish in the top 10. This may be a good week to place a little money against him because he finished 12th and 13th in two of his last three Kansas starts.
Kyle Busch (+750) could not have been happy to hear this week’s announcement that NASCAR will not have practice or qualification for the remainder of the year. His performance at the end of last week’s O'Reilly 500 suggests that he is getting better at adjusting to these conditions. He needed a little luck in the form of a well-place caution flag, but he got the most out of his stricken Toyota by a sheer force of will. That will give him another opportunity to finish among the top five, but we’re betting his current winless streak will extend to 19 races. Busch has finished in the top five at Kansas in seven of the last 10 races and the only time he failed to crack the top 10 was because of crash damage in this race last year.
Longshot alert: Last week we claimed Erik Jones (+2500) would be one of the top dark horses based on his Texas record. He failed to cover his +600 odds to finish in the top three, but he performed well with a sixth-place finish. He will be just as strong this week. Jones enters the week with four consecutive top-10s at Kansas; two of those were top-fives, including a third-place finish in this race last year.
Ryan Blaney (+700) was reminded yet another time that “it ain’t over till it’s over.” While several drivers were on an alternate pit strategy, Blaney was caught off the lead lap when a rookie driver brought out a late-race yellow. Blaney had the car and the skill to get back to the front, but he lacked the time to do so when the traction compound created a single groove track. Kansas has not been kind in recent years. After sweeping the top five in 2017, he’s finished outside the top 20 in three of his last four starts.
Best Bets for a top 10
Denny Hamlin (+800) is the most recent Kansas winner. It’s difficult to think of him as a favorite again this week, however, given his recent performance in the last two races on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks. He finished 12th at Kentucky and last week was a non-factor at Texas before crossing under the checkers 20th. His ranking as the sixth-highest driver in Draft Kings sportsbooks odds comes as the result of a string of top-five finishes in 1.5-mile races following the COVID-19 return, but it should be noted that four of the seven events run so far this year on the track type were outside the top 10. Hamlin finished 16th in last year’s spring Kansas race.
Several pundits suggested the O'Reilly 500 was Aric Almirola’s (+1800) to win. We predicted a top-five finish. He didn’t live up to that, but he ran well nevertheless and scored his third consecutive top-10 on a 1.5-mile track. More impressive still, this was the seventh straight race in which he finished 10th or better. For the Super Start Batteries 400 he should be downgraded slightly. With a pair of results outside the top 10 at Kansas last year, he is unlikely to finish in the top five, but a top-10 should be within reach.
Joey Logano’s (+1300) inconsistency is reflected in his outright odds to win. At 13/1, he doesn’t engender a lot of faith from the bookmakers, and given the struggles of this team in the past couple of months, it is hard to argue with them. Last week at Texas he showed a glimmer of his old self when he raced door-handle-to-door-handle with Kyle Busch. If he gets out of Kansas with a top-five, he is likely to be a better bet at New Hampshire next week.
Martin Truex Jr. (+650) is still considered one of the best drivers on 1.5-mile tracks. That is apparent in odds that tie him with Elliott for second-best at Draft Kings. It is difficult to rank him much higher than a top-10 threat, however, because he and the team have been making too many mistakes recently. When they avoid mistakes, they have been unlucky enough to get involved in accidents. The best bet this week is to observe him from a distance and take notes for future races on this track type.
Longshot alert: One might be tempted to write off a single strong run as an anomaly. Tyler Reddick (+3300) enters the weekend with three consecutive top-10 finishes. Last week, he challenged teammate Austin Dillon for the checkers and almost gave NASCAR back-to-back rookie winners. That is not the only reason we believe he could earn another top-10, however; last fall he finished a surprising ninth at Kansas in only his second Cup start. He seems to have a knack for this type of track. Reddick’s opening odds to finish in the top 10 are set at +115.
Good Values outside the top 10
It was a toss-up as to whether Reddick or Matt DiBenedetto (+5000) should be this week’s dark horse to finish in the top 10. DiBenedetto was running well last week before he sustained crash damage from Quin Houff (+200000), but he still has only two top-10s in seven 1.5-mile races. With +140 odds to finish in the top 10, he deserves a modest wager there.
There have been a lot of dark horses in recent weeks and when that happens, someone has to be displaced. Brad Keselowski (+1000) won this race last year, but he has been inconsistent at Kansas with results outside the top 10 in half of his starts going back to 2016.
Kurt Busch (+2500) is in a similar category as Keselowski. It will not be a surprise to see him in the top 10, but in four of the last seven races he has finished just outside that mark. It’s safer to bet on him finishing in the top 15.
Last year Clint Bowyer (+5000) scored six top-10s on 1.5-mile tracks in 11 races. In the first seven events on this track type in 2020, he’s been shut out – although he’s come close four times with results of 14th or better.
Jimmie Johnson (+3300) probably deserves to be a little higher in this week’s rankings, but it’s impossible to know what hardship waits around the Kansas corners.
Alex Bowman (+2200) finished second in this race last year. He was ninth in fall 2018 and 11th last fall, which gives him three great races that should have built a solid notebook.
With a top-five finish last fall at Kansas, William Byron (+5000) has confidence entering this weekend. He has only one "cookie-cutter" top-10 this year, however.
Chris Buescher (20000) needs a strong run to reestablish himself as a playoff hopeful. Last year he finished 10th in the spring at Kansas and was 13th in the fall.
Austin Dillon (+6600) can relax a little now that he has a win, but he can’t let up much since there is still a mathematical chance that not all winners will make the playoffs.
Christopher Bell (+8000) has three top-10s in seven races on 1.5-mile tracks, which makes him more than just an idle curiosity this week.