NASCAR Betting Guide: Pennzoil 400

Christopher Bell made headlines with his win in Daytona, but the betting markets are already underrating him again. How should we bet Bell and others for Sunday's Pennzoil 400 in Las Vegas?

Thus far, 2021 has been the year of the underdog.

Last year, the studs put a barbed-wire fence around victory lane. Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliott combined to win 58.3% of the points-paying Cup Series races, a number that rises to 77.8% if you include Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Through three races this year, only one driver who made the playoffs in 2020 has won, and none of the drivers who advanced past the first round have emerged. William Byron and Christopher Bell weren't totally off-the-wall winners, but seeing the sport's true superstars shutout so far is surprising.

Las Vegas will be a good test of whether we should adjust our approach to betting these races.

Seven drivers enter with win odds of +900 or shorter at FanDuel Sportsbook, meaning their implied win odds are higher than 10%. That's not a small number, and if we're going to see increased parity this year, that's a concern.

As such, we're going to take a longer look at the top end of the odds board here, see if we can squeeze out any value, and then dive into some recommended bets for the week. Overall, it seems like a good race to live in the mid-range once again.

Dissecting the Top

The drivers with win odds of +900 or shorter deserve to be there. They're the top seven drivers in my model, and they have the seven best win odds in my simulations. That doesn't mean they're necessarily worthwhile bets, though.

The two who seem most deserving of their respective numbers are Harvick (+600) and Hamlin (+900). Both show slight value in the win sims (14.5% in the sims versus 14.3% implied for Harvick, 10.6% in the sims versus 10.0% implied for Hamlin), so if you're going to dive into those markets, those are the two you'd want to focus on.

For me, the slight edge belongs to Hamlin for a couple of reasons. First, his odds are longer, meaning betting him better allows us to account for any jump up in parity. Second, this number is likely longer due to Hamlin's track record in Las Vegas. But that track record is misleading.

In 18 races in Las Vegas, Hamlin has never won. He also has just one top-five here in his past eight trips, so clearly, this is not his best track.

But the old data on Hamlin is easy to dismiss. He had a career year in 2020, and it came in his age-39 season, which is where drivers typically hit their statistical peak. Not shockingly, in that career year, Hamlin led 121 laps in the Las Vegas playoff race, had a fourth-place average running position, and finished third. That's race-winning speed, lowering concerns around his track history.

Hamlin had a fast car last week, working his way from the back of the pack all the way up to second before a pit-road speeding penalty derailed his day. This time, he'll roll off sixth. If you want to bet a favorite while accounting for the increased funkiness of 2021, Hamlin's your guy. Harvick is a close second if you decide to forgo Hamlin.

Alex Bowman to Win (+2000)

The issue with Hamlin and Harvick is that the edge you're getting is relatively minimal. If you want a bigger gap between the implied odds and the simulated odds, you have to dip down a bit.

The search for value brings us all the way down to Alex Bowman. He watched his teammate go to victory lane last week, and Bowman has a good shot to follow suit in Vegas.

In the straight-up version of my model (before running it through simulations), Bowman ranks ninth, one spot ahead of Byron. Everybody ranked ahead of him has win odds of +1200 or shorter, and nobody in the top 12 has longer win odds than Bowman.

Now, Bowman does take a slight hit in win odds due to a potential capped ceiling. He has just two wins in his first three full seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, so it's fair to view him more as a consistent outlet than one who will regularly be in victory lane.

Even after making that volatility adjustment, Bowman still winds up winning in the sims 6.3% of the time, a healthy chunk higher than his 4.8% implied odds at +2000.

The key cog for the model's optimism in Bowman is his recent performances at 1.5-mile tracks. He enters with four straight top-10 runs on them, three of which were top-fives. He had a top-10 average running position in all four races, including a sixth-place mark in Las Vegas. That was Bowman's second impressive run at Vegas of the season after he nearly won in the spring, but an ill-timed caution and a poor pit decision pushed him to a 13th-place finish.

If you're wary of Bowman's upside, there is also some value in his podium odds (+550, which is 15.4% versus 16.4% in the sims), but the optimal route here does seem to be betting him outright.

Christopher Bell to Win (+3300)

The swell of attention around Bell following his win lasted a whopping one week. He's back to being a value once again.

The reason for Bell's slide is likely due to a lackluster showing last week. He finished 20th and had a 19th-place average running position, so it's not outrageous to pump the brakes a bit. But we also have to remember why there was buzz in the first place.

This is a young, talented driver who has moved into one of the top organizations in the sport. And even before he had this equipment, he was running well on the 1.5-mile tracks. Of his seven top-10 finishes with Leavine Family Racing, five were on 1.5-mile tracks, including a third-place finish in Texas during the playoffs. Texas and Las Vegas are very different tracks, but Bell proved he knew how to get around these joints.

Every other driver at Joe Gibbs Racing has outright odds of +1200 or shorter. Bell is +3300 despite showing he can hang with his world-class teammates. He's at 4.5% to win in my simulations, so when compared to his 2.9% implied odds, it's obvious that we should go right back to Bell again this weekend. Bell's podium (+900) and top-10 (+130) odds also show value if you want some extra wiggle room.

Matt DiBenedetto to Finish Top 10 (+250)

Let's try this again.

Last week, I was on DiBenedetto to notch a top-10 finish. It didn't go well as he had a 20th-place average running position and finished 28th.

But the logic that put us on DiBenedetto still applies here.

Namely, DiBenedetto was fast on the more moderately banked 1.5-mile tracks last year. All three of his top-fives came on that track type, and they accounted for two of his five best average running positions.

Two of those top-fives came right here in Las Vegas. In fact, he was runner-up both times, sniffing for his first career win.

DiBenedetto didn't have race-winning speed in those spots, which is why I'm not looking at an outright here. But he did have an eighth-place average running position in the fall race, so it wasn't some fluke, either. He was just fast, and he converted that speed into good finishes.

Although DiBenedetto will have to claw his way forward from a 30th-place starting position, that shouldn't be a big obstacle. He started 19th in both Vegas races last year. It has been a rough start to the season, but this is a good spot for DiBenedetto to get back on track and notch a quality points day.

Cole Custer to Finish Top 10 (+250)

Cole Custer had big speed last week. He was running in the top five late and was in seventh before he blew a tire with two laps to go.

Despite that speed, he's still a relative longshot for a top-10 finish. We should take advantage of that oversight.

Custer didn't exactly dazzle in his first season in the Cup Series. He had just seven top-10 finishes, five fewer than any other driver at Stewart-Haas Racing.

It did seem as though Custer improved as the season went along, though, especially on the 1.5-mile tracks. His average finish in the first five races on 1.5-mile tracks was 18.0. Over the final six races, that improved to 15.2, including a win in Kentucky and a seventh in Kansas. Both Kentucky and Kansas fall into the moderately banked 1.5-mile track category, similar to Las Vegas.

This is Custer's age-23 season and second in the Cup Series, so we should expect improvements. We saw flashes of that in Homestead. As long as Custer can avoid late-race trouble again, it's fair to expect him to build on last year's gains on Sunday.