NASCAR Betting Guide: Darlington 400

Admit it. At some point within the past month, you have considered betting on iRacing, marbles, drone racing, or even your neighbor's kids on tricycles. The thought has at least crossed your mind.

Well, friend, it's time to free your brain from the shackles of darkness and bring it back to the light. We've got NASCAR Cup Series action this weekend in Darlington, and our salvation could not have come at a better time.

This weekend's race, though, will be different than what we've been betting on in the past. We're not going to have any practice data to look at, meaning we're operating on a similar level to early-week betting for the entire window before the green flag drops. It's less data for us to work with, but sportsbooks also have to deal with that same issue. We can still find some value even with extra randomness in the fold.

This bets we discussed earlier in the week (still listed toward the bottom of the page) have largely shifted with the starting order being announced Thursday night. So let's circle back and look at which drivers stand out based on the current odds at FanDuel Sportsbook.

Post-Starting Order Update

After drawing the sixth-place starting position, Kevin Harvick's outright odds lengthened to +700 from +500. That's long enough to make him interesting as he is tops in my betting model, edging out Kyle Busch (+470) and Joey Logano (+750). Harvick has two top-fives in the opening four races and has led at least 60 laps twice, so getting him at +700 is interesting.

Jimmie Johnson (+2200) was someone we discussed earlier, but his odds have shortened to be the same as Ryan Blaney's (+2200). That movement makes Blaney the better option.

Blaney has been wretched at Darlington in the Cup Series, never finishing better than 13th. However, he had a fourth-place average running position in Las Vegas (the other intermediate track they've run in 2020), and he had a third-place mark in Fontana (where the tire falloff is similar to Darlington). Track history matters less at spots the Cup Series goes just once per year, so we might be able to bet against it and ride with one of the sport's hottest drivers through the opening four races.

With Matt DiBenedetto's (+2600) value flying out the window, Aric Almirola (+4000) is the only driver starting in the top 12 whose odds are longer than +2900. Almirola is starting fifth and had a top-10 average running position in both Fontana and Phoenix. Almirola is purely a play for starting-position value as he's ranked 15th in my model, but among those with mid-range odds, Almirola seems to have the best shot at claiming a checkered flag.

When looking at the podium odds, the two drivers who stand out most are Kurt Busch (+500) and Chris Buescher (+2800).

Busch ranks fifth in my model, which is higher than I would put him if I were ranking things by hand. However, he has tremendous history at Darlington with a top-nine average running position in three straight races, and he finished top-six in both Fontana and Phoenix before the layoff. This is the preferred market for Busch with his outright odds at +1600.

As for Buescher, this is merely a price-based play. He's +6000 to win the race, so getting extra wiggle room on the podium is helpful.

He also has similarities to DiBenedetto where he's transitioning to a new team and better equipment than he had in the past. Buescher had top-14 average running positions at Darlington in 2018 and 2019 despite that poor equipment, and his upside should now be higher with Roush-Fenway Racing. He'll have to claw his way forward from a 24th-place starting position, but in a race where some wildness and calamity is likely, that's not enough to prevent Buescher from getting a good finish.

Early-Week Recommendations

Joey Logano (+750)

Before the starting order is officially set, three drivers are in a tier of their own within my model. The top two -- Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch -- are both +500 at FanDuel Sportsbook. The third is Joey Logano, whose odds are a smidge longer, giving us a window to buy into the elites.

Logano is already a two-time winner in 2020, grabbing the checkers in both Las Vegas and Phoenix. He also had a top-10 average running position in Fontana and Daytona, giving him an eight-race streak within that mark dating back to last year. That streak includes races at both intermediate tracks and those with heavy tire wear, meaning he should be able to handle a track with such unique challenges as Darlington.

Logano has never won in Darlington before, but he certainly hasn't been bad. He was runner-up in 2018 with a fifth-place average running position, one of three top-fives within the past five races. You're getting the guy who has arguably been the best driver to open the season at +750, which is hard to pass up if you want to bet an upper-tier contender.

Martin Truex Jr. (+950)

(UPDATE: Truex's odds have since shifted to +750.)

Even though Denny Hamlin (+750) won the Daytona 500, it's fair to classify the opening four races as a disappointment for Joe Gibbs Racing. Martin Truex Jr. has been part of that disappointing start, which is why he will be starting outside the top 12 spots when the green flag drops on Sunday. Despite both the sluggish opening and lower starting spot, we can still get behind Truex this weekend.

Let's start with the JGR side of things. The finishes for Truex have been putrid with his best race being a 14th in Fontana, his lone run better than 20th thus far. Bad luck has played a big hand in that, though. Truex has had solid average running positions in all three non-Daytona races (8th in Las Vegas, 9th in Fontana, and 11th in Phoenix) but has slipped due to mistakes on pit road and other miscues that can be easy to correct.

There have also been two months since that Phoenix race. Although shops have been closed most of that time, crews still -- in theory -- could review the opening four races, make tweaks to the cars before Darlington, and unload in a much better spot on Sunday. If any track were to help right the ship for JGR, it would be Darlington, a place they or their affiliated cars have won five of the past seven races. One of those wins was by Truex in 2016 when he was driving for the affiliated Furniture Row Racing.

That doesn't mean we should assume JGR will snap back into place this weekend. But with both Busch and Hamlin holding shorter odds than Truex, he at least gives you more cushion than they do.

The qualifying aspect isn't a big hurdle, either. Truex's teammate, Erik Jones (+1300), won in Darlington last year after starting 15th, and Busch led 118 laps after starting 33rd. Passing certainly isn't easy at Darlington in the new rules package, but they showed last year that it can be done if the car is fast enough.

Thanks to qualifying, you may be able to get Truex at a better number than this later in the week. As such, it's wise to hold off on pulling the trigger and betting Truex right now. But if we get to race day, and Truex is still sitting at +950, that's more than long enough to account for the justified concerns he carries.

Jimmie Johnson (+2800)

(UPDATE: Johnson's odds have since shifted to +2200.)

On the other side of the performance spectrum from JGR in the opening four races was Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman (+1600) took a flamethrower to the field in winning at Fontana, and Chase Elliott (+850) has won three stages, the only driver to claim more than one. Their odds are appropriately short. But Jimmie Johnson has impressed, too, and we can get him at a much longer number.

It is fair to say that Johnson has been in decline the past few years with no wins since 2017. Given that this is his age-44 season (drivers tend to peak in their age-39 season), we shouldn't expect him to magically return to the dominant days of when he was ripping off championship after championship. Still, his runs this year have been noteworthy.

At another track with heavy tire wear in Fontana, Johnson had a fourth-place average running position, the third-best mark in the field behind the winner -- Bowman -- and Ryan Blaney (+2200). Johnson added a top-10 average running position in Las Vegas, which he converted into a fifth-place finish.

Johnson's recent history at Darlington is wretched with no finishes better than 12th since 2014. Finishes, though, can be misleading, as Johnson's seventh-place average running position last year resulted in just a 16th-place finish. He had speed there, his team has been resurgent early in 2020, and Johnson has shown he can still run at the front of the pack. At +2800, it might finally be worth it to start to dabble back in the Johnson waters.

Matt DiBenedetto (+5000)

(UPDATE: DiBenedetto's odds have since shifted to +2600.)

With all of the unknowns at Darlington, this is a good week to take swings at longshots. On Covering the Spread, our sports-betting podcast, PJ Walsh of The Action Network said he was digging Tyler Reddick (+11000) due to Reddick's solid equipment and record at Darlington in the Xfinity Series, and there's some legit reason for interest there. You can justify taking swings like that in what could be an absolutely wild race.

Let's take one ourselves and discuss Matt DiBenedetto.

With this being just the fifth race in the Cup Series season, our sample on drivers in new equipment is small. This means we don't truly know what DiBenedetto's upside is and whether he can claim a checkered flag. Although that's a negative, it's also helping keep his betting odds long.

DiBenedetto has shown several times -- both this year and in 2019 -- that he can at least contend for wins. He finished second this year in Las Vegas and almost won in Bristol last year, leading 93 laps en route to a runner-up. We just haven't seen him close the deal yet. But his equipment now should give him that upside.

DiBenedetto is driving for Wood Brothers Racing, a satellite organization of Penske Racing. He's in at least similar equipment to Logano, Blaney, and Brad Keselowski (+800), and we know those drivers have the juice for a win. DiBenedetto showed in Vegas that he could leverage that into a top-end finish.

He has also proven he can get around Darlington, even in lesser equipment. In last year's race, DiBenedetto finished eighth with a 14th-place average running position. That eighth-place finish was one spot in front of Paul Menard, DiBenedetto's predecessor in the No. 21 car. Thanks to the solid start, DiBenedetto will start within the top 12 slots, and he's the only guy in that group with betting odds longer than +4000.

Basically, you're giving a driver who has flashed talent in new equipment at a track where things could get wild and pinning him at +5000. DiBenedetto's also +7500 in early odds for the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday, so this is just a driver we should broadly be looking to buy the next few races.