Michael Reaves | Getty Images
Michael Reaves | Getty Images

Early season underdogs a boon to sportsbooks, but Las Vegas may be favorite-friendly

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Three races, three long-shot winners.

That’s how the 2021 NASCAR Cup season started, and that’s just fine for the sportsbooks.

Sure, there were some small bets sprinkled on Michael McDowell to win the season-opening Daytona 500, Christopher Bell to take the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 road-course race that followed and William Byron in last week’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but no wagers substantial enough to make a dent in the books’ ledgers, even at the long odds at which those drivers were priced.

“NASCAR’s the one sport that people, especially people who bet the big money, are obsessed with betting the low odds (favorites), so we usually write a lot of money on the lowest odds,” Ed Salmons, who handles the NASCAR oddsmaking at SuperBook USA, said from Las Vegas, site of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM). “Guys like Byron (a 30-to-1 underdog at Miami), who maybe win once a year, they kind of get forgotten. He was definitely forgotten (last Sunday), which was good for the house.”

So were Bell and McDowell.

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The wild finish in the 500 – that saw Joey Logano (12-to-1) and Brad Keselowski (12-to-1), first and second place respectively under the white flag, crash in the final lap, allowing McDowell to move into the lead – worked out well for the SuperBook.

“That was awesome,” Salmons said. “They (bettors) came in and bet $5,000 on (Denny) Hamlin at 10-1, $5,000 on Chase (Elliott) at 12-1 to win that race. Chase wound up almost stealing that thing, but McDowell ended up winning. McDowell we opened and closed at like 80-1, and there was a small amount of money (on him to win) – I’m talking maybe $20.”

A week later at Daytona, Bell closed at 80-1 to win on the road course, “and we had maybe $20 or $30 on him, not a lot, so that was another good race for us,” Salmons said.

Certain long shots, though, can make a bookmaker uncomfortable.

“The bettors will jump on a couple of guys like a Bubba Wallace at 100-1 and it will accumulate, and we’ll be in the hole a high six figures, sometimes seven figures (of liability),” said Johnny Avello, director of sportsbook operations at DraftKings. “We’re not seeing huge, huge money on one particular guy. That doesn’t mean that guys don’t bet five dimes ($5,000) on (Kevin) Harvick at 7-1 or Hamlin at 9-1; it just means that typically large, five-, six-figure bets is not the way this game has been bet, at least up to this point.”

Salmons painted a similar picture at his shop and said large wagers in the outright (to win) market are key to the book’s NASCAR profits.

“We have a few house customers that bet big dollar amounts on NASCAR,” Salmons said. “We had one of our house guys bet $6,000 on Harvick (to win at Miami) at 10-1. He bet $10,000 on Chase Elliott to win the road course race at 9-5. So there are some big-money bets that keep your futures book going.”

Josh Bilicki may create some sweat for Circa Sportsbook in downtown Las Vegas, as the CEO of Dollar Loan Center wagered $10,000 on the 1,000-to-1 shot with the promise to pay off all Nevada customers’ loans with the $10 million hit if the No. 52 finishes in front.

Wide open in Vegas

While dark horses have dominated early this season, a return to form looms. That implies it’s time for a driver closer to the top of the odds board to take the checkers Sunday at Las Vegas, but a glance at the numbers suggests a wide-open affair. Not much separates the top four favorites –Harvick is 5-1 at the SuperBook, and Hamlin, Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. all opened at 7-1 – and nine drivers are priced at 12-1 odds or shorter.

“It seems like it’s going to be a really open race,” Salmons said.

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When handicapping the Vegas race, lessons can be gleaned from Miami, another 1.5-mile oval, but there are also key differences between the tracks, and all of that is baked into the odds.

“From what I saw (last week), and the difference here to there, the cautions and the pit stops, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Harvick were picking up like four or five spots per pit stop, which is just huge,” Salmons said. “I mean, track position in Vegas will be huge. It’s not like Homestead where you can start first and be running sixth after a couple laps. This track here, you get the clean air and you’re gone, so that will figure into the price.”

Salmons has his eyes on the Chevrolets this weekend, particularly the Hendrick Motorsports cars, which performed well at Miami after disappointing on the 1.5-milers in recent seasons. Chevys took three of the top four spots last week and five of the top ten. Hendrick drivers Byron finished first, Kyle Larson fourth and Alex Bowman ninth.

“The Chevys ran so well (at Miami). Is that something we’re going to see here?” Salmons said. “And that’s going to be priced into it. Bowman (16-1) and Byron (18-1) and Larson (10-1) and obviously Chase, the best driver of them all, those guys will have lower odds than they’ve had in years past because for whatever reason Hendrick was off on mile-and-a-half speedways for a couple of years, and it looks like they’re definitely coming back.”

Marcus DiNitto is a writer and editor living in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has been covering sports for nearly two-and-a-half decades and sports betting for more than 10 years. His first NASCAR betting experience was in 1995 at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where he went 0-for-3 on his matchup picks. Read his articles and follow him on Twitter; do not bet his picks.