The oddsboard for Monday’s Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway is unlike any other we’ve seen in NASCAR, as bookmakers are valuing dirt experience over skill and equipment for the Cup Series’ first go-round the dirt since 1970.
Kyle Larson has been stellar this season – with a win, a second-place finish and four straight top sevens – but his extensive experience on the dirt is the primary reason he opened as this week’s clear betting favorite, listed at 2-1 odds at SuperBook USA.
A similar story can be told of Christopher Bell. While Bell’s season is off to a fine start, it’s his dirt expertise that prompted oddsmakers to install him as the 7-1 second betting choice.
Ed Salmons, vice president of risk at the SuperBook, acknowledges a race on the atypical surface throws a wrench into the oddsmaking process. Salmons said he relied on past dirt performances – for the drivers who have them, at least – to post his opening numbers.
Larson has two top fives, including a win, in his three starts on the Eldora Speedway dirt in the Camping World Truck Series. Bell has a win, two top five and three top 10s in his three Eldora starts.
“The guys who have run Trucks and gone up to Cup, I’m familiar with them,” Salmons said. “(Oddsmaking for the Bristol dirt race) is definitely different because you’re not used to guys like Kyle Busch being 20-1; we’ve got Denny Hamlin at 30-1, (Kevin) Harvick 30-1, (Martin) Truex 30-1. So there are names you’re not used to seeing with odds like that.
“But for a starting point, it was pretty easy as far as Larson and Bell.”
“Starting point” is an operative phrase here. Friday’s two practice sessions and Saturday’s four qualifying races will go a long way toward informing the betting market, and the odds are bound to see significant swings after bookmakers and bettors watch how the teams perform.
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No-names in the mix
In another oddsboard anomaly, dirt-racing specialist Mike Marlar, who is making his Cup Series debut, opened a substantial -135 favorite (bet $135 to win $100) in a matchup prop over 22-year series veteran Ryan Newman (+115, or bet $100 to win $115). Marlar, who’s piloting the No. 66 MBM Motorsports Toyota this weekend, is 30-1 in the outright market, the same odds as aforementioned heavyweights Hamlin, Harvick and Truex.
Salmons recalls Marlar’s fourth-place performance in a Reaume Toyota at Eldora from 2019.
“My notes on him said if he ever got in decent equipment, he could win. Now we’re talking Trucks, not Cup, but I was impressed with him,” Salmons said. “So I have (his odds) low because when I write a note like that to myself, I’ll remember it.”
Stewart Friesen, winner of that 2019 Eldora race, opened at 16-1 odds this week and is one of just six drivers listed under 20-1 at SuperBook USA. Chase Briscoe, who has a first-, third- and seventh-place finish in his three Eldora outings, has been adjusted to 12-1 after opening 14-1. Stewart-Haas’ Briscoe, of course, is in more formidable equipment than Friesen’s Spire Motorsports’ Toyota.
“The hardest ones (to handicap) are guys like Friesen, who are driving for these underfunded teams. I have no idea if their equipment can last the whole day,” Salmons said.
Conversely to Friesen and Marlar, Team Penske’s Brad Keseloswki has not impressed on dirt, finishing 28th in his lone start at Eldora in 2015.
“He was just really bad,” Salmons said. “If this was a regular Bristol race, he’d be probably 6-to-1, and he’s 60-to-1.”
Put 39 drivers on a half-mile track covered in dirt, though, and the unexpected can happen.
“All the guys that are less than 100-1, I would say in a perfect world they could win,” Salmons said. “Usually in a NASCAR race, after essentially like eight guys, it’s hard to win a race. These odds are saying like 25 guys could win. I mean, Larson could get wrecked; it could just happen out of nowhere. And if he’s out, then the race opens up. And if something happens to Bell, then the race would really be wide open. There’s definitely a lot of uncertainty to it.”
How sharp bettors are approaching Bristol
A race on the dirt does not fit neatly into the statistical models of professional NASCAR bettors who use a quantitative approach to handicapping. Those models rely on data culled from similar track formats, so there’s not much to go on this week. Sharp bettors, therefore, plan to either tread lightly or stay away completely from the Food City Dirt Race.
“That’s probably one I’m just going to crack a beer and sit back and watch,” pro bettor Zack White said earlier this month. “I used to try to bet just about every race, maybe save the superspeedways, but these days there’s probably about only half the schedule that I really take the time and dive deep into, where I’m still finding some edges. So a brand new race at Bristol on dirt is probably one I’m not going to try to dive too deep into.
“But I think it’ll be an enjoyable race for sure. I’m definitely gonna watch it.”
Blake Phillips, another sharp NASCAR bettor, will have some action on Monday’s race.
“I’m not going to be laying off. I’m going to be paying really close attention to the Truck race, (but) I’m probably going to tread lightly,” Phillips said. “I’m going to be involved. I’ll probably take some positions on it, and I’m going to pay close attention to drivers that I think have the ability to adapt to changing conditions. I’m not going to just go wild on drivers who are big dirt guys. I’m going to look at drivers who are good short-track drivers that are versatile under a variety of conditions, and I’ll see how recent form looks.”
Salmons anticipates sharps showing up after they see how the cars perform on the Bristol dirt.
“After the practices, I think people will have a lot more opinions,” Salmons said. “Outside of what drivers have done recently and history at a track, without practice, it’s hard to (handicap).”
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.