Sean Gardner | Getty Images
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

NASCAR betting: New equipment package complicates Darlington handicap

A perusal of recent results from Darlington Raceway reveals a dominant Kevin Harvick at the South Carolina track. Over the last 10 races there, Harvick has three wins, nine top fives and a head-turning 3.5 average finish. Harvick won two of the three races last year at Darlington and finished third in the other.

When handicapping Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1), however, bettors should be careful how much weight they give to these performances.

RELATED: Odds for 2021 Darlington spring race | BetCenter

That’s because teams will bring the 750-horsepower, low-downforce package to Darlington this year, a change from the 550-horsepower, high-downforce package used the previous two seasons, and the different equipment makes a massive difference in how the race should be analyzed.

Additionally, comparing the unique in size and shape 1.366-mile speedway to 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Kansas — where the 550-horsepower package has been used this season, isn’t of much value.

Last season’s COVID-interrupted schedule is also a factor bettors should consider.

“I wouldn’t rely on hardly anything the drivers did last year at the track,” said Zack White, a professional bettor who specializes in NASCAR. “First of all, the first two (Darlington) races last year were the first ones back from the pause, people kind of scrambled bringing a car to the track, and with no practice and no qualifying, nobody was really sure what they were getting into. …

“And the difference in horsepower is definitely gonna make a big difference here,” White added. “The shorter spoiler is gonna make handling a challenge. I certainly wouldn’t look at other downforce tracks this year, mile-and-a-halves or bigger, where they ran a different package and say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to run that same way at Darlington.’ That’s absolutely not going to happen.”

Harvick, whose Stewart-Haas Ford has had trouble keeping up with the Gibbs/Penske/Hendrick triumvirate this season, opened at 8/1 odds at SuperBook USA in Las Vegas to get his first win of 2021, making him the fifth favorite on the oddsboard.

“I would be surprised if Harvick’s ready to contend for a win,” said Ed Salmons, who handles NASCAR oddsmaking duties at the SuperBook. “I think you’re going to start to see him get top fives all the time, but I don’t think he’s quite ready to win yet.”

“Equipment-wise, there’s some issues going on at Stewart-Haas this year,” White added. “When you look at drivers historically, yeah, Harvick’s going to be at the top of that list, (Denny) Hamlin is going to be at the top of that list of people who have found success at this track. But this year is going to be a different beast.”

Larson tops the betting board

Kyle Larson, who had the best car at Kansas until he got into Ryan Blaney on the restart with three laps to go, opened as the betting favorite for the second week in a row. This week, he’s an even shorter 7/2 (+350, or bet $100 to win $350) to finish in front.

Success at Darlington demands a high level of skill, and Larson has proved he can drive this oval. In his six runs in a Chip Ganassi Chevrolet here, he has five top 10s, including three top 5s, with a 6.7 average finish. This season, he’s piloting a Hendrick Chevy.

“If you look through his runs here, he’s been incredible, and that’s when he was in Ganassi equipment,” Salmons said. “The last two races on 1.5-mile tracks — Atlanta and (Kansas) — he’s been dominant. He didn’t win either one, but he’s just been unbelievably dominant, which you just don’t see in today’s NASCAR. And this is his kind of track, where he can run that really high line, so he was my starting point here. … He seemed like the guy that should be the big favorite in this race.”

White doesn’t sound particularly interested in backing Larson at such a short price.

“Dominating and leading all those laps last week (132) and then his wins at other mile-and-a-halves this year is going to put him at the top as the favorite going to this track,” White said. “I think it’s probably right, but not necessarily for that reason. If this was another downforce race, yeah, but I wouldn’t automatically put him as a favorite with this new package if I didn’t have another angle to look at. I’m not going to be betting him, but I think he’s going to be leading laps. …

“There’s still some drivers that have done well at Kansas and Atlanta that are going to translate and still do well here even though it was a different setup,” he continued. “That’s just because they’re wheelmen, and they got the equipment and they’re good at both packages.”

Is Joe Gibbs Racing separating from the pack?

After Larson on the oddsboard comes a trio of Joe Gibbs drivers: Hamlin, who has yet to win this season but has eight top fives and leads the Cup Series standings, opened 4/1; Martin Truex Jr., who has two wins and is second in points, is 6/1; Kyle Busch, who got off the schneid with his first win of the season last week, is 7/1.

Based largely on the strength of the Gibbs team, the SuperBook prices Toyota as the +155 favorite to be the winning manufacturer, with Chevy +165 and Ford +245. Barstool Sportsbook has Gibbs as the +185 chalk to be the winning team, followed by Hendrick (+200), Penske (+450) and Stewart-Haas (+600).

Salmons shakes some salt on Busch’s Kansas win but anticipates the No. 18 will continue to be a force in this menace of a garage.

“He shouldn’t have won on Sunday, he had more of a third- or fourth-place car, but he had a solid run and he just capitalized on the cautions at the end,” Salmons said.

“(But) the Gibbs cars are running really well this year, and he showed that he can win. Guys like Kyle Busch, it doesn’t take much for them to regain their power rating from where they were in their glory days.”

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.