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Betting on NASCAR 101...By Hartley Henderson

Next week is the start of the 2008 NASCAR season with the Bud Shootout and qualifying for the Daytona 500. While some people would rather watch rain fall than sit through 3 to 4 hours of cars racing, to others NASCAR is exciting, and more importantly, profitable. When talking to bookmakers they will almost unanimously tell you that auto racing has traditionally been one of the worst sports for the house. In fact the first 2 years that offshore sportsbooks allowed betting on NASCAR at the beginning of the decade the house losses were almost 25 percent. As a result of the sports' growing popularity, along with word in betting circles that the sport was easy to beat, NASCAR betting grew in leaps and bounds. However, most sportsbooks no longer rely on sites like LVSC to create their NASCAR odds and instead employ people who are more knowledgeable with how the bettors think. As a result the sport has become somewhat tougher for the bettor to win at, but still presents an opportunity for the savvy NASCAR bettor. This article is intended to provide some basic NASCAR betting strategies to help those who would like to wager on the sport but really don't know what they are looking at. It also could provide some extra ideas for those who are novices.

The first thing to take note of when betting on NASCAR are the different bet types available. All sportsbooks will offer odds for the race itself, but some sportsbooks also offer odds on qualifying. This feature exists exclusively offshore as no Vegas sportsbooks offer qualifying matchups or odds to win the pole. But those bets can actually be easier for the bettor to win than odds on the race. Since a race is generally 400 to 500 miles anything can happen. A car's engine can blow, a driver can run over debris and force him to come in for an early pit stop that usually takes him out of contention, and of course drivers can end up involved in accidents. In qualifying accidents are rare. Driver's run 2 laps of qualifying and the fastest lap counts. Consequently, qualifying usually goes pretty much according to plan. For that reason some bettors prefer to wager on qualifying. The key to handicapping qualifying is to look at driver and team success on the track and similar tracks (i.e. race tracks with similar layouts to the track being run on) for past qualifying sessions. Note that how the driver traditionally runs in the race on the track is irrelevant. All that matters is how well the driver qualifies. For example, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle are generally great qualifiers, but usually struggle in races themselves.

Nevertheless, how a driver tends to qualify at a particular track is imperative to handicapping. For example, if a driver has qualified well at Michigan in the past they will tend to always qualify well at that track and also at California which has a similar design. Obviously recent qualifying efforts are more important than those which occurred years ago, but even past years' results can provide some handicapping help. If a bettor can identify a qualifying matchup where one driver has great qualifying success at the track and the driver he is matched up against tends to qualify below him, it is generally money in the bank to bet the first driver in the matchup.

The other important thing to look for when betting on NASCAR qualifying is whether a race is an impound race. In the past couple of years NASCAR has implemented races where cars are impounded after qualifying and must race in the same setup with which they qualified. This is particularly true for faster tracks and especially the super speedways such as Talladega. In fact in the last 2 years the worst drivers at the track have qualified up front for the second Talladega race. The reason for this fact is fairly simple. In qualifying the cars are setup for maximum speed. For the race itself cars are setup for endurance and for drafting. Consequently, the race setup generally produces lower speeds than does qualifying setup. At the same time, only 43 cars can make a race and upwards of 15 drivers will be required to finish in the top 5 or 6 spots against each other or miss the race. As a result many of the "go or go home drivers" will race a qualifying setup with the understanding that they may have to make major changes during the race in order to last the distance or be competitive. The drivers who are locked into the race, on the other hand, will run race setups which don't require major changes at race time. For that simple reason if a race is an impound race and a driver who is not locked into the field is matched up against a driver who is locked into the field, betting the driver who is not locked in is almost a certain win. In fact in last year's second Talladega race a couple of sportsbooks offered odds to win the pole with "the field bet" at 4/1 odds. The top 8 drivers were all in the field bet and provided a nice return to anyone who figured out the mistake by those books.

While qualifying presents a great betting opportunity, the vast majority of bettors still prefer to wager on the race itself. The key to handicapping races, as almost any expert will attest to, are threefold: past success at the track and similar tracks, qualifying and practice results (especially final practice). Some drivers just have an affinity to do well at certain tracks and this must be taken into consideration. For example, Jimmie Johnson won every race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 2004 and 2005 and has been competitive in every single race he has run at the track. He also is in contention for every race at similar tracks like Atlanta. Similarly, at road courses Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and as of last year Juan Montoya have been dominant. Betting against them has almost been a waste of money. Also, cars belonging to Roush Racing have dominated races at Michigan and Homestead-Miami and there have been similar trends for drivers and teams at other tracks. Learning who does well at which tracks is imperative to handicapping NASCAR and can be learned by looking at past race results, and of course by watching races over time.

The next important statistic to look at is qualifying. It's actually not that significant whether a driver wins the pole or starts in the top 10, but it is relevant whether a driver qualifies well at certain tracks. The reason for this actually has to do with pit selection. At tracks like Bristol and Martinsville driver's who qualify 24th or worse have to pit on the backstretch while the other drivers pit on the front. In the past this has been a huge disadvantage to the drivers pitting on the backstretch, although NASCAR has implemented some changes to even up the pit positions. Regardless, it is still an advantage to pit on the front stretch at those tracks. More importantly though at other tracks there are definite advantages to certain pit stalls due to the ease of getting in and off of pit lane while other pit stalls are a nightmare due to the close proximity to the stalls on either side of them. Getting in and out of the pits for those stalls often ends up with longer pit stops and the driver is more at risk of getting into a pit road accident. Not surprisingly the drivers who qualify well take the better pit stalls, while the other drivers get the poor spots. This year qualifying will take on even bigger importance since all races involve the car of tomorrow (COT). What was evident in watching the COT races last year is that passing with these cars is far more difficult than with the old designs. Drivers who were able to get out front with clean air had a huge advantage over those who were caught up in traffic, and for the most part if a driver was too far back in the field near the end of the race it was almost impossible for them to win regardless of the track. Consequently, for races that used the COT drivers who were often content to lay back in qualifying tried harder to get a good starting position. Hence qualifying position will be even more important when handicapping NASCAR this year since every race is now a COT race.

The last piece of data that most NASCAR experts look at when handicapping races is practice speeds, and most importantly final practice (happy hour). In fact one player who bets thousands every race told me that he weighs happy hour practice to at least 75% of his decision on who to bet. Teams will often make changes throughout the weekend and final practice tends to give an indication of how good the car is going into the race. It isn't unusual for a driver to have a terrible first practice and qualifying session, be near the top in happy hour, and dominate the race. It is unusual, however, for a driver to be great in qualifying, lousy in the practice sessions and do well in the race. The one exception to this rule is races on restrictor plate tracks (Talladega and Daytona). For those races the teams are more concerned with getting an aero package in place that can make them competitive in the draft rather than running quick laps. For those 2 tracks happy hour times can be discarded. One other thing to note about happy hour is that a poor time by a driver who tends to do well in happy hour is more significant than one for a driver who almost always does poorly. For example, if Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart have a bad happy hour that is usually more telling than if a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr has a bad time since Earnhardt often has poor final practice sessions, but his team is often able to make enough changes during the race to make him competitive at the end.

The Daytona 500 kicks off the NASCAR season on February 17th. And for some NASCAR bettors they are counting down the days.

Hartley Henderson

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