With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series taking the week off—the next race will be on July 31 from Indianapolis—it gives us a chance to do a few different things this weekend that we haven’t been able to with the week in/week out grind of the never ending stock car racing season. We may take a shot on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races from Nashville on Friday and Saturday night but we won’t have any data or lines to work with until later this week. Until then, we’ll talk about some of the basics of NASCAR betting and handicapping starting with matchup wagering.

First, the basics–similar to head to head golf matchups, NASCAR matchup wagers allow the bettor to pick which driver in a pairing will post the best finish in a particular race. For example, the race at New Hampshire on Sunday offered these pairings among the matchup wagers:

Denny Hamlin -140
Jimmie Johnson +110

Jeff Gordon -125
Kurt Busch -105

To the neophyte, there may seem to be little more than dumb luck involved in picking matchup winners but this is definitely not the case. Not only do some drivers have a better chance to win a particular race than others, but they also have better chances to finish ahead of their counterpart in certain situations. The method in which points are awarded for the overall season championship places a premium on consistently finishing at the front of the pack, so even if a driver isn’t in a position to win a race he has plenty of motivation to keep racing hard and to finish as strong as he possibly can.

Matchup wagers can be used in a variety of different ways. They can be used as a hedge, whereby you bet on a driver to finish ahead of one you have selected to win. More frequently, however, they’re a good way to pick up some profits for a correctly handicapped race even if your driver doesn’t win. It isn’t unusual to “your” drivers finish in the top 5—but not win. Winning a NASCAR race involves a healthy mix of skill and luck, so properly placed matchup wagers can be some insurance against the intervention of fate. Nothing feels better than correctly picking the winner AND cashing all of your matchup wagers, but with proper analysis you can turn a profit on matchups just about every week regardless of which driver actually wins the race.

Shopping around for the best prices is important in any sport, but it’s essential in NASCAR. Not only is it important to shop the monetary lines on the individual matchups, but also the matchup pairings themselves. Some books will pair up different drivers than other books, and these pairings may be more (or less) advantageous than those offered by a competing sportsbook.

The best place to start handicapping matchups is to look at the average finish of each driver on a specific track. There’s a variety of resources that provide this information but one of the best is called simply ‘Driver Averages’ at http://www.driveraverages.com. This site serves up a wealth of data that you can evaluate by driver, track, race, etc. To make it easy, this site features the weekly Sprint Cup race on the front page including both all time average finish among active drivers as well as a breakdown of the most recent (last four) races. On balance, a driver’s recent form at a track is more important in terms of evaluating a matchup than his historical form but most successful matchup handicappers evaluate both giving the more recent performance a greater weight.

Another important reason to consider recent form at a track is that it helps eliminate ‘false positives and negatives’ that can occur when looking at an all time average finish table. Drivers often struggle to win races in the later years of their career as well as in their early years when they’re ‘learning the ropes’. As a result, certain drivers will have average finishes that may be especially good or bad—but that are no longer applicable at this stage of their careers. Additionally, recent form overall is a good thing to take into account. Like every sport, teams and drivers go through ‘slumps’ or ‘hot streaks’ and even have ‘down years’.

Once you determine which driver is more likely to finish better, it becomes a matter of evaluating the prices in a matchup. As a rule, its seldom advisable to lay a big chalk price in any matchup no matter how seemingly lopsided it is ‘on paper’. There’s too many variables at play when you’ve got 43 cars on a racetrack and even if ‘your’ driver has the fastest car that’s no guarantee he’ll win—or even finish—a race. At most tracks you can find very good value positions in matchups that are close to a ‘pick’em’ price and in some circumstances will even find underdogs that have a good statistical chance of posting the best finishing position.

Beyond that it’s not much different than handicapping any other two way wagering proposition. You take into account a statistical valuation, form, motivation (as we discuss from week to week some drivers often enter a race with the ‘goal’ of a top 5 or top 10 finish and aren’t particularly concerned about winning) and public opinion. All of this is evaluated against the prices offered on the matchup to find value and good wagering opportunities. You can also get some good ideas by reading our NASCAR previews where we discuss many of the aforementioned concepts and evaluate the importance of practice times and starting positions.

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