NASCAR Preview: Denny Hamlin eyes third straight Kansas win

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BetMGM Jun 16, 2021, 2:20 PM
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, during the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 October 2020

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney stand out as favorites in NASCAR betting for this Sunday’s NASCAR race at Kansas Speedway, however, the 1.5-mile tracks haven’t been kind to those with the fastest cars. Drivers with reliably good passing ability could distance themselves from the pack in a close, competitive tilt.

Let’s take a quick recap on how drivers have performed recently and how they stand in the latest NASCAR betting lines.

Quick Recap: Elliott heads to semi-finals courtesy of Charlotte race win

Chase Elliott won last Sunday’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, tying Jeff Gordon’s record mark for four straight road course wins in NASCAR’s premier series.

More importantly, his win also launches him into the semi-final round of this year’s playoffs, which begin this Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Joining Elliott among the final eight are Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Kurt Busch, and Alex Bowman. Harvick is the current favorite in the NASCAR odds this week for the championship.

Elliott’s team maintains its status as the fastest in the Cup Series, as calculated by Motorsports Analytics, however, the schedule shifts to Kansas Speedway, a traditional 1.5-mile oval this Sunday. While Elliott is a former winner at Kansas and his team ranks third in Central Speed, he lacks the advantage he had in last weekend’s road course race. The parity this year on tracks like Kansas, Las Vegas, Homestead, and Atlanta—all similarly distanced—has been real, with wins swung by slight peripheral strengths.

Competition for the win at Kansas will be as thick as the odds suggest. The two fastest teams this season on 1.5-mile tracks, those of Ryan Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Truex, have gone winless on facilities falling into this designation. Alternative methods of winning beyond raw speed – pit strategy, passing, and restarting – have supplied advantages to those with a speed deficit. Austin Dillon conquered the 1.5-miler in Texas earlier this season with the 15th-fastest car in the race after eschewing a pit stop for fresh tires in the waning laps.

Denny Hamlin hunting his third consecutive Kansas victory

The track’s defending winner, victorious in July without the benefit of the fastest car, is nearing a milestone.

Denny Hamlin embarks on Kansas this weekend seeking his third consecutive victory at the track. His spate of wins, a bit surprising based on his career record on 1.5-mile tracks, is something he easily explained away this week during a media availability.

“I have a good setup,” said Hamlin. “That’s all I can equate it to because in years past, I haven’t. Kansas has not always been a strong suit. Mile-and-a-halves in general haven’t been a super strong suit for most of my career.”

He has a point: He’s averaged a 13.0-place finish to this point in his career on 1.5-mile tracks, compared to averages of 10.3 on 1-mile tracks, 10.7 on tracks less than one mile, and 11.9 on 2-mile tracks. But he’s also collected 11 wins on 1.5-mile tracks, including three at Kansas.

“I think we’ve got a good grasp on Kansas,” he said. “Nothing really has changed (since the race there last July) other than the tire, and that tire was run at Vegas, so it looks like we’ve kind of accounted for it. I’m as optimistic as anyone should be going into that racetrack.”

The high-downforce, 550-hp rules package utilized by the Cup Series on larger NASCAR tracks including Kansas, has been a polarizing subject for drivers; completing passes has become burdensome for some, but Hamlin is a plus passer with this horsepower package. He ranks ninth among all drivers in surplus passing value on 1.5-mile tracks.

Hamlin sees the merits of the current rules package, but also acknowledges the difficulty in passing for position on this style of track.

“It’s easier and it’s harder,” he said. “It just kind of depends. It allows you to protect more as the leader; however, the runs come, even if the car behind you is slower with the drafts, especially on restarts, it’s easier to pass. So, the net gain or loss is about the same through high downforce and low downforce at some of these racetracks.”

NASCAR’s best on 1.5-mile tracks

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart secured two victories this season on 1.5-mile tracks despite not having the fastest car in those races. Good long-run speed and effective positional defense during a green-flag pit cycle netted Hamlin the win over a hard-charging Elliott in Homestead; Hamlin’s 56.14 percent adjusted pass efficiency, the third-highest mark of the race among those averaging top-30 running positions, helped bridge the gap last summer in Kansas.

The fastest car Hamlin’s had all season on 1.5-milers was seen two weeks ago in Las Vegas. He ranked first in Central Speed, but could only muster a third-place result following an atypical cadence of cautions which shuffled the running order during the event’s final stage. He also earned the second-best adjusted pass efficiency of the race, trailing the driver whose winless record belies his statistical strength.

Ryan Blaney topped the field in adjusted pass efficiency in Las Vegas, the latest bullet point in his favor insisting he’s one of the sport’s best on the 1.5-mile track type. He ranks first this season in Central Speed across nine races falling into this designation, directly ahead of Truex, Elliott, and Logano. Eliminated from the playoffs following the conclusion of the first round, the next two events at Kansas and Texas (Oct. 25) suffice as realistic potential redemption points for him.

Blaney’s improvement this season in long-run passing, going from a minus-1.09 percent surplus passing value (ranked 21st) to a plus-1.03 percent mark (ranked eighth), is a development welcoming to his production profile. It represents a swing of 114 positions on the racetrack this season and a nice complement to his elite numbers on short runs, which features a 66.9 percent position retention on restarts, a rate ranking second in the Cup Series.

Blaney is among the betting favorites this weekend for good reason despite not having a win to his name on the track type most prevalent on the current NASCAR schedule.

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David Smith is a writer and analyst for MotorsportsAnalytics.com and the co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast. Prior to BetMGM, he was a contributor for The Washington Post, NASCAR.com, and The Athletic. He previously served 13 years as a NASCAR driver talent scout on behalf of sports agencies MMI, Spire, and RSMG.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.