Dale Earnhardt Jr. is returning from a concussion that sidelined him for the the final 18 races last season in NASCAR’s newly renamed Monster Energy Cup Series, but that hasn’t stopped bettors from making him the 3-1 betting favorite in Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.
“They love Earnhardt,” Boyd Gaming sports book director Bob Scucci said. “They bet on him every race.”
A two-time Daytona 500 winner and the active leader in restrictor-plate race wins with 10, Earnhardt is starting the Great American Race in the front row alongside Hendricks Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott. But handicapper Micah Roberts (Sportsline.com) is betting against him.
He likes William Hill’s prop on Earnhardt’s finish position to go over 6½ (minus-135).
“I’m a little down on Hendricks. The handling on those cars don’t seem to have the right balance,” Roberts said. “I also think Junior will be a little rusty from missing those races last season. It’s hard to step in a car and be the best restrictor-plate driver there is. As great as he is, in 65 restrictor-plate races, his average finish is 14th.
“With 40 slot positions, saying he’s going to be in the top six his first time out is a little farfetched for me.”
Roberts likes the Daytona 500 winner to emerge from Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske.
“I really think the Gibbs and the Penske cars are better than anyone else, from a handicapping standpoint,” he said. “They’re just set up better than the rest of the field and have won seven straight plate races between them.
“Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski. Those are definitely the drivers to beat.”
Penske drivers Logano and Keselowski are both listed at 5-1 as the second choice behind Earnhardt. Gibbs drivers are Hamlin (8-1), last year’s Daytona 500 winner; two-time winner Matt Kenseth (10-1); Las Vegan Kyle Busch (10-1); and rookie Daniel Suarez (30-1).
Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner, won the Clash at Daytona on Feb. 19 with the help of Keselowski’s wreck on the final lap of the 75-lap race that was largely dominated by the quartet of Gibbs drivers.
“All the Gibbs drivers, what I like about them is they work really well as a team and all the drivers looked equal at the Clash,” Roberts said. “All four of them were 1-2-3-4 for most of the duration. They led 48 of the last 50 laps with old tires and managed to stay ahead. They got out front together and really nobody could touch them.”
Being a restrictor-plate race, all 40 drivers have a decent shot to win, including Las Vegans Kurt Busch (25-1) and Brendan Gaughan, who is listed at 250-1 at William Hill in his second Daytona 500 appearance. Danica Patrick is 100-1.
“Danica always draws a lot of attention,” Scucci said. “If she ever wins a big one like this, we’ll get crushed.”
Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, is listed at 50-1, and 2011 winner Trevor Bayne is a 75-1 long shot.
Scucci said the annual NASCAR weekend in Las Vegas, scheduled March 11 and 12 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, generates the largest motor sports betting handle of the year.
“(The Daytona 500) is easily the second-most bet,” he said.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.