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GEICO 500 Preview


Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have combined to win the past four races on the schedule, but they'll have plenty more competition in Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway as up to 35 of the 40 drivers starting have a chance to win.

It's restrictor-plate racing that is the equalizer and we get it in only four races a year, but the 2.66-mile high-banked beast of a layout at Talladega is in a class all its own. So let's get ready for some edge-of-your seat, four-wide, side-by-side racing at over 200 mph.

As much as I enjoy the intensity of races at Talladega, where at any moment the 'big one' can happen, and up to 20 drivers have a chance of winning as they begin the last lap, it's actually one of the least bet races of the season for me just because the track is so volatile. I rarely play driver matchups and my normal cash wagered on odds to win is about about 30 percent less than the 32 non-plate races.
Practices mean nothing in plate races and the drivers I bet on have a much better chance of being involved in a wreck at Talladega than anywhere else. You can be cruising along with your driver, leading a bunch of laps, get shuffled out of the lead pack for a bit of the race and then, Boom! Your driver gets caught up in some other drivers mess that started 18 cars in front. It's a casualty of the track not seen as much elsewhere, which adds a randomness to the ratings equation that I don't like too much.
Because of that randomness and the cars being more equal than any other type of track, the books give you some very fair odds on all the regular favorites, but they also drop the normal 100/1 odds on lower level drivers down to 50/1, because anybody can win. I like narrowing down six drivers a week and then watching them practice and whittle it down to four or five to key on. It's harder here and luck plays a huge role. Crap shoot. Darts. 
But it's a NASCAR race, and we have to bet it. We wait all week and have gone over all the trends. We get fired up because the sheer power of Talladega is intoxicating to watch, and having a bet on any sporting event you plan to watch just makes it bigger, meaningful and justified. "I didn't just waste three hours of my life watching cars go in circles real fast, I was investing for the future."
To begin the handicapping process for Sunday's race, you'll want to start with what happened in February during Daytona speedweeks where Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500. I'll also suggest that you throw out everything that has happened in the past eight races, where JGR cars have been dominating.
The only problem is that the Daytona results all show JGR cars dominating as well. Hamlin won the Daytona 500 by 0.01 seconds over Martin Truex Jr. who was using Gibbs equipment. Kyle Busch was third and Carl Edwards was fifth. Four of the top-five in Gibbs Toyota's with Matt Kenseth finishing 14th after leading 40 laps (second-most). Kenseth is very due to win somewhere.
The best bet to derail the JGR train this week is six-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won this race last season. He's won in three of the past nine plate races and his 960 laps led at Talladega is more than twice as much as second most (Jimmie Johnson 467). He's been close to winning a race (three runner-ups) this season and I like him the most to get it done this week.
I also will surely have a wager on my boy Denny Hamlin. I call him 'my boy' because he drove my bets to the cash window twice in February at 15/1 odds by winning the Sprint Unlimited and Daytona 500 in back-to-back weeks. In my own world, he's like family now -- inducted into my betting Hall of Fame with Terrell Davis. It's been my best score of the year and is enough units to carry me for the season if I don't win another race. There weren't many losses because I basically threw all the chips on the No. 11 for each race. It was part luck, but also part skill with Hamlin who leads the series with a 9th-place average finish in the past nine plate races. He won this race in 2014, and his team has this plate package figured out. He won't be able to use his winning Daytona 500 chassis because it's on display for fans in Daytona, so the Sprint Unlimited winner will be used.

There's no bad bet at Talladega until it loses. The cars are so bunched up and so equal that all it takes is being able to stay close and make that winning move on the last lap. With luck being so huge, I often rely on a myriad of hexes and midstream change of game day gear to help get my contending driver get that little extra push from Lady Luck.   
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6/1)
2) #19 Carl Edwards (12/1)
3) #20 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)

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