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Atlanta 500 Preview

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As much as I love the Daytona 500, I found myself shouting a few choice words regarding restrictor-plate racing as a few of my drivers wagered on were systematically caught up in the someone elses mess ending their day. It's so frustrating!

But I still couldn't help being thrilled that the NASCAR season was finally happening and most of all that Las Vegan Kurt Busch, who I watched race from his beginnings as a teenager, finally won a plate race. No wins at Daytona or Talladega and it happened in his 17th Cup season.

For the past 15 years I've been saying he's the best plate racer to never win a plate race. The wait for him had to make the victory all the more sweeter and bettors that had faith in him they got paid nicely at 25/1 odds (Bet $100 to win $2,500).

The image that I found most interesting was Busch's retired boss Tony Stewart congratulating him after he won every big race during his great career except the Daytona 500. Stewart-Haas Racing made the decision to leave a successful operation with Chevrolet, one that produced a championship for Kevin Harvick in 2014, for Ford.

So far so good with the move, but the real test for the team will happen this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday's Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500, the first off 11 races on 1.5 mile tracks. Doing well on these type of tracks is the gateway to winning a championship. The Daytona 500 starts the season with a bang, but the real start to see how good all the teams are happens this weekend.

Quality candidates with legitimate shots at winning the Daytona 500 numbered up to 35 drivers because of the draft and cars being equal, but this week at Atlanta that number is dwindled down to maybe only 14 drivers that win.

Of course, the odds will reflect that as well, but the added bonus is getting a normal weekend of practices that actually matter on Friday and Saturday is that you get the final pieces of the puzzle to who will likely win. Even before the qualifying and practices, you can narrow down who the best drivers are by closely looking at what happened on 1.5-mile tracks last year and driver's historical performances at the Atlanta's high-banked 1.5-mile layout.

Just as a refresher to what happened on last seasons 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks, we kind of had different stages of dominance during the year. Jimmie Johnson kicked it all off with his second win in a row at Atlanta to give him five wins in 25 starts, but then he slumped off during the summer before winning at Charlotte and closing out the season at Homestead which gave him his seventh Cup title.

In between the those bookend Johnson wins on 1.5's, it was Joe Gibbs Racing powered engines winning five of the races, Brad Keselowski winning twice and Kevin Harvick winning in October at Kansas. Martin Truex Jr. led a series-high 883 laps between those 11 races and there's no reason to suggest he won't be just as good this season on them.

Towards the end of last season we saw Kyle Larson be a factor on these type of tracks and eventually win his first career race (Michigan). In the season finale at Homestead he led a race-high 137 laps before settling for second-place. I'm looking for Larson to take that next step, but I'll be looking for signs during practices of Friday and Saturday that he'll be just as good as 2016.

Those final practices will be a huge indicator to who will win with my eyes focused on every team. The Stewart Haas Ford's will be my primary focus. Just for reference, Kurt Busch has three career wins at Atlanta which is tied for second-most in the series behind Johnson among active drivers.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (8/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
5) #42 Kyle Larson (18/1)

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