The 54th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26 marks the start of not only another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season but the start of a 36-race quest for this year’s Sprint Cup title. Tony Stewart’s late-season heroics last year with an amazing five victories in the ‘Chase’, which is NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, secured his third career title. It also snapped Jimmie Johnson’s incredible five-year rein as champion.
Bovada has released the odds for 17 different drivers to win this year’s Sprint Cup, but considering the fact that only four different drivers have won a title in the last 10 years, there are just a handful of names on the list that have a legitimate chance of actually winning. The following is a look at four drivers that definitely belong in that category.
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The 2011 season was one to forget for Jimmie Johnson, who has been opened as this season’s favorite to win it at 9/2 on Sprint Cup futures odds. After dominating the Sprint Cup series for five-straight years, he only managed to win two races and ended-up sixth in the final point standings. He did post 14 Top-5 finishes, but there were just too many other races were he finished well out of the Top 10. Johnson is just too good of a driver to not be a major factor in this year’s title hunt; adding some solid value to current odds if you are looking for a safe bet.
Carl Edwards is the second favorite to win the Cup at 6/1 in light of his second-place finish in last year’s standings. After Edwards, there is a group of four drivers at 8/1; Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Denny Hamlin. While any of these five drivers have a chance to win it all, Harvick and Hamlin are the top two contenders in this group that offer the greatest value in their odds.
Harvick finished in the Top 5 just nine times last season, but found the winner’s circle in four of the races. This tied him with Kyle Busch for the most victories in the 2011 season. He battled his way to a third-place finish in the standings and was just 58 points in back of Edwards and Stewart. Harvick is the type of driver that has a legitimate shot to win every time he gets behind the wheel and is poised for an even better run this year.
Hamlin was a forgotten man last season after an outstanding 2010 campaign. He finished out of the Top 10 at the end of the regular season, but made it into the Chase as a wildcard. From there he could only manage a ninth-place finish in the final standings with a poor showing in the 10-race Chase. This was a far cry from his series-leading eight victories in 2010 and third-place finish in the standings. The primary reason for the change in fortunes was a painfully slow start. Hamlin recorded just one Top-10 finish in his first eight races which, unfortunately, set the tone for the rest of the year. Much like Johnson, he is far too good of a driver to have another down year and should be back near the top of the standings in 2012.
Matt Kenseth came close winning a title his last two seasons with a fifth-place finish in 2010 and a fourth-place finish last year. Along with Kurt Busch, he is also one of those four drivers to win a Sprint Cup in the last 10 years; claiming the title in 2004. Kenseth recorded 12 Top-5 finishes in 2011 and took the checkered flag three times. He remained a serious contender in the Chase all the way into late October before a couple of poor finishes ended his chances. His odds to win this year’s Cup are 12/1, and while he is hardly the longest shot on the board with eight other drivers having higher odds, he easily offers the best value of anyone on the list.
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The safest and surest pick remains Johnson as it is hard to see him being denied two years in a row, but a small play on Harvick and Kenseth is well worth it as both will be right near the top of the standings all the way to Homestead, Florida in mid-November.