TALLADEGA, Ala. – Ten races into the NASCAR Cup Series season, odds-takers have determined no clear championship favorites.
Makes sense, because if you ask the drivers, they seem as puzzled as everyone else.
“I have no idea,” said Alex Bowman.
“I have no idea,” Ross Chastain said.
“All of them,” said Kyle Busch, whose drivers had the best chance.
The lack of clarity is unusual for this far into the year – the halfway point of the regular season is just over two weeks away – but it’s clear the new car continues to cast uncertainty over the garage of the Cut on a weekly basis.
“It’s still too early to tell,” said Aric Almirola. “Every week we show up at a different circuit where we haven’t been to this car yet and someone gets the setup right.
Christopher Bell said the increasingly diverse schedule has made it difficult to identify teams that really understand the car and have speed.
For example: Atlanta now runs like a superspeedway instead of an intermediate, so it has little impact on the rest of the season. Bristol’s dirt was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity instead of a peek at the strength of a short-track team. Daytona and Talladega also cannot be grouped with normal tracks.
“We’ve had a lot of wild cards so far,” Bell said. “No one has shown their hand as the undisputed favorite because no one has really been able to be consistently in front week after week.”
The odds also seem confusing. BetMGM’s Latest List has defending champ Kyle Larson as a +500 (or 5-to-1) favorite, but Larson is only seventh in the points standings and doesn’t lead in any of the major statistical categories.
“It’s hard to count them,” Bowman said of the No. 5 team. “I know they haven’t had the start to the season they wanted and they’re not in the points where you would expect them to be.”
Another Hendrick driver, Chase Elliott, led the points standings for six consecutive weeks. But Elliott, who is tied for second-best odds +700, 7 to 1) with teammate William Byron, hasn’t won a race this season and has been winless at an oval since November 2020.
“There were times when we had a lot of pace and there were times when we didn’t, unfortunately,” Elliott said. “On the days when we had pace, we just didn’t have a whole race – and if you want to win, that’s what you have to do.
Byron is one of two riders with multiple wins so far (Ross Chastain being the other). Ryan Blaney said Byron is “probably a favourite” – although Blaney is ahead of Byron in the standings.
“Byron has been really quick lately,” Blaney said. “I’d rather have two wins and be behind him in points than have no wins.”
Second-ranked Blaney won a career-high three races last season but hasn’t been on a winning streak since the regular-season finale at Daytona. He ranks No. 2 in laps led, with only Byron ahead of him.
Then there’s Kyle Busch, who is fourth in the points standings and shares the fourth-best odds (+800) with Blaney and Joey Logano (who won the Clash exhibition race in February but didn’t pick up a win in a points race since March 2021 on Bristol land).
Busch, the Bristol winner this year, has shown speed at times and is tied with Elliott for the most top 10 finishes in the series.
“Is it weird to say that depending on Kyle’s contract situation, it will make him a championship favorite or not?” Corey LaJoie said of the pending free agent. “Like, if they get a deal done and they extend it to Gibbs and he’s not distracted, I think he’s going to be the championship favourite.”
Asked moments later about his contract, Busch said he would rather a deal be done “yesterday” and added “if it happens, it happens. If it’s not, it’s not. Goodbye.”
When a reporter followed and asked if saying goodbye to his longtime team was really an option, Busch replied, “Ask Joe Gibbs.”
LaJoie said if a driver’s mind is elsewhere, it will show up on the track whether he admits it or not.
“You’re not going to perform well if you’re not fully focused,” he said. “When Kyle Busch is all about driving a race car fast, there aren’t many better people out there.”
The next drivers on the odds list – Gibbs teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., both at +1200 – have been anything but convincing this year. Hamlin is 24th in points with just one top 10 (his win at Richmond); Truex is eighth in points, but on pace for his worst average result since 2016.
Then there’s the winner of Talladega Chastain at +1400, a remarkably low spot for a driver who leads the series with six top-five finishes.
“I feel like Ross has been the best so far,” Larson said. “He had the most speed and he ran the best runs. And Chase Briscoe (looks strong) too.
“They’re both very young, so it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, they can do it.’ But they’re both really talented, and then all four of the Hendrick guys are here too.
Asked how he took the title race into account, Chastain shook his head and cracked a smile.
“What’s crazy to me is that you ask me where we stand in the championshipsaid Chastain, who spent years riding substandard gear that had no chance of competing for wins. “How is it wild.”
(Top photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)