Dale Earnhardt. In the 1980's and 1990's that was the name synonymous with grit and determination. Everyone in NASCAR knew it. In his early days, Earnhardt earned the nickname "Ironhead" because he was reckless on the track. It seemed he would be willing to do whatever it took to finish first including crashing or spinning other drivers. While many criticized his style at the time, they later came to admire it. From the start of his career in 1975 to his tragic death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt recorded 76 wins and 428 top 10 finishes in the NASCAR cup series.
Unfortunately for bettors, Earnhardt's signature years were prior to the late 1990s when betting on NASCAR really first took place. Still, for the few years where people could bet on Dale Earnhardt he was far and away the most popular driver in Las Vegas. In fact a bookmaker at a Las Vegas sportsbook at the time stated that they always undercut Earnhardt because they knew people would bet him regardless of the race or his current success. A lot of that had to do with name recognition, but much of it had to do with his driving style. People who bet on Earnhardt knew that if he had a chance to win the race he was going to do so. Perhaps the most telling example of that was the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun out Terry Labonte on the last turn to take the checkered flag. It was remembered well by the Labonte backers who likely threw items at the TV set as they saw the 30/1 longshot sure win go out the window. In the meantime, Earnhardt, who was only 5/1 for that particular race, made the unforgiving comment: "I was only trying to rattle his cage" as fans booed him in victory lane.
Since Earnhardt's death there really hasn't been a driver which has exuded the same type of excitement from bettors and fans. Obviously Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have demonstrated immense skill and have the record to prove it, but most of those wins have been as the result of smart driving and superior cars. Little of that success was due to the "win at all costs" attitude that Earnhardt displayed. Today, however, a new driver has emerged that could give Earnhardt a run for his money in terms of tenacity---and his name is Kyle Busch. While I would never aim to compare the future Hall of fame driver to the young gun in terms of success or driving ability, it's impossible to overlook the similarities between the two drivers in their early years. Kyle Busch, who is 23 years old, was somewhat of a live wire when driving for Hendrick Motorsports the last few years, but he has taken that gumption to a new level this year driving for Joe Gibbs racing. In 11 Cup races so far this year he has 3 wins, in Nationwide races he has 3 wins and in the Truck series he has 2 victories.
What has been so impressive, however, is not the fact that he is winning, but rather the way he is winning. Carl Edwards also has 3 Cup series wins this year, but he has simply dominated in those victories. Kyle Busch, on the other hand was forced to earn them. In Atlanta he essentially came across the finish line sideways, at Darlington he won despite hitting the wall several times, and at Talladega he went a lap down, almost spun out twice and won despite not having the best car. The one race, however, that showed how determined Busch is to win at all costs was his 2nd place finish at Richmond. Busch was battling Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the last part of the race, but Dale started to drive away. Realizing he probably couldn't beat Earnhardt, Kyle Busch duplicated that 1999 Bristol night race, spinning out Junior; and consequently Busch was met with a hail of boos along with projectiles aimed at him for spinning the most popular driver among fans. Unfortunately for Kyle Busch, in spinning Earnhardt he allowed Clint Bowyer to pass him and was unable to catch Bowyer on the restart. But it may have been for the best anyway as the crowd was prepared to lynch him should he have won.
After the race Busch seemed quite unapologetic for his actions and actually suggested that all he cares about is winning. He stated, "If I went out there on the final restart and just gave way to him, then that would not be a true race car driver...I had to do what I had to do to win for my team ... so that's what I set forth to do was to try to get a win. Unfortunately, circumstances happened." As a result of that "win at any cost attitude" Busch has been getting quite a bit of play in the races. In fact one sportsbook that offers both Cup and Nationwide races stated that Kyle Busch has been a bad result in every single race this year except two, the Daytona 500 and the Nationwide road course in Mexico. Until this year Busch showed no affinity for racing on road courses, but in that particular race Busch bumped the leaders out of the way late to move on to a fairly easy victory, despite restarting well back after a pit stop.
So that attitude we haven't seen in some time has caused many NASCAR bettors to become quite excited. While some sportsbooks offer smaller odds on top 5 or top 10 finishes, for the most part bettors make "to win" bets on drivers. So a "good finish" is mostly irrelevant to most bettors. Jeff Burton and Mark Martin are certainly nice guys who have had a lot of success in the series, but the two also haven't won much lately. Bettors typically know that if one of those drivers is close to the lead it is unlikely they have the killer instinct to do whatever it takes to win. Consequently, Burton and Martin will often win their matchups, but betting on them to win is more often than not a waste of time.
"Right now I only bet on Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart," one fairly large NASCAR bettor told me, "and if I like Kyle Busch I'll double or triple my usual wager." This bettor informed me that he is sick of betting on drivers who are points racing and throws them out regardless of how well they do in practice and qualifying. "If I don't like one of those guys I mentioned, I don't bet the race to win," he reinforced. And that betting pattern isn't lost on bookies, who at the beginning of the year were listing Busch at odds of around 15/1, but now have him as first or second choice in every race. "We know if he wins we will lose," a bookmaker told me, "but we can't create unfair odds either. We know by the time the race goes off Busch will be quite a bit lower than we started him, particularly in the Nationwide Series, but he can't win all the time."
For this week's Sprint Cup All Star race and the Coca Cola 600, Kyle Busch is second choice in the opening odds. Busch truly is a bettors dream, but a bookie's nightmare.
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