NASCAR Picks for Denny Hamlin’s Bracket Challenge

NASCAR Picks for Denny Hamlin’s Bracket Challenge article feature image
  • Denny Hamlin's Bracket Challenge starts this week at Kansas and runs through the next five weeks of NASCAR Cup Series racing.
  • In order to determine the best NASCAR picks for this contest, the Action Network's Nick Giffen simulated the next five races 10,000 times each.
  • Below Giffen details the results of his simulations and unveils his official NASCAR picks for Denny Hamlin's Bracket Challenge.

It's tournament time, baby!

No, the NCAA tournament isn't getting a do-over, but like March Madness (spoiler alert!), Connecticut is represented well in my NASCAR bracket for Denny Hamlin's Bracket Challenge.

I've run 10,000 simulations for each of the five weeks this challenge is taking place, which includes races at the following tracks:

  1. Kansas Speedway
  2. Darlington Raceway
  3. Charlotte Motor Speedway
  4. World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway)
  5. Sonoma Raceway

Like Action Network's Director of Predictive Analytics, Sean Koerner, I'll be using a combination of:

  1. My projected probabilities of a driver advancing through each round (based on results of 10,000 simulations of each race) using my machine learning model.
  2. My projected percentage of users who pick each driver advancing to each round.

Using those two factors, we can identify leverage to find spots the market is either over or underrating.

For a fun personalization, and to fit the bracket theme, I've separated the bracket into four regions. They are:

  1. The Richard Petty Region — Ross Chastain (1 seed)
  2. The Jeff Gordon Region — Martin Truex Jr. (4 seed)
  3. The Dale Earnhardt Region — Kevin Harvick (3 seed)
  4. The Jimmie Johnson Region — Christopher Bell (2 seed)

Let's dive into my region-by-region picks, followed by the Fast Four where I crown the first ever champion for Denny Hamlin's Bracket Challenge.

The Richard Petty Region

Round of 32 (Kansas Speedway)

No. 1 Ross Chastain over No. 32 Noah Gragson

I have Chastain advancing 84.1% of the time in this matchup. As we'll see later on, I have six drivers projected to win their first-round matchups between 80-86% of the time, so we should expect one driver to lose.

However, Chastain is not the driver I'm going to ding here, especially as the top half of the bracket is wide open aside from this head-to-head. This isn't the place to pick an upset.

No. 17 Daniel Suarez over No. 16 Chase Briscoe

These two will likely run close together in which driver is picked, but I have Suarez winning 64.6% of the time. That may actually underrate Suarez, who was 10th earlier this year in my FLAGS metric at Kansas' most similar track, Las Vegas, while Briscoe was a dreadful 30th.

Briscoe was even worse at Auto Club (32nd), and while I haven't run FLAGS yet for Dover, he struggled there as well. Those three tracks all used the intermediate package which will be run at Kansas.

No. 9 Brad Keselowski over No. 24 Erik Jones (subject to change)

We're entering the toughest eighth of the bracket for me. Keselowski is a 67.3% favorite over Jones. At Vegas, Keselowski finished just two places ahead of Jones while running just four spots ahead of him in FLAGS.

No. 8 Kyle Busch over No. 25 Aric Almirola (subject to change)

Similarly, Busch is a 65.7% favorite over Almirola. He finished two places ahead of Almirola at Vegas and four spots ahead in FLAGS.

With both Busch and Keselowski, I may flip over to their opponents as practice and qualifying data comes in since brackets aren't due until the start of the race.

I have six drivers projected to win between 62-70% of the time, so we should expect four of the six to advance on average. I have just one advancing, so it's likely I'll flip out one of the two matchups above to match the math after I see on-track activity.

Round of 16 (Darlington Raceway)

No. 1 Ross Chastain over No. 17 Daniel Suarez

I have Chastain as a two-to-one favorite to advance over his teammate. Chastain thrives at the steep tracks and had arguably the best car at Dover. He also had one of the best cars at this race in Darlington last year before crashing out. I think he comes through.

No. 8 Kyle Busch over No. 9 Brad Keselowski (subject to change)

I can see Erik Jones advancing out of this eighth of the bracket should he get by Keselowski given Darlington is by far his best track. For now, I'll go with Rowdy, who, despite having three terrible finishes at Darlington in a row, has run inside the top 15 in over 95% of the laps he ran in each of those. Keselowski never topped 68% in any of those.

Round of 8 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

No. 1 Ross Chastain over No. 8 Kyle Busch

With so much chaos potential in the Keselowski-Jones-Busch-Almirola quartet, it'd be a tall task to pick the one driver to make it out of the region. Instead, we'll eat the chalk and pick Chastain, who has the easiest path to the Fast Four in this region.

So while those four drivers are subject to change, I'm picking Chastain over whichever driver ultimately makes the Petty Region final. We'll have some upsets in other regions.

The Jeff Gordon Region

Round of 32 (Kansas Speedway)

No. 5 Ryan Blaney over No. 28 Ryan Preece

In the battle of the Ryans, I have Blaney advancing 68.9% of the time over Preece. While Blaney struggled at Las Vegas (14th in FLAGS) and has had issues at Kansas in recent races, he still far outpaces Preece (27th in FLAGS at Vegas).

No. 12 Chris Buescher over No. 21 Bubba Wallace

As the most recent Kansas winner, I expect Wallace to be heavily picked to advance. However, this matchup is closer than it seems.

Buescher is 37.7% to advance and is currently my lone pick to upset a driver who has between a 62-70% chance to advance. Wallace has been prone to mistakes this year, and I have him as one of the highest drivers in the bracket to record an incident at Kansas.

I'm also looking ahead to Darlington. More on that later.

No. 13 Joey Logano over No. 20 Michael McDowell

Logano, who has struggled mightily at traditional ovals this year, could be a popular upset pick as McDowell and Front Row Motorsports continue to outperform expectations. That being said, I still have Logano advancing 69.8% of the time, meaning I don't have as much leverage here on McDowell as one might think.

No. 29 Chase Elliott over No. 4 Martin Truex, Jr.

I understand PJ Walsh's line of thinking that Elliott will be a popular pick to win it all so it makes sense to eliminate him early. Not to spoil too much, but I don't have Elliott going too far, so I'm in line with PJ's thinking — just not quite yet.

I also think as the series' most recent winner, Truex is in line for a bump by the masses.

I'm going with Elliott simply to stick with mathematical averages. I have three drivers winning in the 53-59% range, so one of them losing is expected. Since I'm rolling with the other two favorites — more on that later — in this range, I'll pick Elliott to advance at a 43.2% chance.

Round of 16 (Darlington Raceway)

No. 12 Chris Buescher over No. 5 Ryan Blaney

Now we've got chaos! In true 12-5 tradition, I'm picking an upset.

That's because Darlington is one of Blaney's worst tracks, while Buescher has put in several solid runs at Darlington over the course of his career. In fact, Buescher only trails Blaney in head-to-head results at Darlington by a single race.

Blaney has won six matchups while Buescher has won five at The Lady in Black. That comes despite Buescher driving for Front Row Motorsports and JTG-Daugherty Racing for four of those races.

With RFK's recent resurgence, I'll back the underdog here. I give Buescher a 46.3% chance of advancing.

No. 13 Joey Logano over No. 29 Chase Elliott

Told you I don't have NASCAR's most popular driver going far.

I think Darlington could be quite physical on Elliott, who is still recovering from a broken leg and struggled at another physical steep track in Dover. Plus, there's also a strong chance he doesn't even get by Truex. Thus, I think it makes sense to back Logano,  who's much more likely to make it out of his first-round matchup.

Logano won this race at Darlington last year, so despite his struggles in 2023, there is enough upside.

Round of 8 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

No. 13 Joey Logano over No. 12 Chris Buescher

In a matchup between two Ford drivers, I think Logano's struggles get minimized as he faces another driver dealing with the nose change to the blue ovals. The changes made have reduced drag on the Fords, but also caused them to struggle a bit with downforce and tire wear.

A night race should help alleviate those issues, and this may be a great bounce-back spot for Logano. By picking him to the Fast Four, I have the Connecticut native following in the footsteps of the UConn Huskies.

The Dale Earnhardt Region

Round of 32 (Kansas Speedway)

No. 3 Kevin Harvick over No. 30 Harrison Burton

No need to get fancy here. Harvick is Mr. Consistency and was 12th in FLAGS at Vegas. Burton, meanwhile was 32nd. I have Harvick advancing 81.3% of the time.

No. 14 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. over No. 19 Austin Cindric

Kansas is one of Stenhouse's best tracks. I think people will look to pick Cindric as a "seed upset," seeing this as a good chance to be "contrarian" by picking a Penske over a JTG Daugherty car. But Stenhouse is having, if not a career year, at least the best year while with JTG.

Cindric finished sixth at Vegas, which may also get more people on him. But he was just 21st in FLAGS, making the most of some late-race chaos.

I have Stenhouse winning 59.3% of the time.

No. 11 William Byron over No. 22 Corey LaJoie

Byron has been one of the two best cars all year, and dominated portions of Vegas. No need to get fancy. I have Byron advancing 83.5% of the time.

No. 6 Tyler Reddick over No. 27 A.J. Allmendinger

I considered an upset, but given how strong 23XI was last year at Kansas, as well as how strong Reddick was with Richard Childress Racing at both Kansas and Las Vegas last year, I couldn't bring myself to shut out Denny Hamlin's team completely from the Round of 16.

I have Reddick advancing 73.3% of the time, so there also isn't enough leverage on Allmendinger to force an upset.

Round of 16 (Darlington Raceway)

No. 3 Kevin Harvick over No. 14 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

We don't need to pick Stenhouse to upset Harvick as it's quite possible Stenhouse doesn't even make it this far.

Darlington is also a great track for Harvick, so again, there's no need to get fancy in this spot. I have Harvick advancing 72.7% of the time.

No. 6 Tyler Reddick over No. 11 William Byron

Darlington is a strong track for both drivers, but I have the public picking Byron at a high enough rate that there's some leverage in taking Reddick to pull off the upset.

I have Reddick advancing 44.4% of the time should these drivers face each other.

Round of 8 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

No. 3 Kevin Harvick over No. 6 Tyler Reddick

With a good chance that Reddick doesn't make it this far, once again we'll back Harvick. He also is the more consistent of the two drivers, so I'd trust him over 600 miles moreso than Reddick.

The Jimmie Johnson Region

Round of 32 (Kansas Speedway)

No. 26 Justin Haley over No. 7 Denny Hamlin

I said I'd have one upset of a driver who is expected to win over 80% of the time, and here it is. I have Haley winning 18.5% of the time and that could be a bit too low.

Haley was 16th in FLAGS at Las Vegas while Hamlin was sixth, meaning they were a lot closer than the seed, and even with what my win probability implies. In fact, Haley did pull off the upset of Hamlin at Las Vegas.

There's also enough of a chance that Hamlin's pit crew continues their struggles after four terrible stops at Dover. If not, it's always possible Hamlin, who is notorious for speeding on pit road, has another unforced error.

No. 10 Kyle Larson over No. 23 Todd Gilliland

That Gilliland is ranked 23rd in this bracket is a testament to the kind of year he's had.

However, he gets a terrible draw going up against the driver who's topped the series all year in speed. I have Larson winning 85.3% of the time.

No. 18 Ty Gibbs over No. 15 Josh Berry/Alex Bowman

Ironic that Gibbs is seeded No. 18 after replacing the driver of the No. 18 car and switching numbers. In a continuation of coincidences, now he faces a fellow rookie replacing an injured driver, just as Gibbs did last year.

I think people will jump on Berry as a flurry of positive news has surrounded him recently while Gibbs is one of the most hated drivers by fans.

Both drivers have shown improvement, and if that continues, Gibbs should stay ahead of Berry. He was 22nd in FLAGS at Vegas while Berry was 29th.

I have Gibbs advancing 53.5% of the time.

No. 2 Christopher Bell over No. 31 Austin Dillon

Bell has been one of the best cars this year, while Dillon has been one of the worst. It was so bad for Dillon that he was battling the Rick Ware car driven by Brennan Poole for position last week at Dover.

At Las Vegas, Bell was eighth in FLAGS compared to 26th for Dillon. I'll back the driver who I have at 80.7% to advance.

Round of 16 (Darlington Raceway)

No. 10 Kyle Larson over No. 26 Justin Haley

While Haley grabbed a third-place finish at Darlington last year, Larson was arguably the best car in that race prior to crashing. It's also possible Haley doesn't even make it this far, so let's back the fastest driver all year in Larson, who is 78.1% to win this matchup.

No. 2 Christopher Bell over No. 18 Ty Gibbs

In a battle of teammates, expect the veteran to prevail.

Bell ran solidly inside the top 10 in both Darlington races last year en route to two top-six finishes. Meanwhile, Gibbs has struggled in a relative sense at Darlington when we look at how he's performed overall in both Xfinity and Cup.

I have Bell advancing in this matchup 70.1% of the time.

Round of 8 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)

No. 2 Christopher Bell over No. 10 Kyle Larson

Given Larson's difficult path, where he may draw Hamlin in the second round, it behooves us to avoid picking him to go all the way.

Bell is the driver I have most likely to advance out of this region thanks to the potential Larson/Hamlin clash happening so early; Bell gets a relatively comfortable draw in the first two rounds. Thus, I'll take the driver I have with the highest probability to advance.

The Fast Four (World Wide Technology Raceway – Gateway)

No. 1 Ross Chastain over No. 13 Joey Logano

I debated taking Logano, but by picking Chastain we accomplish a few things.

First, taking Logano to this point is already enough of an upset in a region that included Truex, Blaney and Elliott. Second, we pick one of the most hated drivers by fans, as Chastain has been known to piss people off by constantly being involved in — and even just around — incidents that weren't his doing.

People love picking against him, but he's the most likely driver in the top half of the bracket to make the championship round.

No. 2 Christopher Bell over No. 3 Kevin Harvick

This is a tough matchup that features two drivers who excel at flat tracks. But thanks to some of the other upset picks we've made, we have a different enough bracket that we can back the favored driver here.

It may not be fun to set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, but Bell and Chastain have the two most comfortable paths in a tough field.

Championship Round (Sonoma Raceway)

In a bit of a twist, pun intended, we get a road course to wrap up Denny Hamlin's Bracket Challenge.

My bracket comes down to two elite road-course racers, both of whom picked up a victory on this track type last year. The big question: Has Toyota made enough gains at road courses from last year to this year to back Bell?

As Reddick showed at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), the answer should be yes! However, Chastain was faster than Bell and had a better average running position at COTA.

What's more, the Toyotas tended to struggle with tire wear at road courses, and Sonoma has the highest wear of them all.

By picking Chastain, I'm backing the driver who's completed the fifth-most laps in the Next Gen car. The four ahead of him are all seeded 20th or worse. He may get a bad rap for all the incidents, but the guy tends to finish races, and finish them near the front.

Thanks to his bad reputation, Chastain should win the bracket at a much higher rate than people expect. So with apologies to Hamlin, I have his arch-rival winning the inaugural version of Denny Hamlin's Bracket Challenge.

Click here to see Giffen's full bracket.

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