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NASCAR Barometer: Heading for the Top

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway kicked off under cloudy skies with fast lap times. From the beginning it was Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne leading the field.

The Ford engines were stout with new engines being installed, but the teams themselves still had plenty of work to do the get the job done. Ultimately it was a Toyota that found Victory Lane, but that was because Denny Hamlin was at the wheel. Ford did power the second-place runner, Kasey Kahne, and had Greg Biffle finish in the top 10 as well.

While strong finishes were necessary for some drivers to begin building some momentum, the momentum built may mean nothing next week. The series visits Infineon Raceway next Sunday, one of the two roadcourse races on the schedule. The racing in Sonoma is so different from oval racing that some specialist drivers could become favorites to take victory. Still, for the regular-series drivers, a strong finish at Michigan could signal a change of fortune.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin is quickly becoming the most dominant driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup. He picked up his fifth win of the season Sunday at MIS, and his second in a row. It was apparent that Hamlin had a strong car early in the running, and he certainly made it pay off throughout the race. He consistently ran in the top-five and was often challenging for the lead, despite faltering after nearly running out of fuel on the first green flag pit stop sequence. Even better from a fantasy perspective is that Hamlin is also strong on the roadcourses. He finished fifth in last year's Infineon race, and has a career average finish of 13.5 at the track in four tries. We may be looking at the 2010 Sprint Cup champion at his best.

Kurt Busch
Busch again had a strong and consistent run. He finished third in Sunday's race, his sixth top-five and ninth top-10 result of the season. The No. 2 Dodge was very strong from the green flag and throughout the long race, but it just didn't have the ability to keep pace with the dominant Denny Hamlin. Busch maintained his great position in the top five in points with the strong result. At Infineon, Busch has been pretty good as well. He's earned three top-fives at the track in eight tries, but his average finish in the last five races there is just 15.4. Still, fantasy players can probably expect another consistent top-15 run from the driver, and that means valuable points for your team.

Joe Logano
Logano had a strong day after a miserable weekend at Pocono Raceway last week. After contact with Kevin Harvick last week, and harsh words afterwards, Logano showed composure and turned in a top-10 result Sunday at Michigan, just one week later. The finish marked Logano's sixth top-10 this season, and he is working his way into a battle for a spot in the Chase for the Championship. Logano finished 19th in last year's race at Infineon, which doesn't give us much expectation for next weekend. It would be wise to avoid him due to a lack of experience, but Logano is maturing as a driver and could come on even stronger as the season progresses.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt turned in a very valuable top-10 finish for his team that has been struggling this season. The finish was Earnhardt's first top-10 result since April at Texas Motor Speedway, and just the fourth this season. This is one team that needed a positive race to help stop the flood of problems they've been enduring, and they got the job done Sunday. Earnhardt isn't known for his roadcourse skills, but his record at Infineon isn't all that bad. His average finish in the last five Infineon races is 23.8, but half of his eight career Cup races at the track have netted top-15 results. If you need to use a regular driver next weekend, you could do a lot worse than Earnhardt.

Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose was turned around on the tri-oval in the race's early going. Luckily, no major damage was done in his slide through the grass, but he fell deep into the field. Through the race, he and the team worked steadily to pick off other drivers and stay on top of the necessary chassis adjustments. The work paid off and Ambrose found himself finishing in 15th position, which is his best finish since Richmond International Raceway. The good result from a tough day was necessary for Ambrose, who has struggled this year, because the series now heads to Infineon Raceway. Ambrose should be regarded as a favorite next week. He finished third in last year's Infineon event.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Newman
After five top-15 results in a row, Newman came home 32nd Sunday in Michigan. He ran in the top 20 for quite some time, but fell a lap behind and just continued backing up after that. Newman was never a factor after starting the day in the top 10. Good news for the No. 39 team is that Newman has been historically good at Infineon. His average finish in eight career Infineon starts is 10.4. The only detractor from Newman in Sonoma is the fact that in those eight runs, he's only led 11 total laps. While he can finish the roadcourse races strongly, he can't lead them. Still, with his consistency at the track, Newman would be a good option next weekend.

Casey Mears
Mears broke the cardinal rule of racing Sunday; don't crash your teammate. Mears was racing hard with Scott Speed in the back of the field and made contact just at the halfway mark. The contact spun Speed, brought out a yellow, and forced Mears to the garage for repairs. The team obviously didn't learn from their Red Bull teammates in Formula 1 who crashed each other two weeks ago. Mears has not been on pace since taking over from Brian Vickers and it wouldn't be surprising to see him removed form the car sooner rather than later on ovals, since he's already been taken out for next week's roadcourse event in favor of Mattias Ekstrom of German Touring Car fame.

Jamie McMurray
McMurray again finds himself in the downgrade column. He took a front-row starting position Sunday and turned it into a 24th-place result. McMurray was never in contention throughout the afternoon, and faded as the race progressed. Inconsistency has been an issue for the No. 1 team since winning the Daytona 500 in February. McMurray isn't a great roadcourse driver either, so there may not be much hope for him to make up ground next weekend. His average finish in the last five races at Infineon Raceway is 20.0, which is not exactly getting the job done. McMurray, in all likelihood, will be a nonfactor in Sonoma next weekend, and fantasy players may want to steer clear of him until the unpredictability subsides.

Kevin Harvick
The series points leader heading into Michigan had a lackluster afternoon Sunday, and recorded just his second finish outside of the top 10 since April's visit to Phoenix International Raceway. Harvick has been the model of consistently solid results so far this season and leads the points as a result. An off weekend here or there won't derail his quest for the Chase, but it allows other drivers, like Denny Hamlin, to close the gap and make it a bigger fight. Unfortunately, Harvick has just one top-finish at Infineon Raceway in the last eight races. His average finish over that time is 18.9, which isn't bad, but it isn't great either. Next week may be a good time to let Harvick remain on the bench in a fantasy lineup.

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