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NASCAR Barometer: Upgrades, Downgrades

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.

Just a few weeks after Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick's spat in the first Pocono race, the series returned to the Pennsylvania triangle for its second race of the season.

Tony Stewart, as is typical for him at Pocono, was fast and scored the Coors Light pole for the race, but it was Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon who dominated the first-half distance.

The early race passed very quickly with just one competition caution. As the race aged though, the cautions came. Those cautions created exciting racing, and even caused a red flag for an incident on the back straight. The bunched field created a much more competitive look to the front of the pack, but it was still the two Hendrick teammates that had the cars to beat.

When the red flag for a major accident flew, so did the rain. NASCAR gave the track some time to dry while they cleaned up the debris and mended the wall from the earlier accident, but after a few laps under caution the red flag came out again for raindrops.

The field was jumbled when the green flag finally waved again, and many of the leaders were deep in the field with just 20 laps remaining, betting on two- or four-tire stops. That mixed up field made the difference for a number of drivers who scored surprise top finishes, none more so than Greg Biffle who jumped out to an unassailable lead in the closing laps.

UPGRADE


Greg Biffle
– Biffle stopped for four tires in the last pit stop of last weekend's Brickyard 400, and that decision cost him. He and his team learned from that this week in Pocono and stopped for two just before the final restart. That move vaulted him to the front of the field, which gave him a chance to run away while the other contenders worked their way through traffic. It was Ford's first victory in 2010 and a great gift to team owner Jack Roush who was in an airplane accident earlier in the week. Biffle has an average finish of 29.3 in seven career starts at Watkins Glen, and he should not be considered a strong fantasy option on the road course.

Jimmie Johnson
– Johnson finally started to show what kind of driver he is Sunday. After three straight finishes outside of the top 20, he had a fast car and showed it, leading throughout the running. Unfortunately he was caught back in the field in the final restart when he decided to take four tires, which allowed others to drive away from him while he picked his way through the field. He scored a top-10 for his efforts, but he probably could have mounted a challenge for the win had circumstances been different. Johnson is a strong road course driver, and his average finish at Watkins Glen is 13.0 from eight career starts. His best finish at the New York track was third in the 2007 Centurion Boats at the Glen.

Jeff Gordon
– Sunday was definitely a good day for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon led early in the race before teammate Jimmie Johnson passed him, but remained a very fast car all day. Gordon stuck with the leaders for the majority of the race and battled with challengers through the closing laps. Like his teammate though, Gordon decided to pit for four tires in the last stop and that pushed him back into the pack. He was ultimately unable to catch up to the leader despite working his way forward in the closing laps. Gordon owns four winner's trophies from Watkins Glen, but his average finish in the last five races there is just 20.4. He is a strong driver on road courses, but has encountered problems recently at Watkins Glen.

Kevin Harvick
– Harvick's trademark is to work on his car through the early stages of a race, setting it up so that it is one of the fastest in the closing laps. Most people don't think about him until he begins challenging the leaders in the closing miles, and that is exactly what he did again at Pocono. He began challenging the top five as rain approached in the closing laps and recorded yet another strong finish for the team when the race finally finished. Harvick's average finish in the last five events at Watkins Glen is 18.6. He is a strong road racer, but scores inconsistent finishes and that may be enough reason to select another driver next weekend.

DOWNGRADE


Kurt Busch
– Busch had a difficult time all afternoon, but his problems were compounded when Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer tapped him on the backstretch. He turned into the wall and ricocheted off of the inside wall, ripping a wheel from the car. Elliott Sadler was also caught in the mess, which brought out a red flag. Busch was fifth in points before the day began, and will now require some effort to recover from the disappointment. Busch's record at Watkins Glen is pretty decent, and he could get back on track next weekend. His average finish in the last five races at the Glen is 17.2, which isn't too bad considering he recorded a DNF due to an accident there in 2005. Busch should be a solid fantasy option next weekend despite his troubles at Pocono.

Elliott Sadler
– Sadler suffered what was probably the hardest hit of the season when he pounded the inside wall on Pocono's backstretch nearly head on. The impact ripped the engine from the car and certainly knocked the wind out of Sadler who won the first NASCAR Camping World Truck series race at the track earlier in the weekend. Sadler was looking to cap off what was set to be a great weekend, but it ended horribly. His results in the Sprint Cup series this season have been horrible and Sunday will not be remembered as a good day for him either. His average finish at Watkins Glen in the last five races may seem decent at 16.6, but his best-ever finish at the track was seventh in 2006, which remains his only top-10 result at the track.

Jamie McMurray
– True to form, McMurray fell back after a very strong weekend in Indianapolis. Inconsistency continues to plague this team, and that is a major reason that he sat 16th in points before Pocono. Even if McMurray were turning in consistent finishes this season, he probably wouldn't be a driver to select on the road course at Watkins Glen. His average finish at the track is 20.1 in seven career tries, and a best finish of third in 2006. McMurray's teammate Juan Pablo Montoya has also been the victim of the consistency issues of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. The small problems that prevent these two fast cars from scoring top finishes every week need to be solved if they want to be serious contenders in the series.

Joey Logano
– After running strongly in the last Pocono race, Logano didn't live up to expectations this weekend. He ran in the middle of the field throughout the afternoon and never truly made an impression on the top 10. Logano entered Pocono 19th in points, which is still too far away to really be mounting a challenge to make the Chase for the Championship. He and the team have a lot of ground to cover if they intend to make it. Logano only has one Watkins Glen result, 16th last season, which isn't bad for a first-timer, but that will probably preclude most fantasy players from selecting him for their rosters next week.

Marcos Ambrose
– Ambrose had another bad day Sunday. His engine suffered problems in the early running, forcing him out of the race for his eighth DNF of the year so far. Ambrose announced earlier in the week that he would be leaving JTG Daugherty racing at the end of the season, and as of now does not know what he will be doing next year. This season has not been what Ambrose expected after joining the NASCAR circus. He showed brilliant potential at times, but has met with disappointment too often this particular season. He should still be a prime choice for Watkins Glen next weekend despite the recent bad luck he's been experiencing. His two Watkins Glen races have both turned into top-five finishes.