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NASCAR Barometer: Roaring on the Road Course

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.

As races click away toward the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR Sprint Cup roared into Watkins Glen. The drivers had to revive their road course racing skills, and a few road course ringers attempted to make their mark on the day.

When the race started Juan Pablo Montoya jumped out to the lead after passing his teammate, and he then built a sizable gap from there. A handful of drivers had early problems, including Kyle Busch who had to pit for repair before the first lap.

Ultimately it was Montoya who dominated the race as he cruised to victory. Ambrose did his best to pressure Montoya into giving up the lead, but it never really happened. The day belonged completely to the Colombian, and there wasn't anyone who was going to deny him his second series win.

UPGRADE


Juan Pablo Montoya
As he normally is when the Sprit Cup visits road course venues, Montoya was on fire. He amassed a tremendous lead in the opening laps and it was only Marcos Ambrose who looked like a challenger. Through the majority of the event it was the Colombian versus the Tasmanian. Montoya was extremely fast and very smooth, just what you would expect from a former Formula 1 race winner. In the end, he scored his second Sprint Cup win, both of which have come on road courses. His average finish in the last five events at Michigan International Speedway is 20.2, but he has shown steady improvement at the track. His last three finishes there were all top-20 runs.

Marcos Ambrose
Ambrose drove like a man possessed at Watkins Glen. He was fast and aggressive, trying to make up for the victory he gave away on the last road coarse. Ambrose looked like the only car that had the ability to challenge Montoya head on, and he did just that until the end. His car faded in the closing laps, but he only lost one position, and it was still a solid result. As we all know, he does not know where his future will be next season, NASCAR or elsewhere, but we can enjoy him while he is here. His average Michigan finish is disappointing at 31.0 from four career starts. Despite his strong performance today, he is probably not a driver that fantasy players will want to bank on next weekend.

Kurt Busch
Busch didn't have the ability to keep pace with Montoya and Ambrose, but should either of them have had any troubles, Busch kept himself in position to capitalize. Sure enough Ambrose did slow, and Busch pounced for his best-ever road course finish. It was a consistent race against two of the best road course drivers in the world. The top-five finish will definitely help as the races count down to the Chase. Busch's Michigan efforts have been inconsistent, but his average finish in the last five tries is 20.8. He may not be the best option next week, but Busch should play a big part in deciding the 2010 Sprint Cup champion.

Kevin Harvick
Sunday's race at Watkins Glen was proof that Harvick is increasing his road racing skills. Harvick drove solidly toward the front of the field throughout the afternoon and scored yet another top finish this season, earning his position at the top of the point standings. He faded as the checkered flag came out, but the effort was still enough to earn him an 11th-place result. Scoring solid points consistently is what has put Harvick at the top of the points, and today was another example of how to get that done. While he hasn't been the top driver at Michigan in the past races, he has been consistently good. His average finish in the last five races there is 13.8 and he continues to look like the man to beat in the championship.

DOWNGRADE


Robby Gordon
Gordon's small and underfunded team looks forward to the road course races because that is where he shines and can pay back sponsors with strong showings. He finished second in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway earlier in the year, but had trouble early at Watkins Glen. Gordon's gearbox gave up before the first pit stop and forced Gordon to make due with a limping car for the remainder of the distance. Don't count on Gordon to rebound next week at Michigan, if he even enters the race. His average finish in the last five races there is a terrible 32.8. That is not even good enough to pick as a spare driver in fantasy racing.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson had yet another day full of struggles Sunday. The No. 48 team's normally golden luck seems to have flown elsewhere recently as Johnson dealt with a flat tire and electrical issues, putting them behind the eight ball as the race trucked on before getting into the wall and hit by Denny Hamlin. Johnson's record at Michigan is a good one, but we are starting to wonder how frequently this bad luck will hit him. In the last five Michigan races his average finish is 17.8 with a victory thrown in for good measure. Johnson is usually a driver fantasy players should never bench, but who can tell whether we will see the No. 48 we expect or if they'll be hit by more struggles next weekend?

Clint Bowyer
Bowyer drove into trouble Sunday and disappointingly lost a lot of ground in the championship. After looking racy in the first half of the race Bowyer's car had drive shaft trouble, which forced him to undergo some serious repair. The time behind the wall dropped him down in the order, and pushed Mark Martin ahead in the points. Bowyer had been holding down the final spot in the Chase, but lost some important ground in the championship, dropping to 13th-place, one spot outside of the Chase. Bowyer has been fast and consistent this season, but Michigan hasn't been his best track. His average finish in the last five MIS runs is 17.2 with two top-10s, so fantasy players may wish to look elsewhere next weekend.

Denny Hamlin
Smoke obscuring the apex of the final turn ruined Hamlin's ability to avoid contact in the final turn with Jimmie Johnson, who was already spun into the wall. Hamlin's day was virtually over after that point, and he will pay a serious penalty in the points as a result. He had a strong car and was running in the top 15 throughout the race, but the decent points day was ruined by contact. The good news for the No. 11 team is that Hamlin won the spring race at the track the series visits next. Hamlin's average Michigan finish in the last five races is 13.4, making him a solid option to choose for next week's race despite his troubles on the road course today.

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