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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.

Kasey Kahne took the pole for Sunday's Carfax 400 despite swirling rumors over where he might drive in 2011. He put his slightly unsettled future to the side as he climbed in for qualifying, edging Jimmie Johnson for the top spot. As the race got underway it was Greg Biffle who took the point, and by the end had led the most laps, boosted by the return of Jack Roush to the racetrack.

Races at Michigan International Speedway can often turn into fuel-mileage games, but Sunday's event did not. The lead changed hands nearly 20 times throughout the 400 miles and a number of drivers turned in decent performances after struggling in the last few races.

Tony Stewart looked like he was the driver to beat in the closing laps and final caution, but his decision to stay out proved a costly one as he quickly fell into the clutches of those who pitted and had fresher tires. The final laps narrowed the field down to two competitors, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who traded the lead back and forth until Harvick finally took it once and for all. With the win Harvick locked himself into the Chase for the Championship and scored some extra bonus points for when the Chase gets underway.

UPGRADE


Kevin Harvick –
Sunday afternoon proved to be yet another amazing 2010 run for Harvick. His car came to life when the sun was shining and the track got hot and slippery. He spent the entire day among the top runners and came home with his third win of the season, which kept him first in the standings. Traditionally, Bristol Motor Speedway has been a decent stop for Harvick until recently. His average finish in the last five races there is 17.0, while his career average finish at the track is 12.2 in 19 starts. With Harvick's performances this season it is hard to believe that he won't have another solid run next Saturday night. Fantasy players should select him with confidence as often as they can.

Denny Hamlin –
Despite falling to an average finish of 27.4 since his last win in June, Hamlin was able to turn in a strong performance at Michigan. He ran in the to 10 for the majority of the day and had a solid day without any major troubles. His second-place finish Sunday was his ninth top-five of 2010 so far. Additionally, Hamlin has also only finished outside of the top 10 once in the last five races at Bristol. His average finish in that span is 7.0, which should interest fantasy players looking for a solid finisher for next week's race. Hamlin should be a top choice for most rosters.

Tony Stewart –
Stewart came on strong again at Michigan. He comes alive every August and this summer is proving to be nothing but the same. He led a number of laps in the Carfax 400 and anyone who wanted to win would have to challenge him directly. A slight gamble on a late caution to stay out did not pay off in the end, and cars with fresher tires made ground and knocked Stewart from the point. While Bristol hasn't been the best track for Stewart, he does have solid results. In 21 career starts he has scored a win, five top-fives and seven top-10s, and his average finish is 14.8 in the last five races there.

Matt Kenseth –
Another driver carrying the flag for the recovering Jack Roush was Kenseth. Each of Roush Fenway Racing's cars spent time in the top five throughout the race, and as the race ended there were four running in the top 10. Kenseth hadn't finished in the top 10 since May's Autism Speaks 400, but he pulled it off today at Michigan, one of his best tracks. Kenseth has an average finish of 12.7 in his 21 career Bristol starts. He may not be the driver fantasy players should look to for big points in next week's race. Still, Roush Fenway Racing is turning around as the 2010 season winds down and Kenseth and his teammates may play the role of spoiler as the series heads to the Chase.

DOWNGRADE


Jeff Gordon –
Despite starting deep in the field and having some bad pit stops in the first half of the race Gordon had a fast car and put it to good use Sunday. That was until he had some contact late in the race and cut a tire. The No. 24 missed pit road after that incident and was forced to circle the track with a limping car. When the race restarted he steadily fell backwards, resulting in a poor finish. Gordon's average finish in 29 career Bristol Motor Speedway races is an astonishing 10.7 and an average start of 5.8. With Gordon's consistency in 2010 and his historical finishes at Bristol, one can't think of many better selections for a fantasy lineup next weekend.

Kurt Busch –
A blown motor ended Busch's day early in Sunday's going. The motor gave way on the back straight and forced him to coast straight into the garage with fire and smoke following him along the way. He had been running 15th at the time, and was set for another solid points day. Instead the team is now looking at further ground to make up after this his second DNF of the season. Busch has been very consistent so far this year and was in the top five in points because of that fact. Next week the series returns to one of his favorite racetracks, Bristol. He won five races at the track in his career to date, three of which were consecutive. His average finish in the last five races there is 9.6.

Mark Martin –
Martin has average a finish of 16th in the last five races leading to the Carfax 400. His form has certainly fallen off from when he first appeared with Hendrick Motorsports, and the confusion over where Kahne may drive next season is in part due to Martin's drop. Michigan was no better for the 50 year-old as he struggled with his car all day, and lapped deep in the field. Martin has performed solidly at Bristol in the recent past, but his average finish in the last five events there is still just 15.4, which makes a number of other drivers more attractive options for next week's line up. Martin has fallen off of the pace this season and it is difficult seeing him make any meaningful progress towards the front as a result.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt has become something of an "also-ran" over the past few years. Sunday was more of the same for the No. 88 team as the raced to finish in the top 20, nowhere near where Earnhardt, the No. 88 team or Hendrick Motorsports wants to be. Earnhardt's average finish in the five races prior to Michigan is 21.4, evidence of his struggles. Junior can come alive at select times though, and earlier this year at Bristol he did just that. He finished seventh there in March and ninth last August. Despite his lack of pace and poor finishes, Earnhardt might not be a bad option as a back up driver for next week's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol.