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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.

With two races to go before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship, the competitors lined up for a Sunday night race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin scored his first pole of the season and led the field to the green flag and many of the opening laps. Engine issues ended his night, while others continued to use the race as a gauge against how they expected to fare in the upcoming Chase races.

A number of the Chase competitors looked strong and ran even stronger, but the night belonged to Tony Stewart. He was one of the fastest cars all night, and like past seasons, is ending the year on a high night. Stewart and tea recorded their first victory of the season, a long overdue one considering how fast the car has been, and now has his sights set firmly on winning the Sprint Cup.

UPGRADE

Tony Stewart
Stewart historically runs well at Atlanta, and Sunday night was no different. He ran in the top five for the first half of the race and closed strong as well, taking his first victory of the season. The only time Stewart really struggled was on restarts, but he overcame that issue by a fast pit stop, which put him in front. His average Richmond finish is 9.1 in the last nine aces at the track, and that includes five straight top-five finishes. The spring Richmond race posed some problems for Stewart, but typically he ends the year stronger than he starts. He'll be hoping to score another top-10 next weekend, after finishing 23rd at Richmond earlier this season.

Kyle Busch
Busch worked to increase his string of three top-10 finishes in the last five races. In the first part of the race he was penalized for speeding on pit road. He then narrowly avoided a crash near the halfway point and continued cruising back toward the front of the field. Rowdy is excellent on the short tracks and Richmond International Raceway is no exception. Busch has scored four top-fives in the last five Richmond races, two of those being victories. His average finish over that span is 4.8. There may not be a better fantasy option than Busch in the last race before the Chase begins.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson escaped his strong of bad luck in 2010 for at least one night in Atlanta. The third-place finish was his first top-five since winning at New Hampshire two months ago. He ran strongly throughout the race, and was among the leaders for the entire night. Johnson's average finish in the last five Richmond events is 17.6, but he won three of the last seven events at the track. Like his 2010 season so far, Johnson has been strong, but has fallen victim to mistakes. He and Chad Knaus will be looking to use Richmond as a springboard to a strong Chase run, avoiding all the misfortune that they have endured so far this season.

Juan Pablo Montoya
After having a strong car in a number of races this season, Montoya had yet another Sunday evening in Atlanta. Typically, when Montoya has run near the front of the pack this season, he's encountered accidents, cut tires and other car troubles that have knocked him out of contention. He was among the fastest cars on the track Sunday, and continued the trend of the last three races and scored another top-10 finish. His Richmond finishes have been improving, he finished sixth there in May, but his average finish in the last five events is 19.4. Montoya seems to get better and better as time goes on, perhaps Richmond will deliver him another top-10 result.

Jeff Burton
Burton did not get Sunday night started on the right foot. His car was ill handling and he found himself a lap down by the time the event had aged 100 laps. Burton finished the last three races outside of the top 10 after recording five top-10 results in a row leading up to the Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway. To come back from those struggles and finish fourth is a great boost to the driver and team. The No. 31 team can feel confident that they will have a spot in the Chase, but they need to be careful to avoid poor results and wrong steps that can derail their campaign. If they don't do that Burton will be waiting until next year to lay claim to the Sprint Cup.

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin endured some sour luck at Atlanta, losing his engine and ending his night very early. It was Joe Gibbs Racing's first engine failure of the year, and comes at a very poor time for the team as they try to build momentum toward the Chase. Hamlin had a rough outing at Bristol Motor Speedway too, but came back after the off week and scored the pole for the Pep Boys Auto 500, and led much of the early going before dropping out. Hamlin does have a solid average at Richmond International Raceway. His average finish in the last five races there is 10.6 with a win and another top-five, so fantasy players shouldn't write him off any time soon.

Jamie McMurray
McMurray started the weekend off on the right foot by winning in the Nationwide Series. The win was his first in the series since 2004, and his eighth total. He then qualified strongly for the Sprint Cup race, and started the evening with some might. He overcame a flat tire mid-race and recorded a finish of 15th. That result dropped him to 14th in points, which ended any distant hope he had of making the season ending Chase. McMurray's Richmond record hasn't been all that great. He has only averaged a finish of 26.7 in the last nine races at the short oval, with just one top-10 result.

David Reutimann
The 2010 season has been a memorable one for the No. 00 team and Reutimann. They've scored another win and also recorded five top-fives so far. However, they didn't have the best of luck in Atlanta. Officials called Reutimann to pit road after radio and electrical problems made it impossible to communicate with his crew, forcing him to change steering. The team will be disappointed with the result after scoring a second-place finish at Bristol just before the break. He's been getting faster at Richmond the last few years. His average finish at the track is 18.8, but he's started from the top 10 twice in the last three races. Reutimann may not be the best fantasy option, but his value has been steadily improving.

Joey Logano
After working hard to make his presence felt among the main contenders of NASCAR, Logano endured another rough night in his sophomore season. He had engine troubles fairly early on, and that made him drop through the standings. He was a lap down and well outside of the top 20 runners well before the halfway mark of the race. Logano's three-race career average finish at Richmond is 16.3, and while all of his finishes have been top-20 results, he hasn't finished better than 14th. Logano will be anxious to move past this season and hope for better fortunes in 2011.