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NASCAR Barometer: Big Hand for Hamlin

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 series visited Martinsville Speedway on Sunday for the second and final time this season. Denny Hamlin secured the pole and led the opening laps after winning the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at the track back in March. He fell back shortly as the racing began to heat up.

The race took its toll on a number of competitors. Teammates bounced off of one another and tensions rose in the garages, typical of short-track racing. Cautions and contact were the order of the day as a number of drivers came away feeling hard done, while some made the best of adversity.

Mark Martin took his damaged car and a horrible day, and charged to a second-place finish in the closing laps. His car was beaten and bruised, but whatever damage was done actually made his car the fastest on the track. There just weren't enough laps for him to track down the leader. Hamlin built an unassailable lead in the final run and took the checkered flag to close within six points of Jimmie Johnson's lead in the Chase.

UPGRADE


Denny Hamlin
Hamlin led the opening laps of Sunday's race, but was quickly overcome by a poor handling car. The changes his team made on the first pit stop corrected whatever ailed him, and he came back to the front of the field to make a permanent home there. Hamlin dominated the closing laps as Mark Martin made a charge, but was too far behind to catch him. Hamlin notched one of his 12 top-five finishes so far this season at Talladega, and he should be well poised to score another next weekend. He is focused on winning this championship, and he might be the only driver capable of knocking Jimmie Johnson out of the points lead.

Jeff Burton
Burton spent a lot of Sunday afternoon leading the field, and fighting amongst the top runners. The Richard Childress Racing cars were on their game, and Burton put his strong machinery to work. Ultimately, he finished ninth for his second top-10 finish of the Chase. The afternoon's race may have been one of Burton's best chances at a win, but his handling went away as the laps wound down. Looking ahead to next week, Burton's last finish at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing to write home about. He finished 32nd after starting eighth and leading 28 laps. Richard Childress Racing has a strong restrictor-plate program and Burton will want to do more of the same next week.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick put his new pit crew to good use this weekend. After trading personnel with Clint Bowyer, Harvick's first stop was the third fastest in the field. He continued to work well with his crew chief to get the settings correct, and the speedier pit work helped him take advantage on the track. He finished the day in third position, dropping one spot to a surging Mark Martin in the final run of the day, the longest of the race. Harvick has been the picture of consistency this season, and he won the last visit to Talladega in April. Harvick was third in points before Martinsville, and still has plenty of room to make a move for the top.

Mark Martin
With just one top-10 result in the last 10 races, Martin is certainly not living up to this season's expectations. He was running deep in the field Sunday afternoon when he was tapped from behind and ended up in the wall with heavy damage to the rear of his car. Not being in the Chase is something that was definitely upsetting to Martin, but the way he overcame today's problems to finish second is amazing. He is currently 14th in points, and would like to take the 13th position to be best of the rest. He isn't a fan of restrictor-plate racing, but next week's Talladega race presents him with a good opportunity to record a strong result. He finished fifth in the last race there.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After weeks of downgrades and less than stirring performances, Earnhardt found himself at the head of the Martinsville train for a number of laps Sunday. He finished the race seventh having led 90 of the 500 laps. The finish was Earnhardt's best since the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Raceway, and his eighth top-10 finish of the season. Everyone knows how good the Earnhardt name is on restrictor plate tracks, so fantasy owners would do wisely to at least have Earnhardt on their roster as an alternate next weekend. He has not finished outside of the top 15 at Talladega in the last three races.

DOWNGRADE


Greg Biffle
After turning in a top qualifying performance, Biffle had a series of troubles in Sunday's race. He sped on pit road and was assessed a penalty, and he spent significant time in the garage working on the car. He returned to the fray over 30 laps behind the leaders without any hope of salvaging a decent finish. Biffle has scored two top-fives since his win at Kansas Speedway, but it would appear as though his second finish outside of the top 20 in the Chase may effectively end his hopes of a championship. Biffle finished 17th in the last race at Talladega. Roush Fenway Racing noticeably improved their superspeedway program, but it may not be enough for Biffle to make serious ground.

Jeff Gordon
While running toward the front of the pack, Gordon made contact with teammate Jimmie Johnson as well as Kurt Busch, ultimately ruining his day. After coming together with Busch Gordon had a severely damaged rear end and fell deep in the order with multiple pit stops to fix the car. Gordon showed frustration at his lack of wins earlier this year, and continued battles with his successful teammate won't help that. Still, Gordon has a stellar record at a lot of tracks on the circuit, and it is unwise to count him out. His average finish at Talladega is 21.0 over the last five years with two wins in 2007. His record there hasn't been consistent lately, but Gordon looks to be as hungry for a victory as he has ever been.

Clint Bowyer
A bad Chase got even worse for Bowyer this week. Bowyer was last in the Chase heading into Martinsville, had his pit crew swapped with Kevin Harvick by the boss, and then spun into the wall midway through the race. The damage to the rear of car was enough to send Bowyer straight to the garage, and any hopes of making up ground in the standings were out the window. The result was disappointing, especially since Bowyer was running well, as were the rest of the Richard Childress Racing cars. Bad luck bit him yet again. His average finish in nine career starts at Talladega is 24.4 with three top-10 finishes. He'll be looking for a positive to end the season with.

Marcos Ambrose
Despite leading the race early, Ambrose dropped like a rock, and then had some contact on his way back through the field. The contact flattened a rear tire, spinning him towards the wall, but he had even more damage with contact later. Ambrose hasn't scored a top-10 finish since September's race at Richmond International Raceway where he finished fifth. In addition to Sunday's troubles, Ambrose is set to replace Kasey Kahne in 2011, while that team is facing severe financial trouble. That team doesn't even know if it can even finish the current season. Not much is going right for Ambrose at the moment, and an average finish of 25th in the last three races at Talladega don't bode well for the Tasmanian.

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