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NASCAR Barometer: Costly Collision

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.

Halloween at Talladega Superspeedway brought a typically exciting and close restrictor-plate race. Juan Montoya and Clint Bowyer started on the front row, and many drivers put different strategies to work as soon as the green flag flew.

The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates immediately fell to the back and rode with one another, while Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton jumped ahead to the lead. Throughout the opening laps many different drivers took their turn at the front, and cars were getting hung out to dry while others climbed through the field like rockets.

The race was very competitive with over 80 official lead changes. The race also showed that the aerodynamic rules allowed two-car drafts to chase down and pass the main pack. Throughout the afternoon a number of two-car pairings pulled free and stalked down leaders and passed them, and in the end it was a battle between two teammates who had the fastest cars all afternoon.

UPGRADE

Clint Bowyer –
Bowyer won the AMP Energy Juice 500 by a whisker over teammate Kevin Harvick. Bowyer was clearly one of the fastest cars all afternoon, battling the other Richard Childress Racing teammates. Bowyer was alongside Harvick as a caution flag came on out the final lap. Eventually NASCAR decided that Bowyer was in front, and he collected his second win of the season. Unfortunately the penalty he suffered at the start of the Chase already ended his championship hopes, but Bowyer proved he still is a formidable force. Bowyer doesn't have the greatest results at Texas Motor Speedway with a 16.6 average finish in the last eight starts, but would make a decent fantasy option next week given his speed the past few races.

Kevin Harvick –
After running a very strong race, and doing all that he could to keep Chase competitors from leading laps or getting back onto the lead lap, Harvick found himself caught in a late accident at Talladega. Marcos Ambrose spun and was collected by the No. 29 car, damaging the nose and dropping Harvick out of the lead pack. Miraculously, Harvick rebounded and came home an impressive second with a patched car. That impressive result made five straight top-10 finishes for Harvick. The No. 29 finished seventh in the last race at Texas Motor Speedway, and the distance he now has to cover in order to catch leader Jimmie Johnson is even less.

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin came home ninth after spending a major portion of Sunday's race wondering if he would ever work his way back onto the lead lap. Hamlin was racing at the back of the pack to avoid trouble, but ultimately lost the draft and fell behind. He was a lap down for quite some time and no one dropped back to help him. While Chase competitors were doing all they could to keep him a lap down, Hamlin was working to catch the lucky dog rule that eventually got him back on the lead lap. The top-10 result he scored today was good enough to stay in touch with Johnson, and he is now 14 points out of the championship lead.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson finished seventh Sunday in the AMP Energy Juice 500, but finished behind one of his closest Chase competitors, Kevin Harvick. Johnson pushed teammate Jeff Gordon to the lead in the closing laps, but Gordon faded with mysterious engine troubles, leaving Johnson to fend for himself. He was shuffled back a bit in the racy pack, but he held on to score yet another top-10 result. Johnson did exactly what he needed to do, keeping his nose clean to score his sixth top-10 finish in a row, and eighth in the last nine races. If Johnson can continue to be as smooth and consistent as this, he will be staring at another Sprint Cup.

Jeff Gordon –
Just after pulling to the front of the field with teammate Jimmie Johnson in tow, Gordon announced that his engine was letting loose. He immediately pulled to the bottom of the track and was swallowed by the pack as he attempted to nurse his car home. It was unfortunate that the great run ended prematurely. The engine scare was a false alarm, and the ending result was the third top-10 finish in the last five races for Gordon. His average finish at Texas in the last eight starts is 15.4 with two DNFs, but he did win the 2009 Samsung 500. Gordon could still be in line for a race win this year, and that makes him a decent fantasy option next weekend at Texas.

DOWNGRADE

Jeff Burton –
Burton had one of the fastest cars Sunday at Talladega. The horsepower under Burton's hood made him a favorite drafting partner of many of the drivers, and that enabled him to run near the front for a good portion of the laps. Unfortunately, with less than 60 laps to go Burton was bumped by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sent into the wall, ending the afternoon. After three straight finishes outside of the top 10, the ninth-place finish Burton scored last week may have relit the fire in the team, but they must now overcome this week's DNF. Burton scored six top-10 finishes, including a win, in his last eight starts at Texas Motor Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt had been having a good afternoon at Talladega, running near the front and leading laps, when he bumped Jeff Burton in turn four. The contact sent Burton into the wall with Earnhardt wrapped up in the mess. He immediately went to the garage for repairs, but any chances of a decent finish were gone. Earnhardt doesn't have the best record at Texas Motor Speedway with an average finish of 14.7 in 15 career starts, but he finished eighth in April's Samsung Mobile 500. Earnhardt has had a better year than recent seasons, but it isn't anywhere near where he should be or wants to be. The team, despite occasionally running well, has plenty of work to do before they will be truly competitive.

Kurt Busch –
Busch, despite being able to run with the leaders, came home 25th Sunday. The result is not a good one for the driver hoping to climb the chase standings. Instead, he lost more ground to the leaders and is looking at another year without another championship. Encouraging news for the team though is that Busch put together some strong finishes at Texas recently. His average finish at the track in the last eight starts may only be 16.3, but his last three results have all been top-10 finishes with a win thrown in for good measure. Busch may be a solid fantasy option to rebound from disappointment this week.

Greg Biffle –
Biffle fell even further behind in the Chase standings Sunday after finishing 21st in the AMP Energy Juice 500. The finish marked Biffle's fifth finish outside of the top 15 in the seven Chase races run so far. Despite his win in the Price Chopper 400, Biffle has disappointed in the Chase. Biffle stands 11th in points, ahead of only Clint Bowyer who suffered a point penalty in the first Chase race. Needless to say, Biffle doesn't have momentum on his side, but his Texas record is impressive. Four top-10 finishes in the last five Texas races make Biffle a solid fantasy option for next week, despite this week's poor result.