RotoWire Partners

NASCAR Barometer: New Leader

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.

Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway produced a number of stories, and a new points leader. Elliott Sadler led the field to the green flag with his first Texas pole, giving the Virginian something to smile about in yet another difficult season. He wasn't able to hold the lead long as the race wore on.

The racing was quite competitive, and tempers flared in a number of teams. Fists were flying under caution between Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon, while Kyle Busch made some very poor decisions, costing him valuable positions on the track and in the standings. It was a day where maturity and perseverance would rule the day.

Denny Hamlin completed the 2010 Texas sweep winning both the spring and fall races at the track, taking the lead in the Chase by 31 points over Jimmie Johnson with Sunday's Texas victory. He kept cool under pressure and raced hard to take the lead and protect it. Other drivers made smart decisions climbed the standings, while those who's emotions overcame them, too big steps backward.

UPGRADE


Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin came home a winner Sunday after a strong run with a number of competitors. Hamlin is proving that any efforts to lay claim to the Sprint Cup will have to cross his desk first. He said earlier in the season that he felt like he should be winning more races, and he is proving now that he can. His victory earned him the lead in the Chase over Jimmie Johnson, perennial front-runner. Hamlin has scored top-10 finishes in each of the last five events and stalked his way up the Chase ladder. He did not have a great outing in his last start at Phoenix International Raceway, finishing 30th. The four starts prior to that finish netted an average result of 4.3.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth used his Roush Fenway Racing performance to score a strong second-place finish Sunday, moving up three positions to fifth in the Chase standings. Kenseth challenged Hamlin for the victory Sunday, but it was the No. 11 car that came out on top. The strong finish was only Kenseth's second top-10 result in the last five races, his 13th top-10 finish of the season. Had it not been for Kenseth's mediocre mid-season form, he might have more top finishes under his belt in 2010. Despite his sixth-place result in April's Subway Fresh Fit 600, Kenseth's average finish in the last five Phoenix races is 20.8. Fantasy owners will want to avoid Kenseth for his inconsistency at the track despite his current momentum.

Mark Martin –
Martin used pit strategy to score another top finish. In the final caution, Martin and his team decided to stay on track and use track position to try and finish strongly. The gamble paid off as Martin came home in third position, his second top-five finish in the last three races and seventh of the season. Martin hasn't had the best of years in 2010, but his closing performances this season have to give him some confidence. He has one of the best recent records at Phoenix International Raceway, with three top-five finishes in the last five races there, including one victory in April of 2009 from pole. Martin should be a lock in most fantasy rosters next weekend.

Greg Biffle –
With 33 laps to go, Biffle had been leading Sunday's race, but had a hard time leaving his pit stall, losing positions. By that time Biffle had also led the most laps in the race. He exited the pits in ninth position, a net loss of eight spots. In the closing laps he was able to work his way back to fifth, and salvage what he could of a very strong run, but it wasn't the second Chase win the team was hoping for in 2010. Roush Fenway Racing has clearly become the team to beat on 1.5-mile ovals and Biffle made that crystal clear with his strong run Sunday afternoon. With an average finish of 12.2 in the last five Phoenix races, Biffle may not be the best fantasy option.

Kevin Harvick –
After a difficult day, Harvick still managed to finish sixth Sunday. The perseverance he showed through a difficult day of getting the car right earned him his seventh top-10 result in a row. He now stands third in the Chase standings, just 59 points out of the lead. Harvick's consistency is making sure that he is there if either Denny Hamlin or Jimmie Johnson falter. Harvick finished 13th in the last race at Phoenix, but that shouldn't deter fantasy owners from relying on his consistently strong runs this season. Harvick should be another solid option next week, as usual.

DOWNGRADE


Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson didn't have the most stellar day, despite finishing in the top 10, and scoring his seventh straight top-10 finish. After teammate Jeff Gordon was knocked out of the race, Chad Knaus drafted the No. 24 pit crew to service Johnson. The action paid immediate dividends as Johnson's new crew pitted the car a second faster than his prior stop. The car was difficult to keep up with though, and Knaus and Johnson never fully got on top of the adjustments they needed to make. Ultimately, it was a decent day for Johnson, but with Hamlin winning, he fell behind in the standings. He now has 31 points to overcome in the remaining races to keep alive his "drive for five."

Jeff Burton –
Burton and Jeff Gordon got together a few times Sunday, and once out of the cars as well. Burton took blame for the accident, which took both drivers out of the race, but immediately after, it was Gordon who took out his frustrations with punches. Burton was classified in 36th position and is now last in the 12th and final position in the Chase standings. Burton scored three top-10 results in his last five starts at Phoenix International Raceway, recording an average finish of 11.4 in that time. He should be a solid fantasy option next weekend, assuming he doesn't run into the same mistakes he made this weekend.

Jeff Gordon –
Fisticuffs normally involved a newer driver to the series, but this week saw Gordon attacking Jeff Burton in a battle of veterans. Gordon had every right to be angry at Burton, and for his part Burton agreed. The incident was unfortunate, and Gordon probably overreacted in the heat of the moment. Gordon's crew subsequently pitted the No. 48 car, giving at least one Hendrick Motorsports car a shot at a strong finish. Gordon comes to Phoenix with two top-five finishes in the last two races at the track, and is desperate for more. His Chase hopes may be over, now being sixth in the standings, but he is still hungry for race success.

Kyle Busch –
Busch charged through the field early on, running in the top 10 before getting tapped and spun by Aric Almirola. The resulting pit stop from Busch earned him a speeding violation, and more anger ensued. Busch gave a NASCAR official the universal signal for "you're number 1" and was subsequently held on pit road for un-sportsman like conduct. The myriad of infractions cost Busch a decent finish, and he ended the day in 32nd position, two laps down. He now sits seventh in the chase standings, down two positions from where he started this week. Busch's Phoenix record is decent with an average finish of 13.9 in 11 career starts.