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NASCAR Barometer: Down the Stretch They Come

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.

It was a competitive afternoon in the desert with many drivers coming toward the front of the field and others dropping backward. This being the penultimate race in the season, many teams were hoping to put their stamp on the year. By the end of the distance the race had become one of strategy. Those drivers who were able to save fuel didn't have to pit in the closing laps, and that netted them positions they otherwise may not have gained at full speed. As is usual with a fuel-mileage race, some of the fastest cars were unable to make the distance and didn't score finishes representative of their efforts. Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 team were one of the casualties, while the chaser Jimmie Johnson was buoyed.

In the end, fuel-saver Edwards got the job done and notched his first victory of the season. A victory seemed well overdue for Edwards, who has run strongly at a number of tracks this season. The effort will go a long way to helping him feel as though the year wasn't a bad one, and he may have secured fourth place in the Chase with the effort.

Next weekend marks the end of the season at Homestead Miami Speedway, and it looks like the duel will be between Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. The 2010 Chase for the Championship has been the closest in history, and fans will have plenty to cheer for in the final race next week with three competitors well within distance of claiming the Sprint Cup.

UPGRADE


Carl Edwards
He led the field to the green flag after winning the pole for the Kobalt Tools 500, and he also had one of the fastest cars all afternoon. Edwards may not be an obvious title contender, but he was on his game in Phoenix this weekend. After two races with finishes worse than 15th, Edwards showed that his season wasn't over by scoring his first win of the season, ending a long winless streak for the No. 99. His Miami record is very good as well. An average finish of 5.0 is among the best of the drivers competing next weekend. He may not win the championship, but Edwards can definitely still make some fantasy owners very happy with another top finish in the final race of the season.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson didn't have the kind of day he would have liked in Phoenix, but he did enough to remain in contention for yet another championship, knocking down the gap to 15 points to leader Hamlin. The fuel race in the closing laps allowed Johnson to pick off those who ran out of gas, while staying ahead of Hamlin, who had to pit. Johnson had a solid Phoenix finish, but he'll need to do more next weekend in Homestead to take the title. His average finish in the last five starts in Miami is 15.2. A finish down in the field will not suffice if Hamlin doesn't run into trouble, and the No. 48 team doesn't want to rely on outside circumstances to ensure their fifth title.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick led another master class on overcoming adversity Sunday afternoon. After a missed cue on pit road, Harvick had to pit again for a missing lug nut. He dropped from the top five down to 19th position, giving himself plenty of work to do before the end of the race. The cards fell his way though as the race quickly became a fuel strategy contest. In the end he came home seventh after working hard and saving fuel to make sure that he has a shot at the title in Homestead. He shaved 13 points off of the lead, and that puts him in a decent position to challenge for the Cup.

Kyle Busch
A week after suffering the ire of NASCAR officials for unsportsmanlike conduct after a pit road penalty, Busch showed that he could still drive like a mature racer this weekend. He wasn't as fast as his teammate, but Busch held the leader in his sights and continued to work on his car settings to get the grip he needed to remain near the front of the pack. It was a mature dive from Busch just one week after a lapse in maturity cost him any slim chance he may have had of winning his first Sprint Cup. While the fuel strategies cost him and his teammate, Busch drove a solid race and would have been further up the order if his fuel strategy had been the right one.

DOWNGRADE


Denny Hamlin
The 1,000-laps led mark for 2010 was met and exceeded Sunday by Hamlin in Phoenix. In doing so, he also picked up more bonus points for leading the most laps in the race. Hamlin is in a decent position to secure his first Sprint Cup next weekend in Miami, but his closest rival closed the gap Sunday. Hamlin came home 12th after he was forced to pit for fuel, playing the conservative route, hoping more cars wouldn't be able to make it to the finish. Ultimately, he paid the price and lost some championship ground. In his last five starts at Homestead Hamlin scored an average finish of 10.6 with three top-fives, including a win in last year's Ford 400, he'll need some confidence and determination to win the championship next weekend.

Kasey Kahne
After a few races with the Red Bull squad, it is clear that the kinks haven't been completely worked out yet. Kahne had a pit road mishap where he drove away with the gas can hooked onto his rear spoiler. The stop to remove the item, and the ensuing penalty for removing equipment from the pit area, dropped Kahne down the order, not a way the new partnership wants to end the season. Kahne hasn't notched a top-10 finish since the Auto Club Speedway, five races ago now, but the team has plenty of time to get on the same page. Kahne isn't a driver fantasy owners want to rely on next weekend, but the pairing with Red Bull could be a potent combination in 2011.

Juan Pablo Montoya
Having made it into the top five once again, Montoya was the victim of circumstance yet again. The fuel load he had on board just wasn't enough to make it through the final stint, and that cost Montoya what would have been his seventh top-five result of the season. Once the race became a fuel mileage contest, Montoya knew what he had to do. He held station in second position all the way until the final lap, but couldn't close the deal. The fuel angels were not on the Colombian's side and he was forced to coast home to 16th position. Montoya's average finish at Homestead is just 26.0 in the last four races, and those statistics are not encouraging for fantasy owners.

Clint Bowyer
The rollercoaster ride the 2010 Chase for the Championship has been for Bowyer continued Sunday in Phoenix. Bowyer wasn't having a terrible day, but ran out of fuel in the closing laps, pushing him deep into the field. Having to coast to the pits in order to make the finish line, Bowyer lost many positions and ended the race in 21st position, behind those who even ran out of fuel on the final lap. From winning races to losing points on penalties, Bowyer has seen it all since this Chase began. He knows his chances for 2010 are over, but redemption would feel pretty good for this team, and the momentum they take into the winter could inspire them to a stellar 2011.