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NASCAR Barometer: Back on Top

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.

NASCAR's regular season got off the mark with the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday. Carl Edwards started from pole with Kurt Busch alongside, as last week's hero Trevor Bayne was forced to start deep in the field after changing cars.

The "big one" that is typically reserved for restrictor-plate races ocurred at Phoenix early in the race, taking out 13 cars. Some drivers were out of the running, while others rushed to make repairs and return to pick up an extra position or two. Carl Edwards was one car bitten, as was Jamie McMurray and a number of others. The afternoon suddenly became a very long one for those teams.

Once the race settled into a rhythm it was Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch who were on point. Those two battled for the rest of the running, and the top five for much of the race were the usual cast of characters such as Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. In the end, it was Gordon's afternoon, taking his first win in nearly two years.

This week the series rolls into Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Jimmie Johnson has won four of the last six, including last year's race. But can Kyle Busch find Victory Lane this week in the Sprint Cup? He has the best average finish of the active drivers at the Vegas track, and it could be a showdown between him and Johnson.

UPGRADE

Jeff Gordon –
Gordon was finally back out front Sunday at Phoenix. After Hendrick Motorsports slipped in qualifying, and Gordon started 20th, he worked his way up front by the halfway mark. The No. 24 seemed to have speed on Kyle Busch, and Gordon made the pass stick in the final laps. It was the win he had been starving for since his last in April 2009. While teammate Johnson has dominated Las Vegas lately, Gordon hasn't been too shabby himself. His average start at the oval is 16.6 with an average finish of 10.2 in the last five races. Gordon has three top-fives and four top-10s in that time. Statistics like that, with some momentum from Phoenix, make Gordon an attractive play this week.

Jimmie Johnson –
Old "five-time" had a good Sunday afternoon despite not making headlines in qualifying. Once the green flag waved, though, Johnson picked his way forward and then settled into the top five as the laps wore down. He didn't have the speed of teammate Gordon, but he was fast enough to pick up third place. The finish is Johnson's first top-five of the season and should set him off on championship run No. 6. With four wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, including last February's Shelby American, there's no reason not to use Johnson this week. His average finish in the last five starts there is 11.2 with three wins.

Kyle Busch –
Shrub dominated the NASCAR racing weekend. He won the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series races on the weekend and was poised to sweep all three races for the second time in as many seasons, running in the top two for much of the race. In the end, Busch simply didn't have the speed to hold off a hungry Jeff Gordon for his third victory of the weekend. There has been no better driver than Busch at Las Vegas over the last five races. He owns a win, two top-fives and three top-10s in that span with an average finish of 7.8. That average is the best of the active drivers in the series, and makes Busch one of the top fantasy picks.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne turned in a quiet but impressive performance at Phoenix, finishing sixth for his first top-10 of the season. Kahne avoided the trouble that caught a number of drivers and scored a solid finish in his part-time ride. Although he never made a lot of noise, he drove steadily and without mistakes, running in the top 10 for most of the afternoon. Kahne is only in the seat for this season, and scoring a solid top-10 will go a good distance to successfully advertising the seat for its next driver. Kahne holds an average finish of 13.0 in his last five Las Vegas starts and could be a good third driver for fantasy players this week.

Kevin Harvick –
One of the first cars out of the Daytona 500, Harvick came good Sunday with a solid run. He was consistently among the fastest cars throughout the race and held station in the top five all the way to the checkered flag, finishing fourth. Harvick has been the model of consistency the last year and has picked up right where he left off. Continued top-10 runs will get Harvick to the Chase. Las Vegas has also been a good track for the No. 29 Chevrolet recently. His average finish in the last six starts there is 11.2 with two top-five finishes. Prepare to watch Harvick continue his pursuit of Jimmie Johnson through the rest of 2011.

DOWNGRADE

Carl Edwards –
Despite setting the Phoenix track record en route to the pole, Edwards did not have the afternoon he was hoping for. He did not lead the first lap, granting that honor to Kurt Busch, but also was involved in a heavy accident that forced him into the garage for extensive repairs. It was a long day for Edwards, who eventually returned to the track to earn some extra points. After the contact he was destined to only achieve a finish of 28th. This week is a bit uncertain for fantasy owners considering Edwards. His average finish in the last five Las Vegas events is 12.4. That is a decent average, but not as good as a Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger is doing his best to return Richard Petty Motorsports to its former stature. He ran well Sunday, sticking around the top-10 runners in the opening stages, and picked up a ninth-place result. It was a good finish for him, but Allmendinger has had a terrible run of races at Las Vegas. His average finish in two starts is 29.0 and his average start is 29.5. That type of record is not good enough to warrant selecting him in your fantasy roster. He needs more time to get up to speed on the track as well as work with the team to continue climbing the speed charts.

Regan Smith –
After encountering trouble, Smith could only manage to finish 34th Sunday afternoon. His strong run at Daytona now looks like a one-off show for the small Furniture Row Racing team. Smith may yet have a few tracks this season where he can impress again, but not at Phoenix. Despite often being a decent third- or fourth-choice driver for fantasy owners, Smith's record at Las Vegas just doesn't hold up. His average finish in three starts at the track is 24.7. He has no top-fives or top-10s there, so it would be wise to save him for another week when he has a better opportunity to score points.

Trevor Bayne –
Bayne's fairytale ended at Phoenix. His dream start of winning the Daytona 500 was immediately followed with trouble every day of the following race weekend. In Phoenix, Bayne started deep in the field after having to change cars and ended the race prematurely in the wall after losing control in the early laps. Bayne has a lot of potential, but he needs time and experience to continue to develop. These first five races of the season will be invaluable to his development. Bayne's only NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas earned him a top-10 result. He could surprise again, but fantasy owners need something a bit more solid.

Jamie McMurray –
A large pile-up on the Phoenix oval took McMurray out of a decent finish Sunday. He finished 18th at Daytona, but couldn't manage any better one week later after the 13-car pile up forced him to end the day 35th. The immediate prospects don't look too bright either. Las Vegas hasn't exactly been McMurray's best track. In his last five starts there, his average finish is only 20.2. And it's not a DNF that dragged that average down, which makes the number even more distressing. McMurray showed up when it paid last season, and with some added consistency could be a Chase contender in 2011, but he hasn't made an effective jump off the blocks yet.