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NASCAR Barometer: Win No. 1 in the Books

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 afternoon was a competitive and fast test for the drivers of the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The Kobalt Tools 400 provided a fast race with drivers pushing hard to remain competitive, which forced mistakes from a number of drivers and teams.

Tire failures seemed to be the only thing truly out of a driver's control that could ruin his day. Otherwise, if a driver fell out of contention it was because of a spin or a mistake on pit road.

Matt Kenseth led the field to the green flag, but was caught out by a flat rear tire after the initial caution period. Tony Stewart dominated much of the race and looked ready to coast to a victory until pit stops in the closing laps jumbled the order and set off a final sprint to the checkered flag. He led the most laps and was chasing Carl Edwards all the way to the finish. Stewart can feel hard done by the outcome, but it was decisions made in the pits that cost him the victory. His race strategy just wasn’t good enough.

When the day ended, it was Edwards in the No. 99 who mastered Las Vegas Motor Speedway, performing one of his trademark back flips from the side of his car. He coupled raw speed with perfect pit work and strategy to come home the best of everyone Sunday afternoon.

For the next race it is off to NASCAR’s most exciting track, Bristol Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson pulled into Victory Lane there on the last visit, but it is the Busch brothers who dominate the record books, including Kyle who won three of the last four Bristol races.

UPGRADE

Carl Edwards –
The No. 99 team had an excellent run Sunday after starting from the third position. Edwards was among the fastest cars from the start until the very end. By the time the final pit stops cycled through the entire field, the No. 99 was in front and pulling away from the race’s dominator, Tony Stewart. Edwards held on through the closing laps and nicked the win, his first of the season. Edwards has a 10.0 average finish in the last five Bristol events. His average start is 16.2 in the same time and has a win, another top-10 and a pole to boot. Edwards is a safe play for fantasy owners when the series visits Bristol this weekend.

Ryan Newman –
A top-five finish was Newman’s reward for a solid Sunday performance that saw no mistakes. Both of the Stewart-HAAS Racing cars were on song in Las Vegas. Newman had a solid points day, as well as his team owner, and the finish makes it back-to-back top-five results for the No. 39 team. Newman might be fantasy’s most undervalued option this weekend. His average Bristol finish is 8.2, second only to Kyle Busch. He finished on the lead lap each of those five tries and scored four top-10s in that span. Newman usually isn’t the most often used driver on owners’ rosters, but he's a good play in the next race.

Kurt Busch –
The elder Busch brother had somewhat of a difficult day in Las Vegas. He was one of the fastest cars from the outset of the distance, but spun midrace, dropping him in the running order. The spin didn’t hurt Busch terribly, though, but it might have cost him a top-five. His speed overcame the bad situation, and he ended the day with a solid 10th-place result despite the trouble, but one wonders what could have been had the mistake not occurred. The Busch name is synonymous with success at Bristol, and Kurt has one of the best recent records there. His average finish in the last five tries is 9.0, and he has finished on the lead lap each of those times.

Kyle Busch –
After rough weekend, Busch still makes the Upgrade list. He may have skimmed the wall with a flat tire Sunday in Las Vegas, but Busch has a habit of battling back and overcoming adversity. That was the case until his car caught fire a few laps later. It was a disappointment at home, but he could rebound in two more weeks. Busch has the best Bristol record of any Cup driver over the last five races. His average result is 2.8 from an average start of 20.0. He won three of those five events and took home one extra top-five and top-10. Busch is an obvious start in the Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City.

DOWNGRADE

Kasey Kahne –
Sunday was a decent day for Kahne. He finished the afternoon in 14th position. Kahne continues to provide consistent runs for the Red Bull Racing team, and that is good advertising for the team looking to fill the seat next year. He even endured a spin midway through the race, following Kurt Busch as he pirouetted off of turn 4. Had it not been for that mistake the result might have been even better. Despite earning two top-five results in his last five Bristol starts, his average finish at that time is 22.4. He only finished on the lead lap twice in those five runs and tallied one DNF.

Martin Truex Jr. –
Truex had an excellent day in the Kobalt Tools 400, running in the top five for much of the afternoon and ultimately rolling onto the hauler with a six-place finish. Truex was in contention for the Las Vegas victory until the very end with a very fast car. The run was an excellent boost for Michael Waltrip Racing, and Truex demonstrated that he could still wheel a car despite not being in one of the top-four teams. A driver like Truex would be expected to have a good record at Bristol. Instead, his statistics at the track aren’t much to write home about. His average finish in the last five races there is 22.4 with no top-10 results.

Paul Menard –
The newest member of the Richard Childress Racing team had a quiet afternoon at Las Vegas, but still delivered a 12th-place result. The finish isn’t headline grabbing, but it is a step up for Menard who has proven that he can drive with the best. Consistency and performance should continue to improve this season. Menard is in a much better spot and team than he has been the last five visits to Bristol, but his average finish in the last five races there is just 20.8 with an average start of 24.2. Menard certainly has a good chance to outperform his past statistics at the track, but fantasy owners should probably remain cautious.

Kevin Harvick –
Seventeenth-place is not the position that Harvick is used to walking away with at the end of a day. He wasn’t able to make an impact on the field Sunday, and never quite found the pace that would enable him to work his way up the running order and fight for a top finish. He is usually able to make his presence felt as a race ends, but that wasn’t meant to be in Las Vegas. It was definitely an oddity from Harvick. Despite his aggressive nature, which should suit a short track like Bristol, Harvick’s average finish at the bullring in the last five races is 19.4, with just one top-five. Consistency is needed, and Harvick hasn’t demonstrated it at Bristol lately.

Joey Logano –
A penalty in the closing laps Sunday was a bad way to end an already disappointing day. As the leaders made their final stops, Logano was tagged with a pit road violation and forced to serve a drive-through penalty while others just raced by. That mistake forced him down to 23rd place in only the final laps, a very disappointing way to finish the weekend. It was another rough day for "sliced bread," who is still looking to make his mark in 2011. In four Bristol starts, Logano has an average finish of just 29.2 despite an average start of 8.8. Logano has not been able to finish well at Bristol, and fantasy owners should look elsewhere until he proves that he can close the deal.