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NASCAR Barometer: Earnhardt Rising

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.

Three races into the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, this is a good time to review the drivers off to strong starts, and those who have disappointed thus far. The rest week between Las Vegas and Bristol presents the perfect opportunity to take a deep breath and assess what we've seen. This is the moment to look at who has momentum, and who is searching for some good fortune.

The year started with different winners each time out, a rookie and two veterans. Trevor Bayne became a Daytona 500 champion in his first attempt. Jeff Gordon finally got the monkey off his back and rediscovered Victory Lane, and Carl Edwards picked up right where he left off in 2010.

Now how about some others?

UPGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Having not won a race since 2008, the much-anticipated union of Earnhardt with Hendrick Motorsports has certainly fallen flat. In 2011, however, Earnhardt sits 10th in points three races into the season. He suffered a bit in the Daytona 500, but has turned around and recorded consecutive top-10 results at the more typical tracks on the NASCAR calendar. Earnhardt is certainly finding his comfort zone at Hendrick now, and that comfort and perseverance is starting to pay dividends. Earnhardt is within a shout at a spot in the Chase if this turnaround continues, and indications from the driver himself are that everyone is optimistic and satisfied, which is a huge step forward from the last few years.

Ryan Newman
Just like team owner Tony Stewart, Newman is off to a flyer in the first three races of 2011. The Daytona 500 proved to be a stumble out of the gate, but Newman has overcome that stutter with back-to-back top-five finishes in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Newman is fifth in the championship standings and also scored top-10 results in the Budweiser Shootout and his qualifying Duel at Daytona. The double performances of both Stewart and Newman are definite signs of improvement from the team, and a good indication of what might yet come. Stewart-Haas Racing appears to have found its stride, and we'll watch to see if the results continue to flow its way.

A.J. Allmendinger
Finding himself in the top 10 in the championship standings is a new thing for 'Dinger. While his best points finish came in 2010, the team struggled with finance and didn't even know if it would meet the bell for the 2011 season. Given those circumstances it is pretty amazing to see the No. 43 ninth in points with a top-10 finish from Phoenix. The team in proper hands, it is finding its former perk and could become a success story this season. Fantasy owners shouldn't expect 'Dinger to be a serious title threat this year, but with the speed he has shown thus far, he should be visiting the top 10 more often than ever.

Tony Stewart
Stewart is very much used to being the center of attention in Victory Lane. His new team has come quite a distance since its inception, and 2011 looks to be the team's most promising season yet. After the first three events, Stewart is atop the points standings and already has a top-five and a top-10 finish following his 13th-place result at Daytona. The disappointment he showed after losing the Kobalt Tools 400 to Carl Edwards exemplifies just how much Stewart believes he can win every week. He dominated that race, and if Stewart dominates, the rest of the competitors better be cautious. Look for more from Smoke in the coming races, he could be set to take on Jimmie Johnson as the year winds on.

Kurt Busch
The normally consistent Kurt Busch has lived up to that reputation thus far in 2011. He had a strong Daytona 500, scoring a top five, and outperforming his generally low restrictor-plate expectations. The next two races also saw Busch at the top of his game, in contention at various points throughout races, and taking home two top-10s as reward. Penske Championship Racing may be the only Dodge team in the series, but that certainly hasn't been a hindrance yet. Busch may actually be benefiting from the extra Dodge attention. Time will tell whether being the sole Dodge team will inhibit development, but Penske has a way of getting the job done. Busch should continue to be a solid fantasy option this season.

DOWNGRADE

Jamie McMurray
After coming through in 2010 when the paychecks were big, McMurray hasn't started this year on a flyer. He looked strong in the Budweiser Shootout and in his qualifying Duel, but McMurray was unable to come away with anything more than 18th place. The finish was a disappointment after such a strong showing the rest of the speed weeks. The next two races didn't offer much further hope for McMurray either. He finished 35th at Phoenix International Raceway and then 27th in Las Vegas. McMurray appeared to have the potential for a blockbuster 2011 after winning last season's biggest races, but he and the team haven't shown it yet in 2011.

Greg Biffle
Biffle has finished in the top 10 in championship points each of the last three years. Knowing that fact makes it exceptionally surprising that he ranks just 31st after three races in 2011. A few more slip-ups could find Biffle out of the top 35 in owner's points. While the possibility of him missing some races is unlikely, Biffle has a mountain to climb to get back toward the top of the standings. The new points system makes overcoming a big gap even more difficult, and a slow start will punish teams more than ever. Biffle and team need to get to work and have a turnaround immediately if they want to retain hopes of a solid 2011 season.

Jeff Burton
Richard Childress Racing has had a decent start to the 2011 season, demonstrating speed at each race on the different track configurations. Engine troubles at Daytona put a black mark on the start for Burton, and he hasn't recovered from that stumble yet. His two finishes following the 500 were only 26th and 21st. The other teams in the RCR stable have turned in better results so Burton will have the opportunity to lean on his teammates to round the corner, but he does have quite a gap to close. Sixty-three points out of the championship lead in the new points system means that Burton won't vault back to prominence after one or even two strong races. It will take more.

Joey Logano
Despite two top-10 starts, Logano's best finish this season to date is 23rd. Including non-points races, Logano has retired three of five times in 2011. He crashed twice in Daytona, and suffered an engine failure at Phoenix. Logano certainly has the talent and pedigree to become a Sprint Cup champion, but 2011 already isn't looking like it will be his year. He is 30th in points and is 60 points out of the lead. It will take a lot of consistently top results to close that gap and make the Chase. While no one is writing him off at this point, Logano, like the other drivers in this section of the Barometer, have created a large task for himself if his aim is to finish 2011 on top.

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