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NASCAR Barometer: California Sunshine

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.

The short track and high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway presented an outstanding race Sunday. A tire change mid-weekend created havoc for crews. The racing it produced saw a number of potential winners and plenty of fender-rubbing action throughout the field.

Carl Edwards was shot out of a cannon from the green flag. After the first few laps, a number of drivers started taking their turns at the front. In the end it was Kyle Busch who had the measure of the field and pulled away from a hard-working Edwards and worn-down Jimmie Johnson. Busch won with some breathing room considering it was Bristol, and his closest competitors couldn't truly challenge him in the closing laps.

The series now heads to a very different type of track, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The track is a two-mile tri-oval and presents the opportunity for a team with a strong engine package to pull out and take the victory. Ford has been the fastest package so far in 2011, but will it dominate this weekend? It will take as many ponies under the hood as possible.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch
After sweeping yet another NASCAR race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, Busch is setting himself up for another strong year. The Cup win Sunday earned him his fifth straight NASCAR win at Bristol, and cemented his domination of the track. Despite just one top-five and two top-10 finishes at Auto Club Speedway, Busch is still a driver who fantasy owners probably shouldn't bench. His average finish in the last five races at the California oval is 16.6, which isn't that impressive. Still, Busch is one of the most likely drivers to upset Jimmie Johnson in his quest for six championships, and it is unwise to bet against him on any given weekend.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson finished third in Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500, earning him his second top-five result in the last three events. With just a little more speed, Johnson probably could have challenged Edwards, but was unable to make the moves stick. The team with the best record at Auto Club Speedway in the last five races is the No. 48. In that span Johnson picked up three wins, four top-fives and five top-10s. He even started from pole once. In the last 1,200 laps run at the California track, Johnson led 551 of them. His average finish is 3.0 in that period, and there is no reason he shouldn't be in everyone's fantasy lineup this week.

Tony Stewart
Bristol was a race to forget for the No. 14. After spending the last few weeks contending for victory, Stewart was nowhere to be found Sunday afternoon. The result has to be disappointing, but next week may preset the perfect opportunity for a quick rebound. Stewart is one of three drivers to have scored a win at Auto Club Speedway in the last five races. His average finish at the track is 9.0 in those five starts, with two top-fives and four top-10s. He finished on the lead lap each of those five races, and with his current run of momentum in 2011, Stewart might be a driver to rest your fantasy hopes on this week.

Jeff Gordon
Sunday's performance at Bristol was definitely not something to remember for Gordon. His 14th-place finish was a shadow of what he has shown thus far in 2011. The finish was Gordon's third outside of the top 10 in four tries this season. He was never a factor on the short track, but it isn't quite time for fantasy players to write him off just yet. With two top-fives and three top-10s in the last five Auto Club Speedway races, Gordon could be a solid fantasy option next week. He broke his win drought earlier this season and having the fourth-best finishing average in the current field at the California oval indicates that Gordon should be a force to be reckoned with this Sunday.

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth worked hard through the afternoon Sunday and the hard work paid off. The fourth-place result he worked hard for Sunday was his first top-five finish of the season, and he now looks to be on the horse for more. There was a time when the Roush Fenway Racing teammates owned both Michigan International Speedway and its sister track Auto Club Speedway. Kenseth was a big reason that team dominated, and his record at the track is evidence. A win, two top-fives and three top-10s in the last five races there are stout statistics. And with Ford powered cars having a speed advantage in 2011, Kenseth will be an attractive option for fantasy owners.

Kurt Busch
Busch has finished in the top 10 in every race run so far this season. His consistency is impeccable and his perseverance is incredible. His seventh-place finish at Bristol on Sunday was his fourth top-10 of the season. Busch's solid and consistent performances make him a strong fantasy option at most tracks, and this week's race at Auto Club Speedway should be no different. Busch owns a top-five and three top-10s in the last five races at the track with an average finish of 15.8. While his average finish isn't the best in the pack, Busch's strength in 2011 is undeniable. He is carrying the Dodge banner and making people take notice. Busch should be a solid second or third driver for next weekend's Auto Club 400.

DOWNGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After losing the chance for three consecutive top-10 finishes with an 11th at Bristol, Earnhardt still must be pleased. Earnhardt battled back from a pit road violation early in the race to just miss nabbing his best string of race finished since 2008. Despite being on a run of strong results not seen in the last three years, Earnhardt could have some trouble this weekend in California. His record at Auto Club Speedway in the last five races isn't great with no top-10 finishes and just two lead-lap finishes. Earnhardt's average finish in that time is 24.6. Despite Edwards' recent string of success, fantasy owners may want to tread cautiously with him this week.

Martin Truex Jr.
The No. 56 team showed some serious strength at Bristol on Sunday. The 17th-place finish doesn't reflect the time Truex spent in the lead and the progress the team has made in climbing up the normal running order. Truex had a respectable day at Bristol Motor Speedway, leading his first-ever laps at the tiny track. His record in California isn't that good, though. And with an average finish of 25.0 in the last five races there, he doesn't jump to the top of fantasy lists. While Michael Waltrip Racing has shown definite improvement in 2011, Truex still isn't the most dependable play this weekend.

Mark Martin
With just one top-10 finish so far this season, Martin must be wondering what is going wrong. He finished 12th at Bristol, which is nothing to sneeze at, but certainly not up to Martin's standards. Martin doesn't have the worst recent performances at Auto Club Speedway, but his current performance has been trailing. His average finish in the last four races in California is 13.5 with one DNF. Martin hasn't been setting the world alight with his results in 2011, and that follows an equally disappointing season in 2010. While Martin always has the potential to impress, his time is running out, and 2011 isn't foreshadowing that he is likely to finish any better.

Brian Vickers
Vickers had an awful return to Bristol Motor Speedway. His finish of 36th was his lowest of the season and his third 30th-plus finish in the four races run thus far. Vickers' 2011 statistics are proving that it takes some time to get back in the saddle. With time, he should get back to form. In the last four races at Auto Club Speedway, Vickers hasn't been terrible. His average finish in that time is 15.8 with one top-10 finish, but he also recorded a DNF. Vickers will find his legs again as the season progresses, but fantasy owners should still treat the 27-year-old with caution. His sole top-10 this season shows progress and potential, but not any results just yet.