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NASCAR Barometer: Saturday Night Fever

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.

Saturday nights under the lights are almost always entertaining races, and the Crown Royal 400 was no different. The race was packed full of contact, hard racing and strategy.

Juan Montoya led the field to the green flag with his second pole of the season, and eventually found himself in a tit-for-tat battle with Ryan Newman, resulting in short-track damaged cars for both drivers. The night would not end as a good one for either, with tempers flaring as a result.

The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin virtually dominated the race while Jeff Gordon and a handful of others mounted challenges as well. In the end, the Gibbs drivers continued their domination of NASCAR's short tracks.

As the race ended, Busch was the teammate who pulled clear and virtually cruised to his second victory of the season. He led more than half of Saturday night's race and continued to demonstrate his talent as a driver.

This week takes the drivers and teams to Darlington Raceway, one of NASCAR's historic tracks, where drivers who can run a high line against the wall, and conserve tires will have an advantage on the rest of the field. Drivers come away from the track with Darlington stripes, and the walls usually end caked in black rubber.

Denny Hamlin won the last Darlington race, and his strong run at Richmond could foreshadow another Joe Gibbs night next weekend.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin not only won the last race at Darlington Raceway, but he also was one of the two most dominant cars at Richmond on Saturday. He finished second to his teammate, stretching his fuel as far as it would go, yet not sacrificing the speed that made him and his teammate so incredibly dominant throughout the night. Hamlin's Darlington win last year makes it two top-fives and four top-10s in his last five visits to the track. The powerful nature of how these two cars led the field at Richmond signal that Darlington could reveal more of the same. Look to Hamlin if you want to confidently score more points than your league opponents.

Ryan Newman –
Newman certainly came away from Richmond with a vendetta, storming to the NASCAR trailer. He and Montoya bounced off one another and the wall throughout the 400 laps, and unfortunately, a potentially strong finish for Newman was hindered by contact. The disappointing night only netted 20th place. He remains eighth in points, but has now finished three of the last four races outside of the top 15. However, two top-fives and four top-10s in his previous five Darlington starts is a stout record for the No. 39. He led 89 laps in that span and tallied an average finish of 12.0. Newman could be a solid B-list driver for fantasy leagues.


Jeff Gordon –
Gordon was one of the few drivers able to insert himself into the Gibbs stranglehold of Richmond. Unfortunately, he was caught in a hurricane on a restart and found the inside wall, ending his night with a very hard hit. He was scored 39th on the evening, and needs to bounce back in this week's Showtime Southern 500. Of the current Sprint Cup drivers, Gordon's record over the last five Darlington races is the best. His average finish in that span is 3.0, leading 167 laps, scoring a win and finishing in the top five each of those races. Gordon has the win he's been searching for this season, and his other races this season have been solid as well. Gordon has a bona fide chance of ending up in Victory Lane on Saturday night.

Matt Kenseth –
A pile up on the back straight Saturday night claimed a number of competitors, including Kenseth. He was able to soldier on and finished 21st, leading 16 laps prior to the accident. It was a frustrating end to what could have been an exciting finish, and he now has consecutive finishes outside of the top 20. Saturday was an encouraging night for Kenseth. As the race entered the final quarter, Kenseth had himself in position to challenge for the win, but it was not to be. With a top-five and three other top-10 finishes in the last five races at Darlington, Kenseth is a strong fantasy option this weekend. He finished on the lead lap in all of those runs, and even nabbed a pole.

Jeff Burton –
Burton put together one of his best races of 2011 Saturday. With less than 100 laps until the finish, Burton was battling for a top-five. He is the only Richard Childress Racing driver not in the top 10 in points, piling pressure on the veteran. He drove home Saturday in 16th position. It wasn't what it could have been, but the momentum builds for upcoming races. He is now 20th in the points, with a lot to prove, but his past statistics show that he could do that at Darlington. Four top-10s and five lead-lap finishes are what he can boast from his last five Darlington visits. His average result in that time is 9.8, and that makes him an encouraging option for fantasy owners.

Carl Edwards –
The series points leader had a night full of hard work Saturday. He struggled in the first half of the race, but started to make up some ground as the laps clicked off. By the time all was said and done, it was a very positive night for Edwards, scoring his fifth top-five of the season and retaining his lead in points. The No. 99 team's efforts are demonstrative of what it takes to win championships. They will need to work hard this week, where Edwards will need a perfect car to challenge up front. His average finish in the last five Darlington races is just 18.6, and he failed to finish on the lead lap twice, but scored two top-fives. With his 2011 form, Edwards should be in store for another impressive evening.

DOWNGRADE

Clint Bowyer –
Bowyer was involved in the biggest wreck of the evening, but came through relatively unscathed and notched his fifth top-10 of 2011. He is performing up to the RCR standard, but fantasy players should take caution when expecting big things from him at Darlington. While he can count one top-10 result to his name in the past five Darlington races, Bowyer only finished on the lead lap twice. His average finish is 23.2, and his qualifying hasn't been impressive either. Despite having a strong season to date, Bowyer would be a driver to temper your expectations of. A respectable finish may be in store, but his statistics indicate that he'll have to work for it.

Kevin Harvick –
Twelfth position was the best Harvick could muster after trying to close in on a sixth top-10 in 2011. The Crown Royal 400 started quietly for Harvick, but as usual he was able to work on the car and come from behind toward the end. While 12th is slightly disappointing, it was a much better result than the evening promised at first. At Darlington, one top-10 finish wasn't enough to bring Harvick's average finish higher than 22.0 in the last five races there. He can get the job done throughout the season, and has two wins to his credit so far in 2011, but Darlington may be the track where you'd want to give him a rest.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
A Target is not only on his hood, but is also on Montoya's back after Saturday night. He drove an extremely aggressive race, angering Ryan Newman, and perhaps more. Contact was the story of Montoya's evening, and his finish of 29th exemplifies it. While he seems to be coming of age on the NASCAR ovals in 2011, Montoya still shows he has a lot of learning to do before he starts scoring finishes that can be celebrated regularly. His average Darlington finish in four starts is 17.8, with one top-five thrown in. We'll look for more consistency from the Colombian before we start recommending him as a third driver.

Paul Menard –
coming alive in 2011 since joining Richard Childress Racing, Menard struggled Saturday at Richmond. He rolled his car into the hauler after finishing 37th due to being involved in the massive pile up that took out a number of top teams Saturday night. Menard is 15th in points, and he tends to be a confident weekly pick in most fantasy rosters since joining the new team in 2011, but his past results at Darlington indicate that players should proceed with caution this week. In the last four Darlington races, Menard only managed one lead lap finish and an average result of 28.0. It may be best to look for another b- or c-list driver in this week's Showtime Southern 500.