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NASCAR Barometer: Stewart Heats Up in Summer

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 hot Kansas sun made Sunday afternoon's STP 400 an exercise in endurance and chassis adjustment. Nearly every driver encountered handling problems at some point, and the cars that ran up front at the end were the ones who mastered the slippery conditions of Kansas Speedway and played the fuel game at the same time.

The usual suspects of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth were quick and confident. Kurt Busch started from pole, but dropped back within the first lap with handling trouble. It wasn't too long before the No. 22 was back up front again, though, and he took off to virtually dominate the afternoon until he lost fuel pressure briefly with less than 10 laps to go, despite pitting.

The closing laps turned into a fuel mileage demonstration, and everyone wondered who would have to pit and who wouldn't. Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked the most likely to make it the distance and battled between themselves. When the laps wound down, though, Brad Keselowski was the one who found himself in front. He was coasting through the turns and taking the car out of gear to nurse it to the finish. The win was his second in Sprint Cup, and a well-deserved one with the effort he put forth to make it to the end.

This week brings Pocono Raceway, a very unique track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. It is a long triangle with three distinct corners and varying degrees of banking. To get the car set up perfect at the Pennsylvania track is nearly impossible, and almost always requires a compromise in one section. The long straights also produce a lot of strain on the engines as they turn maximum RPMs each 2.5-mile lap.

UPGRADE

Tony Stewart –
Running at the front of the pack throughout the STP 400 is more of a signal of things to come for the No. 14 than a one-off performance. Stewart generally wins more races in the summer months than in the start of a season, and 2011 hints that he may be poised to win even more this season. He looked like he could have won last weekend, but finished eighth due to a late fuel stop. Stewart is one driver that has consistently gotten the job done at Pocono. He is almost always in the mix at the end of each long race, and his track statistics exemplify that. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 3.6 with a win, four top-fives and five top-10s.

Carl Edwards –
Edwards had a dominant car throughout Sunday. He ran in the top five for most of the afternoon and never put a wheel wrong. His fifth-place finish was his sixth top-five of the year. The Roush Fenway Racing Ford engines still appear to be the strongest in the field, and they should be able to put that horsepower to good use this week on the long straights. Edwards is another driver who has come of age on the Pennsylvania track. His average finish in the last five Pocono races is 7.2 with a win and three top-fives. Both Pocono and Michigan International Speedway are two of the No. 99's best tracks, using him in your fantasy roster should be a no-brainer.

Clint Bowyer –
In the closing laps of the STP 400, Bowyer positioned himself in the top 15 runners. He was never among the fastest in the field Sunday, but he did persevere and continue to throw adjustments at his chassis. That hard work paid off with some solid points by coming home 16th, limiting the damage that otherwise would have been inflicted by ending up in the wall with a loose car. With a top-five and three top-10s in his last five Pocono races, Bowyer should be a driver to watch this weekend. He has been seeing success and strong performances in many races this season, and should be on track for another encouraging result in the Pocono 500.

Jeff Burton –
Kansas didn't give Burton the best of results Sunday afternoon, a 25th-place finish. He ran in the middle of the field almost all afternoon and was rarely a factor. The track was difficult for the No. 31 and the handling never came to the team, despite looking as though it could be quick in the early going. Burton is struggling in 2011. He hasn't experienced the finishes his teammates have achieved, and he is far behind in the point standings. His best result is a pair of 11th-place finishes. Burton's first top-10 finish of the season could come this weekend in Pocono, though. His average finish in the last five races there is 13.2 with three top-10s. Look for Burton to have a season-high finish if everything goes his way in the Pocono 500.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch –
The top-five was no stranger to Busch in Kansas, and he put in another class display Sunday afternoon. Busch led early in the race and continued to be one of the fastest runners throughout the entire afternoon. He finished the day 12th after a fuel stop, which was not representative of how he ran throughout the 400 miles. Busch's communication with Crew Chief Dave Rogers is obviously excellent since the No. 18 rarely suffers from handling problems for more than one fuel stint. Pocono is one track that Busch simply hasn't gotten the hang of, however. This is the week to rest him and save a start for future use. His average Pocono finish is 19.8 with just one top-five in the last five races. Save your Busch starts for another track.

Kurt Busch –
The dominant car Sunday in Kansas was the Penske Racing Dodge of Kurt Busch. Kurt complained about his car pushing within the first lap and fell like a rock through the standings before the lap was even over. After temperature came into the tires and the groove worked its way into the track Busch truly came to life. He was clearly the car to beat as he led throughout the afternoon, but lost it all when he had to pit in the closing laps for fuel. After winning the pole and nearly the race, Busch now heads to a more difficult track. His average Pocono finish is only 24.6 in the last five races, and he only finished on the lead lap two of those five times. Not one to rely on this weekend.

Joey Logano –
Logano appeared to have a decent finish lined up in the closing laps of the STP 400, before he fell into the fuel trap and had to get a splash of fuel with less than 15 laps to run. He tallied a disappointing 23rd-place finish on the back of consecutive top-five finishes. Can he bounce back? With just four Pocono starts, Logano hasn't shown that he can do the deed in Pennsylvania. His best finish at the track was 13th in the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 last summer. His average finish is 22.0, and while he is starting to get back on the horse this season, Pocono isn't a track where he would be expected to excel.

Regan Smith –
It was a difficult day for Smith and his Furniture Row Racing team. Their hard work never paid off, and Smith only finished 24th. He turned in some solid results this year, including a surprise win and three total top-10s. Finishes like those make him a go-to for fantasy rosters in need of a fourth driver fairly often. This weekend, however, Smith may not be a good decision. His best finish at Pocono Raceway was 18th in the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 last summer, and five career starts there have only netted him an average finish of 25. While he can often be tagged as a strong third or fourth driver, fantasy players should look elsewhere.

Ryan Newman –
Newman was never a factor in the STP 400 like teammate Tony Stewart. It was a difficult track to come to grips with, and the No. 39 never did. His 15th-place result was his second outside of the top 10, and may signal the start of another poor run of results. Newman had a great early career at Pocono Raceway, but his results at the track have taken a dip recently. Fans may remember his three consecutive top-five finishes in his first four starts at the track, but he hasn't scored a top-10 in Pennsylvania since 2009. His record may be one of the better ones of the current drivers, but keep in mind that those numbers are being buoyed by the more distant results.

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