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NASCAR Barometer: On the Road Again

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.

As is typical when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits Michigan International Speedway, long, green-flag runs dominated the running. Drivers who managed to stay up front through the 400 miles had to battle for the win with fuel mileage and horsepower.

The race lead was shared by Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing for much of the 400-mile distance. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle took turns out front, as did Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, while Hendrick Motorsports uncharacteristically struggled.

A late caution left just less than 10 laps to run. That ended the fuel mileage contest everyone had been posturing for, and the top cars were bunched together coming out of the pits. On the restart it was Kenseth who was left to chase Hamlin, though, after spinning his tires upon the green flag.

Hamlin held the bit between his teeth in the final laps, and scored his first victory of the season. That win could make things very difficult for the competition. When Hamlin finds Victory Lane it takes a lot to get him out of it.

This week brings the series to one of the two road course tracks of the season, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma Calif., truly one of the seaon's most exciting races. There is always tight competition, bumping and running, and plenty of challenges happening throughout the field.

This track also brings out many of the road course specialists, and it isn't surprising to see some of the world's best road racers in the field for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Drivers like Boris Said, Jan Magnussen and Jacques Villeneuve often make the trip to California, and each poses a victory challenge.

The Sprint Cup regulars have to be on their game this weekend. To win in Sonoma takes crisp driving, a solid gearbox and no mistakes from the driver. Marcos Ambrose will be the first to tell you that mistakes can be fatal to winning after losing fire in his car late in the race last year.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson
Sunday was a disastrous day for Johnson in Michigan. He spun early. That spin caused three flat tires that severed the sway bar in the front of the car, requiring a major repair under the next caution. Until that change was made Johnson fell like a rock through the field. He was never able to recover from that trouble and recorded one of his worst finishes of the season, 27th, thus needing to spring back this week. Johnson won the last NASCAR Sprint Cup trip to Sonoma and is a strong road course driver. His average finish in the last five races at Infineon is 9.4 with a win, two top-fives and three top-10s.

Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya looked to be running in a decent position Sunday until he lost fuel and was clouted from behind by Andy Lally. That spun Montoya down into the infield with rear damage, and in need of a push to his pit box. The trouble ruined his day, and he recorded a 30th-place finish, which was not representative of what he probably could have done. Despite that bad luck, fantasy owners would be seriously negligent if they didn't include Montoya in their fantasy rosters this weekend at Infineon. He is a former Formula 1 driver and can run circles around a lot of others on the twisty road course events. His average finish in his four career Infineon races is 5.8, and he is a former winner.

Jeff Gordon
Hendrick wasn't on song in Michigan. The drivers lacked the speed to hang with the front-runners, and only Mark Martin truly made his presence felt. Gordon was never a factor in the front of the field, and his finishing position of 17th was probably representative of the car he had on the day. Next week's sun may shine brighter, though. Gordon is the local road course ringer. His statistics on these types of track are impressive, and he continues to show the rest of the NASCAR garage how it's done. His average Infineon finish in the last five races is 5.0. In that short span he recorded a win, three top-fives and five top-10s.

Tony Stewart
The final Michigan restart offered Stewart a chance to challenge for the win, but he simply didn't have the power to get up and challenge the leaders. His seventh-place finish was his sixth top-10 of the season, though, and he is just now on the upswing of what could be a very lucrative period for the No. 14 team. Stewart is another one of the Sprint Cup regulars who excels when turning right as well as left. His average Infineon finish in the last five years is 11.0, made up of a top-five and four top-10 finishes. Stewart heats up with the weather, and he should be a respectable option for fantasy rosters this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose
Australian Supercar racer Ambrose is one driver whom competitors will be wary of on any road course event. He may be on a run of three finishes outside of the top 20, but Ambrose has shown some promise this season with his No. 9 Richard Petty motorsports car. Even better, Ambrose has some unfinished business to take care of at Infineon Raceway. He led 35 laps at the track in his three tries and looked likely to win last year before turning off his car under caution in the climb to turn 2. Johnson took the position and Ambrose was left wondering just how big that mistake was. Despite that, he remains a formidable force on a road course. A top-five and two top-10s at the California track is proof of his abilities.

DOWNGRADE

Regan Smith
Smith was ready to record another respectable finish in Michigan, but a flat tire in the closing laps destroyed that chance. He rolled home 33rd, but could have finished much higher up the order had the trouble not bit him. Next week could pose yet another rough weekend for Smith. The road course in Sonoma just doesn't suit him. His average finish is 34.0 in two career tries. The average starting position he mustered of 28.5 in the same timeframe doesn't project any more confidence. Smith will be hopeful of staying on the track and picking up positions left vacant by other's mistakes. He is not a driver who is safe as even a fourth driver in this weekend's race.

David Reutimann
Serious trouble put Reutimann in the garage before the end of Sunday's Michigan race. He started second in what could have provided a very promising points day, but ended being scored 20 laps down and in 35th position. Time spent in the garage repairing mechanical issues before he could return to the fray left him without any hope of recovery. Prospects don't get much better next week for the No. 00 either. Reutimann's best Sonoma finish came in last year's Toyota/Save Mart 350. He finished 20th in that event, and increased his average finish there to 30.3. Results like that simply do not get the job done for fantasy owners, and it would be best to avoid selecting him this weekend.

Brad Keselowski
Keselowski left Michigan Sunday with a great understanding of the hardness of the track's walls. He scraped the wall early in the run, flattening the side of his car, but also nearly found the pit lane wall as he locked his wheels coming into the pits. He finished 25th, much better than his starting position of 41st, but not nearly what he should have been able to achieve. Not only did Keselowski endure a troubling race at Michigan International Speedway, but he now heads to a track where he does not appear comfortable. Last year's 36th-place result in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 did not show any sign of promise. He started that race 36th, and only finished one spot higher. Don't count on Keselowski bouncing back this week.

David Ragan
Ragan finished exactly where he started Sunday in Michigan 20th position was the best he could do, and he never looked likely to move much further up the order. Ragan was one of the Roush Fenway Racing cars that just didn't have what it took to run well Sunday. That isn't a good sign, but Ragan is still building his consistency this year. In four Infineon races, Ragan tallied an average finish of 27.8. His average start in that time is 39.2, and he is not a quick driver on the tricky California track. He had some pit road trouble that held back a strong Michigan finish, and his past results in Sonoma don't indicate that he would be set to turn the ship around this week either.

Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was not on song at Michigan Sunday. He started 11th, but was a non-factor throughout the afternoon. He came home 26th, which is not where he or the team wants to finish on a regular basis. Infineon Raceway hasn't been too kind to Truex, either. He hasn't scored a top-10 finish there in the last five races, averaging a finish of just 24.4. While Truex can often be a solid third driver for fantasy players, he isn't one to lean on this weekend. There are plenty of other drivers in the bracket with more road course experience, and you should look to them for points this weekend.

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