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NASCAR Barometer: Busch Proves Best

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.

Sunny Sonoma, Calif., served up the usual thrilling road course race Sunday afternoon at Infineon Raceway for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Plenty of bent sheet metal, flaring tempers and hard racing made for an exciting race; despite the laps being borderline dominated by the dominant No. 22.

Joey Logano led the field to the green flag, but fell back as the laps wore on. Kurt Busch took the race by the scruff of the neck and set out to take charge for as long as he could hold on. Many fast cars attempted to work their way up the order, but track position was key among the many restarts, and those who got out front tended to stay there.

The usual anticipated contact between cars made for some unhappy competitors, but the unique nature of this hilly track makes rubbing fenders a given. Squeezing 43 wide and heavy Sprint Cup cars onto the pavement isn't easily done and contact invariably ensues.

With everything going crazy behind him, Busch kept his car as clean as possible and ran away at the front of the line. He was the fastest car and deservedly took the victory with solid pit strategy and mistake-free driving.

This week marks the start of the second half of the season with the traditional July night race at Daytona International Speedway. The race is always one of the most anticipated of the year. It is Daytona after all. The nuance of racing at night, plus the shorter distance makes for a different race than the Daytona 500, but many of the top restrictor-plate drivers will be licking their chops as they think of pulling into Victory Lane at Daytona.

UPGRADE

Kurt Busch –
With an amazing drive, Busch took the victory in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. He led more than half of the race and was untouchable once he got out front. Like the past two seasons, Busch has been consistently depositing top finishes in his points account. He may also be one of the best drivers in the draft never to have won at Daytona. He pushed winners to the finish line, and he has also been in the mix when the checkered flag waved. His average finish shows his ability at 10.0 in the last five races there. One of the best recent finishing averages at Daytona make Busch an ideal fantasy selection for this week's race.

Carl Edwards –
Sunday was a strong, if not quiet, afternoon for Edwards who scored yet another top-five finish in 2011. With consistent drives like Sunday's, Edwards should be a hand's-on favorite for this year's Sprint Cup. The current points leader also happens to have the best finishing average over the last five Daytona events. Edwards scored two top-fives and four top-10s in that time and finished every single lap of those races, which is no small feat at Daytona. He may not lead many laps in the race, or even win it, but he certainly knows how to finish, and navigating the Daytona minefield is extremely important for fantasy owners. Choose Edwards this week with confidence.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
Not one for avoiding controversy, Montoya used his fenders as often as his driving skills to get passes done on the tight Infineon track. He was one of the cars challenging for the win, but dropped to 22nd after stopping late for tires and being unable to work his way forward. One of the tracks that Montoya has consistently improved on, and has rarely faltered, is Daytona. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 13.2, and he racked up three top-10 finishes in that time as well. Montoya has readily adapted to drafting at superspeedways, and seems to really enjoy that type of racing as well. Look for him to record another Daytona top-10 in next Saturday night's race.

David Ragan –
After a late penalty for having too many men over the pit wall, Ragan drove the No. 6 home to 29th position at Infineon. It wasn't the best day for Ragan, but it wasn't expected to be anything great on the road course this weekend. Look forward to next week, though. Ragan fans, this week at Daytona is your chance to use the driver. His consistency in the season to date has been questionable, but it is time for an upswing. His recent Daytona record is admirable. Scoring one top-10 and consistently avoiding the "Big One" has earned Ragan an average finish of 17.4 at the Florida track. His ability to survive makes him a respectable second or third driver on most fantasy rosters.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt came out of Sonoma smarting from early contact in turn 11, and then an engine explosion that sent the car into flames as he drove to the pits. It turns out that the engine blew a hole in its side, and Earnhardt recorded a disappointing DNF. After consistently improving throughout this season, though, the ideal place for Earnhardt to seal the deal and score his first points win this season would be Daytona. He recorded two top-fives and a pole at the track in his last five tries, and Sunday could be the best opportunity he has to break his winless streak. Earnhardt should be a solid points earner even if he is unable to take out the lease on Victory Lane.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Newman –
Newman was driving a normal race Sunday, seeking to take home some valuable championship points, when everything started coming undone. He was involved in contact twice in the same lap when Paul Menard overdrove two corners and used Newman as his second set of brakes. Newman ended the day 25th as a result. The former Daytona 500 champion hasn't done great things since that victory, the scene of his greatest triumph. With two DNFs and just one lead lap finish in the last five Daytona races, Newman looks like a very risky fantasy option for this week's Coke Zero 400. The Daytona 500 champion just hasn't mastered Daytona since that win and is therefore not a confident fantasy selection this week.

Joey Logano –
Logano's run in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 was impressive. The young driver started from pole and held onto the front of the field the entire distance. The sixth-place result he earned was his third top-10 of the season. The Toyota/Save Mart 350 pole sitter will have to drive with a completely different style this weekend to succeed, though. Superspeedway tracks have not been Logano's forte so far in his career. His average Daytona finish in the last five events is 26.8. He recorded two DNFs in that time and finished a third race off of the lead lap after trouble. Logano needs to show some drafting prowess, as well as an ability to survive, before he becomes a fantasy option at Daytona.

Paul Menard –
A beaten car is what Menard took home from northern California after Sunday's race. He finished 17th in the end, but used more than his own car to earn it. Overdriving two corners in just one lap caused him to collide with Ryan Newman twice. It wasn't the prettiest day for Menard and his talents, but he did what was necessary to salvage what could have been an even worse day. Menard should benefit from having Richard Childress Racing's superspeedway expertise, but his results at Daytona have not been fantastic lately. His average finish is 20.2 in the last five tries, with one DNF and another finish off of the lead lap.

Mark Martin –
One name not mentioned at all Sunday was Martin. He languished deep in the field through the entire race and only got camera time when he was near an accident. Still, he kept his nose clean and rolled his car onto the truck with a 19th-place result. We usually expect more from Martin on road courses, but he was clearly not on song this weekend. Looking forward, his vocal dislike of restrictor-plate racing notwithstanding, Martin sometimes does fairly well in the draft. Often, though, he ends up unable to finish. Of the last five races he has competed in at Daytona, Martin has failed to finish one and was off the lead lap on another due to contact. He scored a top-10, as well as a pole, in that time, but his average finish only reached 20.8.

Kyle Busch –
One of the faster cars that was unfortunate to be involved in a few road course spins was the No. 18 of Busch. He finished the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in 11th position despite perhaps having one of the five fastest cars on the road. All said, the result is a pretty decent one for Busch, but he will be looking for more as the summer rolls forward. Daytona hasn't been the kindest track to Busch. Unlike his older brother, Kyle has only amassed an average finish of 23.4 in the last five races at the superspeedway. He owns one top-10 result in that time, but has failed to finish two of those five tries. Busch always has the chance to win, but fantasy owners should approach him with caution in this weekend's Coke Zero 400.

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