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NASCAR Barometer: Smoke at the Brickyard

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.

Hard braking and high wheel temperatures at New Hampshire Motor Speedway caught out a number of drivers in Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Tire issues threw a number of drivers down the running order, causing spins and contact with the wall.

The day belonged to Stewart-HAAS Racing. Ryan Newman earned the pole, and team owner Tony Stewart started alongside. Both cars ran very strongly throughout the afternoon and avoided the tire issues that took out a few of their main rivals. The team's strategy gave the drivers enough fuel to run to the finish, and always adjusted the cars to keep its drivers at the front.

Newman crossed the line first with Stewart in tow, a sweep for the team. Backing them up were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, while Kyle Busch languished deep in the field after blowing a front tire early in the race.

Stewart and Newman now take momentum to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week. The two Indiana natives are hoping to make it another one-two finish in one of the biggest races of the year, but they'll fight each other tooth and nail to be the one who finds Victory Lane.

Indianapolis is a unique track for the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams. Its four turns only offer a flat nine degrees of banking, and the day will be hot, making the track slippery. Tires will be an issue, and track position will be king. The traits that brought Newman and Stewart to the front of the field in New Hampshire will do the same for any team that can duplicate them at Indy.

UPGRADE

Tony Stewart –
Second place in New Hampshire was a fantastic day for Stewart as a driver, and having his teammate in Victory Lane made it that much sweeter. Stewart-HAAS Racing locked out the front row in qualifying, and then swept the top two spots in the race with a perfect outing. Competitors should beware, because the temperature is rising, tracks are getting slippery, and that is where Stewart comes alive. "Smoke" is usually a safe play for any race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Stewart comes alive when he visits the hallowed grounds of the Brickyard, and his statistics over the last five 400's show it as well. He earned an average finish of 8.0 by tallying a win, three top-fives and four top-10s.

Mark Martin –
Pit strategy moved Martin to the front of the field early in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, but tire troubles ruined his afternoon when a failure at the rear of his car sent him spinning. Days like this certainly make retirement look like an attractive option for the 52-year-old, but this week could present reason to continue soldiering on. Martin's average finish of 7.0 in the last five Brickyard races is no fluke. He owns a pole, two top-fives and three top-10s in that span, with no finishes off of the lead lap. Martin hasn't been having a fantastic final season, but Indianapolis may present him with the best opportunity to go out on a winning note.

Joey Logano –
New Hampshire's pit strategy rewarded Logano with his third top-five finish of the season, and his fourth top-10 in the last four races. Logano is clearly on a good run of results and the freight train should have an excellent opportunity to continue rolling on. In two career starts at Indianapolis, Logano boasts an average finish of 10.5. He scored a ninth-place finish last year, and packed in a 12th-place result in his rookie try at the track. To start so early in your career with strong finishes at Indy implies that great things are yet to come at the track. Look for Logano to continue to improve his Brickyard finishing average.

Clint Bowyer –
A 17th-place result in New Hampshire is a difficult pill for Bowyer to swallow after fighting in the top 10 most of the afternoon. That finish also adds to his streak, now three races long, of not finishing in the top 10. Bowyer ranks 12th in points, and is in danger of slipping out of Chase contention. However, two top-fives in his five career Brickyard races help to push Bowyer's average finish at the track to 11.6. His best finish was fourth, which he scored in his rookie trial at the speedway in 2006, but he equaled that again last year. With no finishes outside of the top 20, Bowyer could be a very valuable second or third driver at Indianapolis.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger's 12th-place finish in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 gives the team its fourth top-15 result in the last five races. The team is on an upswing in its fortunes, and has overcome the odds to perform as well as it has. The No. 43 car is now 16th in points, and continues to inch ever closer to the end of the Chase field, a remarkable achievement for a team that was staring at its demise just a handful of months ago. Allmendinger led four laps in his first Brickyard 400, and he has continued to click off decent finishes at the track. His three starts there have earned him an average finish of 15.3. He completed every lap of each race, and should be a strong third driver for fantasy owners.

Ryan Newman –
Newman's afternoon in New England was brilliant. He clearly had one of the strongest machines on the track, and battled in the top five all afternoon. He avoided the tire troubles that befell many of his competitors and scored his first 2011 win. However, unlike his teammate and car owner Tony Stewart, Newman has not experienced success at Indy. In 10 career starts at the track, he can only boast one top-five result. His average finish in the last five Indy races is 19.8, with one DNF in the 2007 edition. Newman has not posted the numbers fantasy players need at this track, but with a victory in his pocket, he may be feeling pretty plucky.

DOWNGRADE

Bobby Labonte –
Labonte chalked up his second top-10 finish of 2011 in Sunday's race at New Hampshire. He avoided trouble and drove a great race to come home in such a strong position for the under dog team JTG Daugherty Racing. It isn't often that Labonte's name gets called these days, but occasionally he and the team pull one out. As a result, Labonte can sometimes be considered a solid fourth driver for fantasy rosters, given his experience and consistency. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway does not present the same case, however. Labonte's average finish in the last five Brickyard races is 25.8 with no top-10s. Despite this week's success, avoid Labonte at Indy.

David Ragan –
After back-to-back top-10 finishes, including a first win, Ragan returned to mid pack with a 14th-place finish in New Hampshire. That isn't to say that Ragan's recent success isn't for real, in fact we continue to expect even better from the young driver. The Brickyard 400 could also present some challenges for him, though, as the team continues to search for consistency. Despite finishing each of his four career races at Indy on the lead lap, Ragan's average finish is just 18.5. He hasn't cracked the top-10 at the track yet, and his best finish was 14th in 2008. Ragan has been on an upswing in from this season, but Indy is a unique track and he has yet to prove that he can compete with the top runners at the speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
It has now been five races since Earnhardt last finished in the top 10. With eight top-10s so far in 2011, that is a pretty long trough of tough results for the No. 88. Unfortunately Earnhardt hasn't been a smash success at Indy either. In 11 career Indianapolis starts, Earnhardt can only boast two top-10 finishes. He carries three DNFs in his finishing average of 22.2, and his average result in the five most recent Indy races is 23.0. The team is searching for consistent top results in 2011 after taking a step forward in performance from prior years, but that still does not make the No. 88 an ideal fantasy play at the Brickyard.

Paul Menard –
Consecutive finishes of 24th is where Menard stands heading to Indianapolis. The 30-year-old has shown progress and is starting to realize his potential, but that doesn't mean that success will come in waves. Menard continues to search for consistency and two top-10 finishes in the last eight races isn't getting the job done. Two finishes off of the lead lap and no top-10s in four career Indy starts give Menard an average finish of 26.0. The switch to Richard Childress Racing has capitalized on Menard's abilities, but the unique nature of racing at Indianapolis is something Menard has not mastered yet. The RCR effort should help him improve that finishing average, but don't expect a challenge at the front of the field after 400 miles.

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