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NASCAR Barometer: The Bristol Bullring

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.

Greg Biffle started from pole at Michigan International Speedway, and dominated the early running. Track position and handling were the two keys in Sunday's race, and fuel strategy did not become a factor due to a late-race caution.

As clouds rolled over the track Jeff Gordon seemed to come to the front, but when the sun came out, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson who took control. Crews were certainly scratching their heads throughout the afternoon, trying to find the perfect balance between a cool, shaded surface, and a hot slick one when the sun was out. Some drivers got it right while others struggled through the afternoon, and met the wall in person with scrapes and bumps due to lack of grip.

Kurt Busch's late-race contact with the wall set up a sprint to the finish for the field, which then battled on pit road one final time. Most took two tires and fuel, to capitalize on track position for a green-white-checkered finish.

Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson held their positions after pitting and raced one another on the final restart. Busch took the lead and never looked back, earning his first victory at Michigan.

This week we focus on Bristol. This is one of the most anticipated races of the year, and there is definitely something special about the short track under the lights. The Chase is only three races away, and the leaders at Bristol will be the ones who can work through the intense traffic quickly and effectively, while avoiding the surrounding chaos.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch -
Kyle wrested control of the lead within 20 laps to the finish Sunday and was clearly the fastest car on the track until the checkered flag waved. He stalked Jimmie Johnson and took the lead before the final caution put the competitors side by side again for the final two-lap battle royale. With the win he picks up some valuable momentum and, more important, a spot in the Chase for the Championship. The Busch name has dominated Bristol recently, and Kyle has had his fair share of the spoils. His average finish in the last five races is 2.6, and he won four of those races. There simply is not a better driver record at this track in the near term, and Busch is a no-brain selection for Saturday night.

Kurt Busch -
Multiple altercations with the Michigan wall, including the final one when he was running 12th, just five laps from the end, were the story of Busch's day. He ran well despite the contact for the vast majority of the race, but ultimately his right-front tire was not strong enough to hold up. Its failure ended his chances of a top finish. What resulted with Busch's final contact was a caution period that set up a two-lap sprint to the finish for everyone else. The elder Busch arguably snags the "next best" moniker from recent races at Bristol. Kurt can claim a top-five and four top-10s from his last five Bristol races, and his average finish in that time is 7.4.

Jimmie Johnson -
Second-place Sunday marked Johnson's ninth top-five of the season, and 15th top-10. With a solid position in the points, and a win in his pocket, Johnson is ready to start focusing on the Chase. The effort he and his team put forth last week shows that he will be a driver to contend with, and might take home his sixth Sprint Cup. He worked on the car all day at Michigan, and did everything right to rack up more points toward his effort. The only other driver to win at Bristol besides Kyle Busch is Johnson; he took last season's night race. Finishing third there in March indicates he hasn't slacked off either, making Johnson one to beat this week.

Ryan Newman -
Michigan's effort earned Newman his 11th top-10 of the season. The year has been one of Newman's best, and he continues to find top finishes on a regular basis. Newman is clearly having the season his team owner, Tony Stewart, wishes was his. Things should get even better for the No. 39 in the coming weeks. The Chase is just a few races away, and the team is continuing to improve its form and score solid results. This season should end as one the team can hang its hat on. Over the past few races Newman has masterminded a great record at Bristol. His average finish in the last five tries there is boosted by four top-10 results and is an attractive 9.0. It's time to get on board the Newman express if you haven't already.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski could be the hottest driver on the circuit. His competitors are wondering if they too could gain a performance edge by breaking an ankle. Sunday's third-place result was his third consecutive top-five, bucking his past statistics at the track. The same could be true this week for Bristol. Sometimes it can take experience to get the hang of racing on the tight Bristol track, and Keselowski is wondering when it will come to him. His average finish in three career starts is just 16.7 with no top-10s. He may be on a solid run of results at this point in the season, but his Bristol statistics suggest a roadblock. Still, it could be wise for fantasy owners to ride the wave until it breaks ashore.

DOWNGRADE

Clint Bowyer -
Seventh-place at Michigan was Bowyer's best result since Sonoma. It is the team's ninth top-10 of the year, and helps Bowyer stay within contact of a spot in the Chase. The 2011 season has not been all roses and champagne for the No. 33 team, though. This week may present a further dent to its optimism. Bowyer's form at Bristol has taken a nosedive in the last five runs. Just one top-five finish in the last five Bristol races, sandwiched by two others 35th and worse bring Bowyer's average finish down to 22.6. Finishing 35th in March's Bristol race does not make him a go-to fantasy option this week.

Kevin Harvick -
Michigan qualifying did not go as planned for Harvick, but after starting deep in the field he did manage to begin working his way forward. Upon the final caution, though, contact on the crowded pit road caused significant front-end damage, and the car only managed to limp home 22nd as a result. Last week's finish may not be a good omen for this week, either. One would think Harvick might have a better recent record at Bristol than he actually does. His early career results at the bullring were very good, and he even has a victory there, but in the last five starts at the track he has only managed a finishing average of 19.8. He finished sixth there in the spring, and that could signal some potential, but current trends suggest another struggle this week.

Tony Stewart -
A top-10 result finally came to Stewart after the last two races showing something of a slump. The summer, which started off with a bang, hasn't produced the Tony Stewart fans are used to. He worked hard to finish ninth, but had to work extremely hard to get it. The team struggled with car handling, but stayed 10th in points with the finish. He was very pessimistic about his chances in the Chase post-race, and emotions like that won't help him as the hauler heads to Bristol. Stewart started his normal summer run with great promise this year, but the momentum has petered out. Stewart has just one top-five in the last five Bristol races, and his average finish in that span is 19.6.

Joey Logano -
Logano finished 21st in the Pure Michigan 400. It wasn't the run that the team was aiming for, but after qualifying 23rd, it knew the deck was probably stacked against it. Logano's results have clearly taken a major turn for the better since June, but the team is still struggling with inconsistency. He wasn't a competitor at Michigan, and his past statistics would indicate that he might go missing again this week. After scoring pole at Bristol's March race last season, Logano looked like he had the place figured out. Instead, his career average finish at the track suggests otherwise. His best finish was 18th in the night race last season. Fantasy owners should look for better than that.

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