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NASCAR Barometer: The Chase is Coming

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.

Bristol Motor Speedway's night race delivered plenty of excitement Saturday. The usual build-up of anticipation for Tennessee's bullring was again rewarded with hard racing and plenty of bumping and grinding.

Winning in Bristol requires a well handling car even more than a fast car, and Keselowski got his chassis handling perfectly at the right time. Jeff Gordon also ran well throughout the race, but it was the kid with the broken ankle who continued to show he has a hunger to find Victory Lane.

Strangely, Kyle Busch wasn't a true factor throughout the night, and brother Kurt struggled from the beginning with pit road infractions. Plenty of drivers bounced off of one another on their way to the checkered flag, but most were able to bring their cars home without an overflow of emotions boiling into a brawl, though spats of payback were certainly dished out.

This week the series gears up for one of its fastest tracks, Atlanta Motor Speedway, for the AdvoCare 500. The Atlanta track under the lights on Labor Day weekend will require a driver to be flexible. He will need to be willing to work his way around the track from the bottom to the top in order to find the groove where his car works its best. Fuel could come into play once again this season, but a well-handling car that keeps up with the track as it changes throughout the run will also be a requirement for victory.

With just two more races before the Chase begins, let's look at who is on a roll.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
If you haven't gotten aboard the Keselowski Express, you should be wondering what you've missed. He scored two wins in the last five races, and he hasn't finished worse than third in the last four events. He came from virtually nowhere after breaking his ankle in a testing crash at Road Atlanta, and has virtually locked himself into the Chase with his recent performances. He won the night race Saturday at Bristol and shows no signs of slowing down. His momentum will be heavily tested this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, though, where his average finish is 30.5 from two career tries. Confidence can often trump statistics, and Keselowski and the No. 2 team are brimming with confidence.

Kurt Busch -
A pit road speeding penalty put Busch behind the game early in Saturday's race. He didn't help himself any when he picked up a second one just after halfway either. By the end of the night Busch was only able to claw his way forward to 17th position. He now rests eighth in points and will be unable to sit back in the next two races as he works to stay in Chase contention. Not only did he win the last visit to Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Busch also owns two wins and two other top-10 finishes in the last five Atlanta races. His average finish in that time is 10.4, and he should be a confident pick this week.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Running well Saturday night throughout the entire distance was a further exercise to show that Allmendinger and team are starting to come of age in the series. He finished 12th Saturday night in his third top-15 finish in a row, and that was his best Bristol finish in nine career starts. Things are going well for the No. 43 team, and Allmendinger is certainly becoming more comfortable in the car. The past four races have all produced finishes in the top 20 for the team. Allmendinger's average finish of 15.0 in the last five Atlanta races makes for a solid third driver in fantasy lineups. He finished sixth in the 2010 Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta, and has never finished worse than 20th.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth ran up front for much of the Irwin Tools Night Race. He led laps, and ultimately finished sixth. It was a disappointing result for him and the team given their speed, but it marks his second top-10 finish in as many races. He now sits third in points and will begin setting himself up for the Chase. He has decent momentum as well, with three top-10 results in the last five rounds. Despite not winning in the last five Atlanta races, Kenseth has the best average finish at the track in that time. He hasn't finished worse than 12th there in those five races, and also picked up two top-fives. Kenseth has displayed the consistency fantasy players hope for this week.

Brian Vickers -
After starting 26th Saturday night, 21st position was what Vickers collected when the race finished. Nights like that are typical of his season thus far, and he hasn't been the driver he was before he was forced out of the cockpit with blood clots. Still, Vickers has the talent to win races; he just needs the mistake-free night, as well as the equipment to get the job done. While the current season has been a rough one for Vickers, this week's race at Atlanta may be his opportunity to give Red Bull something to smile about before they exit the series. His average finish in the last four tries at the track is 10.0 with a top-five and three top-10s.

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin -
Paul Menard rammed Hamlin after an accident in front of the pair caused each to take evasive action. The damage to Hamlin's car was significant, but not enough to stunt his progress at a track like Bristol. He battled his way back to finish seventh. Despite scoring a top-five and two top-10s in the last five Atlanta races, Hamlin still falls into the downgrade column this week. His average finish in those five races is only 17.2 because of two races where he was forced to finish off of the lead lap. His recent results this year have taken a downturn as well. Hamlin is lacking momentum, and he may find it hard to get it back before the Chase begins.

Greg Biffle -
Bad luck struck Biffle early Saturday night when he was forced to pit under green for a flat tire. He was never able to overcome the issue, and finished the race in 31st position, four laps down to the leader. The finish solidified his third straight result of 20th or worse, marking an official slump. Biffle, like Hamlin, is another driver who's three top-10 finishes in the last five Atlanta races do not resurrect his finishing average. Two finishes off of the lead lap, including one DNF, in that span of races weights Biffle's average finish down to 19.6. Biffle needs to turn his current form around, but may struggle to do it in Atlanta.

Jeff Burton -
Fifteenth Saturday night is the second top-20 result Burton has scored since scoring his first top-10 of the season at Watkins Glen International. A finish like that, believe it or not, is slightly better than average for Burton this year. The finishing record of this team is completely underperforming the potential of a Richard Childress Racing garage. And while Burton continues to struggle in 2011 he hasn't had the greatest results in Atlanta either. His average finish in the last five races is 18.0, despite finishing fourth in the last Atlanta race. Two of those five tries have resulted in finishes a lap or more behind the leader. Burton continues to be a driver to avoid if possible.

Joey Logano -
Logano came away from Bristol Saturday night with a 13th-place finish, not bad for a driver who's previous best finish at the track was 18th. The team is learning how to earn points from races where winning simply isn't a possibility, and the experience Logano is gaining from races like that will serve him well as he fights for championships in the future. This week's race in Atlanta may provide further learning opportunities for the young driver. Logano's average finish of 28.5 in his four career Atlanta starts is disappointing. His best result at the track was 22nd in the 2009 Pep Boys Auto 500. He simply has not shown anything at the track to make him a go-to fantasy option, even as a bench spot.

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