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NASCAR Barometer: Flash Gordon

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.

Rain over Atlanta Motor Speedway delayed Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer leading the field to the green flag Sunday night. When the skies finally cleared Tuesday morning, the field roared back into action with just two races left until the Chase for the Championship.

It was Bowyer who topped Kane to lead the first lap, but shortly after, Kahne took the reins. After the race truly got under way, a number of cars began to fade with loose driving conditions.

Jeff Gordon became the pied piper of the race and held station out front for much of the afternoon's miles. It was clearly the No. 24's race to win, having dominated much of the running.

In the closing laps, however, teammate Jimmie Johnson closed the gap after working hard to bring his car forward. Both cars were fighting loose conditions, and battled hammer and tongs to the finish line where Gordon came up trumps and scored his third victory of the season, sending a message that he will be a contender in the 2011 Chase.

This week, crews will look to get their cars handling well in the center of Richmond's long turns. By turning faster, the cars can use less brake, allowing them to move through traffic more quickly while saving wear and tear on one of the most sensitive packages on the car. Fuel could also come into play as we've seen a few times already this season.

UPGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
Few can wheel a NASCAR stock car like Gordon, and Tuesday's race was a shining example of what the California native is capable. He dominated the AdvoCare 500, but was forced to hold off his charging teammate in the closing laps as both drivers struggled with a slippery surface and loose chassis. Gordon came out on top, scoring his third win of the season and sending a warning to every Chase competitor that he is ready for his fifth Sprint Cup. He owns two top-fives and another top-10 in the last five Richmond races, but has won twice at the Virginia track, and could post another strong finish this week.

Kyle Busch -
Busch started Tuesday's race strongly, moving into second place within the first 10 laps. It was clear throughout the afternoon that he was destined for a top-five, if not the victory. Unfortunately, those hopes faded later in the race when he struggled with car problems, extended pit stops and even a pit-road violation. He was classified 23rd at day's end. With an average finish of 2.0 in the last five Richmond International Raceway events, Busch is the driver to beat this week despite Atlanta's trouble. The worst finish he recorded at the track was 20th in the 2007 Chevy Rock & Roll 400, and he hasn't finished outside of the top five in the last five races, winning three.

Clint Bowyer -
The opening laps of the AdvoCare 500 were impressive from Bowyer as he battled for the lead from the onset. He rarely dropped outside of the top 10 through the 500 miles, and was in line for a badly needed top finish. He came into contact with Juan Pablo Montoya into the second half of the race, sending his car into the wall and ending his chance at securing a Chase spot on points. Things could get better this week with a win, though. Three sixth-place finishes in the last five Richmond races help boost Bowyer's average result to 9.6, and that is the best driver average in the most recent Richmond races behind teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Ryan Newman -
Quietly milling about the middle of the running order was all that Newman could manage Tuesday. He wasn't the worst car on track, but couldn't make the adjustments needed to overcome those in front. His team packed the car and equipment into its trailer after claiming a 20th-place result. Newman may have finished 20th in April's Richmond race as well as at Atlanta, but with three top-10s in the last five events at the Virginia oval, his average finish is an impressive 10.6. With just three finishes outside the top 10 in the last eight races, Newman is on a strong upward swing, and it would be smart to consider him for your fantasy roster this week.

Joey Logano -
Logano languished deep in the running order throughout much of the AdvoCare 500. It was a lackluster performance that has been representative of his inconsistencies in 2011. The young driver rolled home in 24th position, but could be in line for a better result this week. Through his five-race career at Richmond, Logano hasn't been half bad. He consistently finishes in the top 20, and has pulled out a top-five as well. His average finish in that span is 12.8. Logano has been inconsistent so far in 2011, but may be worth a second look this week in the Wonderful Pistachios 400 as a second or third driver.

Denny Hamlin -
Tuesday's race started with Hamlin making his presence felt at the front. He struggled on restarts but was speedy once he got rolling. The effort he and the team put forth earned them their ninth top-10 result of the season. They're starting to click again, just as the Chase is set to get under way. One cannot discount Hamlin at Richmond International Raceway, either. He is the only driver to have won besides Busch in the last five races, and he took two of those trophies. He was in the midst of a dry spell recently, but a seventh-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway shows that he can still get it done. Hamlin is primed to throw in a top finish this week.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth put together a respectable outing at Atlanta Tuesday. He took the lead just at the halfway mark, ending Gordon's domination, but wasn't quick enough to run with the No. 24 car through all 500 miles. Regardless of the car not being capable of winning, he snapped up his 14th top-10 finish of the season. Despite three top-10 finishes in the five races leading up to Atlanta, the numbers suggest Kenseth may struggle at Richmond. With no top finishes in his last five tries at the track, Kenseth's average result is 17.2. That does not get the job done for fantasy owners, and it might be wise to avoid playing the No. 17 this week.

Greg Biffle -
The AdvoCare 500 was never looking like Biffle's race to win, but he placed his car solidly in the top 15 for the majority of the running. It was a quiet day, but the team came away from Atlanta Motor Speedway with 12th position in tow. The mediocre day is not what the team works for each week, but it has become the story of Biffle's season. Biffle is yet another Roush driver who does not have statistics on his side at Richmond. His average finish in the last five events is 19.8, with no top-10s or top-fives to boast. It has been nine races at the Virginia track since Biffle has packed in a top result, and fantasy owners should be warned to not expect much more this week.

Brad Keselowski -
How much is momentum worth in Sprint Cup? To Keselowski it seems even more than anyone can give credit. He started Tuesday morning's run right where he left off, but faded as the laps wore on. He came agonizingly close to scoring his fifth consecutive top-five finish when he came home sixth Tuesday. Keselowski can also qualify well at Richmond, but his finishes leave much to be desired. His average result from four career tries is 25.8, despite a starting average of 7.5. He may be the driver carrying the most momentum toward the Chase, but this week we might expect the No. 2 to be satisfied with a little bit less than the last few weeks.

Kurt Busch -
Tuesday's swath of chassis struggles did not leave Busch untouched. He clearly struggled with the handling of his car through the first half of the race. The team worked hard, though, and Busch came back to life by the end of the distance. The hard work earned Busch his first top-five since Pocono Raceway, and his sixth of the season. Unlike his brother Kyle, Kurt Busch hasn't been the strongest Richmond driver of late. In the last five races he scored one top-five, but coupled that with three finishes of 18th or worse. His average finish in those races is 14.4. Busch may be focused more on the Chase than he is winning at Richmond.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
A tight, and then loose, car relegated Earnhardt to the back of the field early in Tuesday's race. He was a lap down before a caution gave him one more chance to survive the day. He struggled throughout the 500 miles, and was very disappointed to not show better in the running than 19th, where he was credited. It was six races ago that Earnhardt scored his last top-five at Richmond and 11 races since his last win at the track. In the past Earnhardt was a decent gamble at the track, but results have been lacking since 2006. His average finish in the last five Richmond races is 26.6. Fantasy owners should take notice before making that choice.

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