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NASCAR Barometer: Let the Chase Begin

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.

David Reutimann qualified on pole for Saturday night's Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway, but Jamie McMurray raced him hard into the first turn and ended up leading the first lap.

The first half of the race was a crash fest with 10 caution periods within the first 200 laps. Tempers flared between the Red Bull teammates and Marcos Ambrose while almost every single driver in the field ended up in at least one of the incidents. But by night's end, Kevin Harvick had taken charge at the front of the pack and held off challenges from Jeff Gordon to take the win.

The Chase field is now set and the regular season is over. The 12 drivers that claimed spots in the Chase will now be the focus of the final 10-race showcase. Each will compete to score as many points in the remaining races as possible in an effort to have the opportunity to hoist the Tiffany-designed Sprint Cup.

Typically the Chicagoland races produce more of a rank-and-file type race, but recent years have shown some action. The key to winning at the flat 1.5-mile oval is keeping up with the car as the race progresses. Drivers will fight various forms of chassis issues throughout the distance, but those crews that are able to stay in front of the morphing car should be in the perfect position to pounce on Victory Lane.

UPGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
Unfortunately for Gordon, the final caution that waved on Richmond International Raceway put him at a disadvantage. Kevin Harvick had beaten him off pit road, and Gordon knew his car wasn't the best on short runs. His slow restart dropped him to fourth, but he was able to pick himself up to third before the checkered flag, his fourth top-10 in a row. Gordon is the man to beat at Chicagoland Speedway. Of the last five races at the track Gordon has tallied a win, three top-fives and four top-10s, cementing his legendary status at the track. His average finish is 5.2 through that time and his current momentum confirm that he could be in store for another reliable finish.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart brought home another top-10 finish Saturday night at Richmond. He has now scored three top-10s in the last four races, which is a big step forward from June when it looked like he would struggle throughout summer. Now he is focused on the Chase, and has a little bit of momentum on his side as he tries to claim another championship. With a win, three top-fives and four top-10s, Stewart's honors over the last five Chicago races match Gordon's, but his average finish does not. His 10.2 average finish in those five races is weighed down by a 32nd-place result in 2006. All of this makes Stewart a confident choice for this week's Geico 400.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer suffered slight contact with the wall after spinning out of the top five early in Saturday night's race. He stumbled through the rest of the mileage and was classified 22nd when all the smoke and dust settled. Bowyer's Chase hopes were dashed two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he held slim hopes of making it in with a win Saturday night. Without the need to be mindful of maximizing points in the next 10 races, Bowyer can focus on winning. That is good news considering his statistics at Chicago. His five-race average finish at Chicagoland is 10.8, and he claims a top-five and four top-10s to help get to that number. This week should present a great opportunity for Bowyer to run up front.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick claimed his first win since May Saturday at Richmond. In his typical fashion, he wasn't the fastest car at the start of the race, but he consistently improved and was up front when the miles wound down. He finished in the top 10 in Atlanta, and now with the final win before the Chase in his pocket, he could begin riding the wave of momentum that carried Brad Keselowski the last few weeks. Harvick had been struggling a little as the Chase has approached, but Chicagoland could offer him another beacon of hope like Richmond. His average finish through the last five runs on the track is 12.8 with three top-five finishes. Harvick could be a commonsense gamble this week.

Denny Hamlin -
Three top-10s in a row are what Hamlin has on his side to begin the Chase. He had troubles just four races ago, but now the team is clicking on the right cylinders just when it is going to matter most. With just one win so far this season, the No. 11 team will be looking to peak in the Chase beginning this week. Two of the last five Chicago races have seen Hamlin finish in the top 10. That is quite a turnaround from his first three finishes at the track, which included a 40th-place finish in the 2008 Lifelock.com 400. Hamlin has shown a recovery since his late-season slump and should be poised to continue his most recent string of assured finishes this week at Chicago.

DOWNGRADE

Mark Martin -
Saturday night's race presented Martin his eighth top-10 finish this season. He gave up looking for a Chase spot much earlier this year and will be satisfied with more finishes like last week's. Given the hurdles he faced this season, a dramatic turnaround is not expected. Martin has one of the better finishing averages in the last five Chicago races at 13.0, but the statistic is misleading because of the win he claimed in the 2009 edition. The other four results were only top-20 finishes, and nothing resembling the '09 win. Martin has struggled this season in the No. 5 car and is likely to extend those woes this week as well.

David Reutimann -
After losing the lead on the first lap Saturday night, Reutimann's luck only got worse. Clint Bowyer spun and tapped him lightly causing a costly spin. A promising pole position ended with the No. 00 team chalking up its eighth consecutive finish outside the top 10. Wins in each of the last two seasons would have had the team hoping for bigger things than it's received in 2011 so far. Reutimann claimed victory in Chicago last season. Four career starts at the track have given him an average finish of 17.5. Reutimann may have claimed pole at Richmond, but he's only finished in the top 20 twice in the seven races leading up to Saturday. Reutimann doesn't look likely to repeat last year's success this week.

Kurt Busch -
Left front tire concerns hampered Busch's progress early Saturday night at Richmond, but that was nothing compared to the spat he and Jimmie Johnson had. Busch tapped Johnson, spinning him into the wall. Then Jimmie felt the need to retaliate, which sent Busch's temper flaring. Determination and grit enabled the team to overcome the challenge and score its second consecutive top-five, though. Two top-10 finishes have helped bring Busch's latest five-race average finish at Chicagoland to 17.0. The last three races at the Chicago oval have only produced one top-20 finish for the Las Vegas native, though, and the inconsistent form Busch has shown over the 2011 season make a top finish this week seem unlikely.

Greg Biffle -
With four finishes outside the top 10 leading up to Saturday's Richmond race, Biffle was not showing the strength he would have liked after missing on the Chase. Saturday also saw him finish outside the top 10, in 13th position, and is emblematic of the majority of Biffle's 2011 season. The team simply did not show the speed and know-how it has demonstrated in past years to move its driver forward in the standings. Biffle's Chicago results have been disappointing too with an 18.4 average after the last five runs, thanks to a lone top-five in 2008. That is his only top result at the track. Fantasy owners should look elsewhere this week for a more confident play.

Jeff Burton -
This season is certainly one that Burton would like to do over, if not forget altogether. Saturday night at Richmond returned more of the same as a flat tire put the No. 31 in the wall in the second half of the distance, relegating him to 29th place. The team has shown such poor form all season that taking the remainder of the races off to focus on 2012 might help it more than trying to stick out the final 10 races of this year. Burton's average Chicago finish in the last five races is 14.4 with three top-10s and a top-five, but how can you look at that favorably when he only claims one top-10 so far this year?

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