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NASCAR Barometer: Chasing a Championship

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 pushed the start of the Chase to Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, disappointing drivers who were itching to begin their run to the trophy.

And all but Tony Stewart, who snapped a 32-race losing streak, remained disappointed. After slumping most of the NASCAR season, Stewart won the opening event in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, leaping seven spots in the Chase standings to second place behind Kevin Harvick. The two-time champion led the final 35 laps, watching as many of his competitors ran out of fuel.

Matt Kenseth, who qualified on the pole, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon were among the drivers who ran out of gas on the last lap, leaving Stewart to bring home the victory.

Fuel mileage likely will be a factor at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, as well. In July, Ryan Newman was the man who paced the field and took victory. He led 119 laps en route to the top spot, edging out Stewart. Newman was reportedly two laps short on fuel, but gambled for the victory, and it paid off. This week's race will favor those who use smart pit strategy and fuel conservation to get their quick cars out front at the end.

UPGRADE

Tony Stewart -
Stewart has endured a tough Sprint Cup season, but the two-time champion has come on strong in recent weeks. Entering the Geico 400, Stewart posted three top-10 finishes in the previous four races. Monday's win was his third at Chicagoland and sets him up well for this week's race at New Hampshire. Stewart has five top-10s, including four top-5s, in his last nine races at New Hampshire with an average finish of 9.2, fourth best.

Jeff Gordon
Six top-10 finishes in his last seven races heading into Chicagoland gave Gordon a head full of steam in the Chase. Tires problems followed by fuel issues, however, zapped that steam as Gordon finished a distant 24th at Chicagoland. Despite not being at his best the last two years, Gordon has consistently performed well at New Hampshire. His average result in the last five races there is 7.6, which isn't far off of the best average in the field. Gordon has the pieces in place that he needs to claim his fifth Sprint Cup this year, and New Hampshire could be where he starts making his claim.

Kurt Busch
Busch finished sixth at Chicagoland, lifting him to fourth place in the Chase, just 11 points out of first. He enters New Hampshire with a good shot at moving up the standings. Busch came home in 10th place in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 earlier this year and will look for another top finish this weekend to help spur him along to his second Sprint Cup. Busch lays claim to the best finishing average at New Hampshire Motor Speedway of all the current drivers in the five most recent races. Two top-5s and four top-10s help drive that number to 7.0, with an average start of 5.2. Busch knows his way around the oval and could be a thorn in the side of any contender.

Clint Bowyer
Bowyer checked in with a seventh-place finish at Chicagoland, inspiring some confidence in an otherwise disappointing season as he heads to track where he's found success. After leading three laps in his last visit to New Hampshire, Bowyer was only able to muster a 17th-place finish. But he won the 2010 edition of this week's race, leading 177 laps. Results haven't been flowing Bowyer's direction recently. He finished outside of the top 20 in the last three races prior to the Chase. Still, his average finish in the last five runs at New Hampshire boasts a win and two other top-10s for an average finish of 11.0.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson ran into fuel problems Monday at Chicagoland after running a strong race. In the end, he came in 10th, costing him two spots in the Sprint Cup standings as he fell to eighth. He'll try to avenge that setback this week at New Hamsphire where he earned one of his 11 top-5 finishes this year in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. He led 19 of the laps and was one of the cars to beat. This week should pose an excellent opportunity to continue his strong run. One victory and an average finish of 8.8 at New Hampshire in the last five races make Johnson a top fantasy pick. He scored four top-5 finishes in the six-race run to the start of the Chase, and were it not for contact with Busch, that number should have been higher. Johnson is the master of the Chase format, and it would be unwise to bet against him.

Ryan Newman
Newman earned his 14th top 10 this season, as he finished eighth at Chicagoland. He's tied for sixth place in the Chase standings, 14 points off the pace. Newman won the Sprint Cup's last visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway with his team owner finishing second behind him. He worked hard through traffic, and drove carefully to bring his car home short on fuel. The win helped propel him into the Chase, and he is looking for more now. His average finish in the last five New Hampshire races is 10.2, with three other top-10s besides his win. Newman should be a driver to keep your eye on this week.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth
Kenseth qualified on pole for the rain-delayed race at Chicagoland, but that was the extent of his weekend highlights. He led four times for 46 laps before running out of gas. And then his apparent eighth-place finish was nullified because the last-lap assistance provided by JJ Yeley, who pushed Kenseth across the finish line, was deemed illegal. That dropped Kenseth to 21st in the race and 10th in the standings. Kenseth's fortune probably won't turn this weekend at New Hampshire, either. July's Loudon race was not anything special. He came home in 20th position, capping off a disappointing weekend where he started 30th. Unfortunately, results like that are somewhat typical of the No. 17 at the New Hampshire oval. His most recent five race average finish at New Hampshire is not good at 21.0. He can claim no top-5s or top-10s at the track in that span and is not the statistician's choice for this week's fantasy owners.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick was one of the drivers who won the fuel battle at Chicagoland, holding on for second place. That vaulted into first place in the Chase, alone with a seven-point lead over Stewart. But Harvick's luck at Loudon hasn't been as golden. After starting 18th at Loudon in July, Harvick only managed to finish 21st after a long race. He retained his position in the top 10 in points, but didn't deliver what fantasy owners need. While Harvick can work a car forward throughout a long race he hasn't been quite so successful doing it at New Hampshire. His average finish in the last five races there is only 19.4 despite two top-5 finishes. His pattern has shown that if he does not have a top car at the Loudon oval, he typically struggles and finishes down the order. For that reason, it might be wise to anticipate some volatility from Harvick this week.

Carl Edwards
Edwards took advantage of a large contingent at Chicagoland who mismanaged fuel, finishing fourth to improve to third in the Chase standings, 10 points out of first. Fuel was the order of the day in the No. 99 pits in July's New Hampshire race, as well, but for different reasons. Edwards was one of the cars that was too short on fuel to make the distance to the checkered flag after their final pit stops, but he slowed down to nurse his way to the finish. He ended the day 13th, which was a small disappointment after running among the top 5 throughout the afternoon. No top-5s or top-10s, plus one finish off of the lead lap, in his last five New Hampshire tries gives Edwards an average finish of just 17.0. His finishes leading up to the Chase included three top-10s before Chicagoland, so there is always an opportunity for momentum to take over, but the most recent Loudon results have been disappointing.

David Ragan
Ragan turned in a medicore afternoon Monday at Chicagoland, finishing 11th. It's reminiscent of his recent New Hampshire runnings. Ragan started 24th in the July New Hampshire race and finished 14th. He scored his first top 5 in the last eight races in the Wonderful Pistachios 400, but only turned that into a 15th-place qualifying effort for the rain delayed Geico 400. Finishing only two of the last five races on the lead lap at New Hampshire is a big part of why Ragan's average finish at the track is among the worst in the current field. Fantasy owners shouldn't expect much in points from a driver with an average finish of 25.4 in the last five races at this week's track and should definitely look elsewhere for reliability.

Jeff Burton
The No. 31 garage qualified only 22nd at the Geico 400, but found its way to a 15th-place finish. In his last visit to New Hampshire things were looking up for Burton. He qualified sixth and hoped for a redeeming day, but was relegated to a 16th-place result despite running much of the race in the top 5. Things need to change for this team, and no top finishes in the last five Loudon races don't make Burton any more of an attractive play this week than he has been all year so far. His five-race average finish at New Hampshire is 18.0, and he failed to finish on the lead lap one of those times. Unless there is a meteoric turnaround from the No. 31 team in these last races, Burton may be a write-off for the remainder of the season.

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