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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.

The fireworks from Sunday's AAA Texas 500 actually began Friday night in the NACAR Camping World Truck Series. That night Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday made contact in what appeared to be a racing incident. Busch took exception to the contact, though, and charged down Hornaday under caution, turning him into the wall. For that action, NASCAR decided to not only park Busch for the remainder of the truck race, but also the weekend's Nationwide and Sprint Cup events. Busch sunk any chance of a strong Chase finish with that move, and his season is now virtually over.

Despite the excitement that kicked off the weekend, nearly the entire first half of Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway was run without incident. The torrid pace stood in stark contrast to the first half of the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway the week before. That short-track mash-up collected almost half of the field with contact through the first half of the distance. This week, however, drivers were well behaved, and the first caution was due to debris, rather than contact.

The second half of the Texas 500 heated up a bit with some contact, and differing pit strategies. Although Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman and a handful of other teams tried to play the fuel mileage game as long as they could, it was the dominant players of the afternoon that regained the spotlight as the laps dwindled.

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards battled one another from the drop of the green flag, and fittingly finished nose to tail. Stewart was undoubtedly the car to beat Sunday. The team made all the right calls on pit road, kept the car in perfect condition as temperatures changed, and put Stewart in Victory Lane with a commanding performance. Edwards could only look on from behind.

Now, just two races remain in the 2011 season, and before the finale we look to Phoenix International Raceway and the Kobalt Tools 500. The desert oval was recently repaved and slightly reconfigured, which could mean a shake up in the power rankings. Teams will not only battle new pavement at Phoenix, but they'll face a faster track with altered banking that is meant to provide more side-by-side action. This week could be very exciting and will be somewhat of an unknown for everyone.

UPGRADE

Tony Stewart -
Stewart remains the hottest driver on the Sprint Cup circuit. He started at the front of the field in Texas and worked his car perfectly throughout the changing conditions to stay the dominant driver. With his victory in Texas on Sunday, he now claims two back-to-back win streaks in the first eight races of the Chase. Stewart owns a top-five and two top-10s in his last five Phoenix races. His 19-race career average finish at the track is 11.7, which includes a win. He has his sights set on the 2011 championship, and his third Sprint Cup trophy, and it doesn't appear that much is going to stand in his way, either.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson lost control of his car coming off Turn 4 at Texas Motor Speedway, putting him in the pits and at the back of the field for the following restart. The spin was representative of Johnson's run for a sixth championship, with unexpected bad luck ruining great finishes and therefore his championship hopes. He came back in the closing stages of the race, but only tallied a 14th-place finish. Johnson has the best record at Phoenix of the current drivers over the last five races. His average result of 3.2 includes a win and a top-five finish in each of those races. If he can fend off the bad luck that has bit him recently, there isn't a more obvious fantasy play for this week's race than Johnson.

Mark Martin -
Martin's stock could be on the rise. He announced a part-time schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing for the next two seasons that should suit Martin's style nicely. To add to the good news, Martin is a beast at Phoenix. His average finish at the track in the last five races is 6.0, including a win and just one finish outside the top 10. Sunday he ran well at Texas and was in the top five before a late-race pit stop forced him down the order. He was ultimately classified in 19th position, but that number isn't terribly representative of the pace he showed on the day. Fantasy owners should consider Martin this week.

Ryan Newman -
Having to pit for fuel was the thing that kept Newman out of Victory Lane in Texas. As one of the teams going for an off-sequence strategy, he had just taken the lead from Jeff Burton and looked like he would try to nurse his car to the finish. Instead, he quickly ducked onto pit road for gas. The 16th-place result he ended the day with eliminated him from winning this year's championship. So, while Newman's owner may be going for the Sprint Cup, Newman will have his sights set on Victory Lane in Phoenix. He won the April 2010 race at the track and has tallied an 8.8 average finish in his last five runs. Newman should be a sure-fire play this week.

Martin Truex Jr. -
An up and down 500 miles Sunday ended mostly up for Truex. He was a lap down at one point in the race, but as the track cooled, his car started handling much better. His pace picked up and he worked his way forward in the field, eventually finishing the race eighth. Sunday's effort marks consecutive top-10 finishes for the No. 56 team and 10 top-10s for the season. This week might present more of the same for the MWR driver. Truex doesn't often rise to the top of the statistics book, but at Phoenix he has performed very well. His average finish at the track is 11.6 in the last five races, making him a nice option.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Pit-road contact with the adjacent car of Denny Hamlin put Keselowski behind the eight ball Sunday with few laps to stage a recovery. He was one of the cars near the end of the Texas 500 that was off the pit sequence of the leaders and was forced to hit pit road much later in the race than the leaders. Keselowski had been losing positions prior to the stop, but the strategy knocked him down even more, as he finished 24th. Keselowski's championship hopes have dimmed the last few weeks, and Phoenix could continue the trend. His average finish at the track is awful at 27.5 from four starts. He finished on the lead lap just once in that time, and those past performances should scare off fantasy competitors.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The season has been something of a turnaround for Earnhardt, but he still struggles at times. His recent record at the Phoenix oval could signal more trouble ahead too. His average finish at the track is 20.4 from the last five races, including two finishes when he was at least one lap down to the leaders. He finished seventh Sunday in Texas, which marked his 11th top-10 of the season and put him ninth in the Chase standings. While he and his fans want him in Victory Lane and fighting for the Cup, no one can deny that he and the team have mae progress. It isn't what it needs to be yet, though, and Phoenix could present yet another hurdle on that path.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer's ninth-place finish in Sunday's Texas 500 was a solid result for him and the team. They worked their way through their fair share of problems to grab their 13th top-10 finish of the season and maintain the top non-Chase points position. In the last six races, Bowyer has only finished outside of the top 10 twice. He and the team will need to work very hard to keep that average climbing this week, though. Phoenix has not been one of Bowyer's best tracks the last two years. His average finish in the last five Phoenix events is 18.0 with just two finishes on the lead lap, and that shouldn't excite fantasy owners.

David Reutimann -
Reutimann's week started with an announcement from Michael Waltrip Racing that he would not be driving the No. 00 car next season. Now without a ride, Reutimann heads to a Phoenix track where he scored two top-10s in the last five starts but only averaged a finish of 18.6. The stress showed in Texas as Reutimann rode a mediocre wave of performance in the race to a 22nd-place finish. We don't know what team Reutimann will drive for in 2012 yet, but he'll certainly be hoping for better results than last week. Reutimann is in a slump at the moment and not much appears to be going his way. Fantasy owners should take note.

Kyle Busch -
Sunday could be considered a nightmare for Busch. He had been touted as a changed man earlier this season, looked like he could mount a serious charge for the championship, but faded as of late and allowed his frustration to boil over Friday night. He ruined his chances of completing a reformation in 2011 with his suspension last weekend, and now has to think hard about how he will approach the 2012 season. His average result at Phoenix in his last five tries is a strong 10.4. He has a tendency to turn in his best performances when his back is against the wall, but this late in the fantasy season, owners should proceed with a bit of caution before making that play.

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