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NASCAR Barometer: Off to a Blazing Start

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.

NASCAR Sprint Cup's biggest race was upstaged by Mother Nature on Sunday. Rain showers delayed the start of the race for many hours, as drivers and fans staved off their eagerness to get the season under way.

Rain forced another delay Monday, and the 2012 Daytona 500 was slated to run under the lights for the first time ever. When all was said and done, not only was this 500 the first run at night, but it was also the first on a Monday, and also Tuesday.

Once the driving finally started, action hit a high note. A big pile-up just after the first lap led everyone to wonder if the race would be a crash fest. While some top contenders were taken out in the initial incident, it may have served notice to drivers to proceed with care the rest of the evening.

Upon restart, a pack formed and drivers were generally well behaved. Mechanical issues eventually became an important factor. Jeff Gordon lost his engine, Clint Bowyer ran his car out of fuel and other teams encountered trouble with their new fuel injection systems.

The most notable incident of the night came well into the second half of the race when Juan Pablo Montoya lost control of his car under caution and slammed into a jet dryer. The contact caused a deluge of jet fuel to pour onto the racing surface, igniting an inferno that workers battled for several minutes. The race was red flagged while workers cleaned the track, removed the damaged truck and made certain the surface could endure another 100 miles of racing.

Well into the night, after Monday became Tuesday, drivers climbed back into their cars to fight it out. In typical Daytona fashion, the race wouldn't be content to finish at full distance, though. The final green-white-checkered finish produced a Roush Fenway Racing teammate pairing of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle that had successfully defended its perch atop the field much of the night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a late charge coming off of the last turn, but it was Kenseth who captured his second trophy in the marquee event.

Now the teams head to Phoenix International Raceway, where the oddly shaped oval presents a whole new set of racing challenges. The track was reconfigured in 2011 to create progressive banking, which some of the drivers have described as a little like a roller-coaster.

UPGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth captured his second Daytona 500 title by consistently being one of the fastest cars and avoiding trouble Monday night. Some drivers opted to play it safe and rode the tail of the lead pack for much of the distance, hoping to avoid the melee that collects drivers racing in close quarters. Kenseth, instead, opted to stay as close to the front, and his teammates, as possible. It was clear from the outset that the Roush Fenway Racing Fords were the fastest cars on track, and once two of them connected, no one could pass. With two top-10s in the last five Phoenix races, Kenseth might be the first driver to score back-to-back wins this season.

Ryan Newman -
Newman found himself behind the eight ball early in Monday night's Daytona 500. He lost control of his car exiting turn 2 due to a tire that lost air pressure. From there it became a game of catch-up for the Stewart-HAAS driver. After working hard to get back into the top 10 in the closing laps, he unfortunately found the wall in one of the late crashes. The incident relegated him to a 21st-place finish. It was a strong night, though, and after winning the second Phoenix race in 2010, things look good this week. His average finish of 6.6 in the last five races at the track is one of the best in the series. Four top-five finishes in those five efforts make him a very attractive option for fantasy players this week.

Kyle Busch -
Busch is the most recent Cup winner at Phoenix. His average finish in the last five races at Phoenix is only 14.2, but it includes one top-five and one other top-10 finish. Still, Busch was on song at Daytona, and he has continued to show progress as he matures. He was disappointingly one of many drivers caught in late-race crashes after the long red-flag period. While the No. 18 certainly looked strong enough to challenge Roush, Busch never really got the opportunity. Despite a disappointing finish, the car was competitive all night, and throughout the week. Busch won his qualifying race, and to find Victory Lane before the season even gets under way is a big shot in the arm. All else being equal, Busch should have a better outcome this week.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards won at Phoenix in 2010. With one other top-five in the last five races at the track, his average result is 10.8. He claims to be one of the hungriest drivers for the 2012 title; he will be ready to prove it this weekend. His Daytona positives include qualifying on pole and spending much of the race at the front of the pack. Despite late trouble, he still claimed his first top-10 finish of the season, which will become ever more important as the season winds down in autumn. While his teammates stole the headlines, Edwards knows he has a fast car in his garage. The confidence that comes with that knowledge could easily carry him forward this week in Phoenix. Look for another top finish from the No. 99.

Jimmie Johnson -
In the last five Sprint Cup races at Phoenix, Johnson has scored the best average finish of any active driver. His average finish of 5.2 includes a win and four top-five results. Statistics like that demonstrate the necessity to consider Johnson for fantasy rosters this week. Additionally, those numbers are encouraging for the No. 48 since he will need to recover quickly from his strong hit on the second lap of the Daytona 500. It was a terrible start to the season in which he hoped to reclaim dominance of the series, and this week presents the perfect opportunity to bounce back sharply. If he leverages his experience and uses adversity as motivation, Johnson could be tough to beat this week.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Despite having a great run of form in 2011, the last five visits to Phoenix haven't been productive for Keselowski. His average finish in that span is 25.6, and he only managed a qualifying average of 19.8 in the same period. He ran a fairly quiet Daytona 500 for much of the distance and was even tweeting while the drivers waited for the red flag to end. After picking up a quick 55,000 new Twitter followers from the activity, Keselowski found himself involved in one of the final crashes of the night. His damaged car and trip to the infield care center forced a classification of 32nd, and his first DNF of the season. Poor results on a track directly after a disappointing finish don't make for a good fantasy combination this week.

Kurt Busch -
The Phoenix oval hasn't been the kindest to Busch. His latest five races at the desert oval didn't produce any top finishes with an average result of just 16.0. Only three of those five events ended with Busch on the lead lap, and fantasy owners can't risk any finishes like that to get their season off to a great start. He was one of the first cars damaged in the Daytona 500 due to the second-lap incident, leaving little hope of salvaging anything of note. With less than a quarter of the race to go, Busch was still languishing deep in the field, ultimately finishing 39th. He will require a lot of fortitude to bounce back quickly this week, so fantasy players should look elsewhere.

David Ragan -
The Daytona 500 didn't last more than two laps for Ragan. He was caught in the first wreck of the night, and finished last in the field. We wonder if the season opener won't be indicative of the remainder of his season, and he'll need to work hard to make sure the streak doesn't extend itself. That work starts now, because an average result of 27.2 and just one lead lap finish in the last five Phoenix starts doesn't appear to offer a turn in fortune. Ragan's career of promise fizzled into missed chances, and he needs to leverage this season to prove that he still has potential. Until the finishes start coming his way, fantasy players would do well to avoid him.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Coming so close to capturing his second Daytona 500, Earnhardt fans can take heart in the muscle he flexed throughout the race. After a few seasons of struggles with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt had a great 2010, and is picking up where he left off, and even pulling ahead. However, with just one top-10 finish in his last five tries at Phoenix, Earnhardt has statistics against him. While he is always capable of bucking a trend, two years of difficulty at the track indicate a trend. His average finish in that time is 19.0, and Earnhardt knows he must elevate his game if he wants to change history at the track. Earnhardt is capable of pulling out a big Phoenix result, but for safety, fantasy players may want to wait one more week.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer found himself short of gas and a handful of laps down just after the halfway mark of Monday's Daytona 500. Hard work and an eye for the right move at the right time elevated him to 11th by the finish. He scored three top-10 finishes in the last five Cup races at Phoenix and had some success with Richard Childress Racing in the past, but now has a mountain to climb to score consistent top finishes. He was running near the front before running out of fuel, but Monday night's early mistake is representative of the differences between the top teams and others on pit lane. Michael Waltrip Racing, while making strides forward, simply does not have the experience of a battle tested Roush or Hendrick team, and Bowyer will have to work just that extra bit harder this year, and this week.

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