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NASCAR Barometer: Hello, Newman

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 close racing typically produced by the tight Martinsville Speedway did not disappoint last weekend. The race was full of close-quarters running, with plenty of mistakes, rubbing and even desperation.

The closing laps were punctuated with two green-white-checkered finishes, of which one resulted in both leading Hendrick Motorsports cars backward in turn 1. It was Clint Bowyer who saw images of the trophy in his living room when he decided to make a three-wide pass upon the green flag. The lack of track width caused all three of those cars to contact, ruining each of their chances of winning. Ultimately it was Ryan Newman who came through the crash with the lead, holding off A.J. Allmendinger on the final restart to take the victory.

After a frenetic start to the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the series takes a week's break before going under the lights Saturday, April 14, at Texas Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart, who will see an opportunity to notch his third win of the season, won the last Texas race. Denny Hamlin scored back-to-back wins at the track in 2010, while Matt Kenseth also took home a winner's trophy last season.

The Texas track is one of the series' fastest, yet is a typical 1.5-mile oval that seem to make up the majority of the Sprint Cup schedule. Stewart won the last 1.5-mile oval event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but Texas has steeper banking and demands even better handling. The pace at Texas dictates that chassis must be on pace right away, or else you will fall behind early. Teams that hit the setup right at the start of the distance will have a better opportunity to hang at the front of the field throughout the night.

UPGRADE

Ryan Newman -
Newman certainly benefited from a stroke of good fortune in the closing laps of Sunday's race. He was running near the front of the field in the closing laps, which enabled him to pick the perfect line through the carnage caused when Bowyer decided to make a three-wide entrance into turn 1 on what should have been the race's final restart. Instead, Newman came out of the turn with the lead for the final green-white-checkered attempt of the afternoon and held off Allmendinger for his first victory of the 2012 season. The last five Texas races have given Newman an average finish of 14.6. He owns a winner's trophy from the track, in addition to another two top-5 finishes from his 17 total starts at the track.

Matt Kenseth -
One of the latest Sprint Cup winners at Texas Motor Speedway is Roush Fenway Racing's Kenseth. He won last April's Samsung Mobile 500 and can lay claim to the best average finish at the track over the last five races. That average finish of 6.0, coupled with a track that requires horsepower, makes Kenseth a top fantasy choice in two weeks. He ran in the top 10 for much of Sunday's 500 laps at Martinsville en route to his third top-10 of the season. He benefited from a little luck in the closing laps, but that takes nothing away from his effort to keep his car up front. With Roush's Ford power under the hood, Kenseth stands a good chance of notching another top finish at Texas.

Denny Hamlin -
Running in the top 10 almost all day at Martinsville was no surprise from Hamlin. He and Jimmie Johnson combined for nine of the last 11 wins at the track, and he already picked up a winner's trophy this season before suffering an 11th-place and two 20th-place performances, which indicated something of a slump after back-to-back top-5s to open the year. Hamlin's 7.8 average finish from the last five Texas races is one of the best of current drivers. He is also the top non-Roush driver through those events, winning twice in that time. After bucking his string of sub-par finishes in Martinsville, Hamlin is poised for a return to form in Texas.

Clint Bowyer -
Four top-10 finishes in the last five Texas races are Bowyer's claim to fame at the 1.5-mile oval. He is finding his feet with his new team in 2012 and has already tallied a top-5 and two top-10 finishes in the first five races of the season. For example, he was third with only a handful of laps remaining in last week's Goody's Fast Relief 500, but got a bit overzealous on the first green-white-checkered attempt and fell to 10th. This team is proving it has the ability to outperform expectations. His current form, coupled with past success at the Texas track, makes Bowyer worth a serious consideration this week.

Marcos Ambrose -
Fifteenth position Sunday afternoon was a solid result for Ambrose. He held his car in the top 20 all afternoon, made the right calls on pit lane and kept his nose clean for all of the 505 laps. The team can take this respectable performance and build upon the success to climb further forward in the standings. From a fantasy perspective, one of the best tracks for Ambrose to score results over the past few seasons is Texas. His average finish in his last five races there is 12.2 and includes a top-10. He regularly finishes in the top-20 in the Lone Star State, and this season's Samsung 500 may even present him an opportunity to score his first top-10 of the season.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski's record at Texas is remarkably disappointing. His average finish in the last five tries is 24.8. He did not finish on the lead lap in any of those tries, including a best finish of only 14th. The team did a decent job to come home ninth Sunday at Martinsville, its third top-10 finish of the season. Keselowski is rapidly becoming a regular contender for top finishes every week on the Sprint Cup schedule, and Keselowski's ability to capitalize on his equipment is what is making the difference. Fantasy owners may wish to save a Keselowski play for later this season since recent statistics at this track don't make for a very appealing option.

Kasey Kahne -
Fantasy players that took heed last week and decided to not select Kahne should be grateful. Kahne scored yet another pole position at Martinsville but lost it all, again, on race day with a host of mechanical issues. Kahne is starting to calm down as a driver with the new team, but not everything is firing on all cylinders just yet. Clearly he is fast, but reliability and patience in the race is missing. His average finish at Texas in the last five races is mediocre at 15.0. In two weeks he may have another fast car on Friday, but until the team proves it can finish a race distance its confidence will continue to be shaken. Fantasy players should beware.

Kyle Busch -
A broken rear track bar forced Busch to lose control of his car and make solid contact with the Martinsville wall. Pitting for repairs put the No. 18 more than 30 laps down before the race even completed half its distance. Only one lead-lap finish in the last five Texas races makes the next race a little daunting as well. Busch's average finish in the last five races there is 13.0, and includes a top-5, but three of the last four races resulting in finishes outside of the top 20 show that Busch might have more than just bad luck to overcome. The results aren't coming Busch's way on a consistent basis yet, so fantasy owners may wish to wait until some momentum builds.

Jeff Burton -
Just one top-10 in the last five Texas races make Burton one of the lower rated fantasy options for the Samsung Mobile 500. His average finish in that span is 19.0, with just two finishes on the lead lap. Burton is already off to a better start than the season he endured in 2011, but that may not be enough to carry him through the next race in Texas. His 21st-place finish in Martinsville was disappointing, and compounded a dip in performance after finishing 22nd the prior week in California. There will be weeks this season that Burton is a solid play, but this Texas race is not one of them.

Kurt Busch -
Sunday was a very frustrating day for Busch. Before the race's halfway mark he was already four laps down with brake problems, and still not past all of the afternoon's issues. Those circumstances pushed Busch down to a 33rd-place finish, 18 laps behind the leaders. A win and three top-10 finishes in the last five Texas races would normally make Busch a decent fantasy choice, especially considering the top-10 finish he recently bagged in California, but the small team will be behind the game after such a difficult race last week. The team has a week to recover, but extra time to stew on everything that went wrong is not always the best situation. It might be best to wait to see how Phoenix Racing handles the adversity before playing Busch.

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