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NASCAR Barometer: Denny's Grand Slam

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.

It has been a long time since so many drivers had engine troubles at a race, but Sunday's 400 miles at Kansas Speedway put the metal to the test. A number of drivers lost cylinders and struggled to get to the finish, while Toyota drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin sped away in the lead.

As the laps ticked by it appeared Hamlin and Truex would duke it out for the trophy. While it was another strong run for Michael Waltrip Racing and Truex, they did not have enough grip to pass Hamlin in the closing miles. The No. 11 crew celebrated in Victory Lane with its first win of the season after holding off a late charge from Truex and now gears up for a track that the team has dominated recently, Richmond International Raceway.

Short tracks are always an exciting place to cram 43 cars into, and NASCAR goes short-track racing again this week, under the lights at Richmond. Saturday night's Richmond 400 is one of the most exciting races of every season, and is sure to throw up some sparks in the process.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have virtually owned the speedway in recent years, but Kevin Harvick and a handful of others have successfully taken on the tandem. On the other end of the spectrum, Roush Fenway Racing teams have struggled. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have both failed to claim a finish inside the top 10 in the last five races at the track.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin -
With strong handling and plenty of horsepower, Hamlin pushed his car forward into the lead Sunday and became even stronger when the clouds opened and the sun shined on the surface. While Martin Truex had been leading, it was Hamlin who came forward and took control. After the sun warmed the asphalt, Truex got a handle on the surface but was not quick enough to make a move on Hamlin in the closing laps. The victory was Hamlin's first in Kansas and of the 2012 season. Hamlin, like teammate Busch, owns two wins from the last five Richmond races but claims an average finish of 4.8 in that span. With last week's win, and such a strong record at Richmond, Hamlin is a lock for fantasy rosters.

Kyle Busch -
Busch took home his third top-10 result of the season Sunday in Kansas. His car did not have the handling nor power of teammate Hamlin's chassis, but Busch scrounged a decent result despite having a little extra work to do. The team is not having its best start to a season, and Busch admits that things aren't perfect yet. With two wins and four top-5s, Busch has a very minor edge over teammate Hamlin through the last five Richmond races. Busch's win total jumps to three if you consider the last six races, and his average finish in the last five tries is an amazing 3.0. Busch needs a boost to get his season on course, and this week is the time.

Kevin Harvick -
Five top-10s in the opening eight races puts Harvick solidly in the top 10 in points, and the only thing lacking at this point is a victory. Despite not finding Victory Lane, the No. 29 team quietly gets the job done, scoring valuable championship points that could become the make-or-break factor late in the season. He is knocking on the door, and it will only be a matter of time before the team records a win in 2012, and that could be as early as this weekend. Harvick is the only driver to have won at Richmond not driving for JGR in the last six events. His average finish in that time is 6.8, and he is one of the best fantasy options outside of the Gibbs teammates this week.

Clint Bowyer -
Last weekend's race could be considered a nightmare for Bowyer given his early season results thus far. The good news leaving Kansas is that Bowyer owns a strong recent Richmond record, and that is good news considering the disappointment he suffered in Kansas. Bowyer battled a number of engine troubles before the engine decided to end the day, and Bowyer was forced to turn into the garage. His average finish in the last five Richmond races is 10.4, and includes three top-10 finishes. He only failed to finish on the lead lap in one of those instances and can carry his season form forward for another strong result for Michael Waltrip Racing.

David Ragan -
When looking for a fourth fantasy driver for Richmond, fantasy owners should take a gander at Ragan. His results in 2012 haven't been overly impressive thus far, he finished 30th in Kansas, but he scored top-5 finishes in each of last season's trips to Richmond. Ragan has every opportunity to better his season-high finish of 21st this week. He owns three top-5s at the Virginia short track and is likely to give his all to come home with his season-high finish this week. It is always difficult to choose a fourth driver for fantasy teams - momentum and consistency are rarely factors this deep in the field - but past results show where drivers have confidence and Richmond is a prime example of that for Ragan.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
The fourth-place finish Kenseth took home from Kansas makes a streak of three straight top-5s for the No. 17 crew. Kenseth was a fighter at the front of the field for most of Sunday's STP 400, but he didn't have the staying power to make a final push for glory in the end. He will need those top-5 results to carry him through one of his hurdles on the Sprint Cup schedule, Richmond. Through the last five races at Richmond, Kenseth has failed to score a top finish. Despite winning the 2002 Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400, Kenseth only averages a finish of 19.2 at the track in the last five tries, with a best finish of 13th in 2010.

Greg Biffle -
Fifth-place Sunday in Kansas was a great way to follow the prior week's win at Texas Motor Speedway. Biffle is ensuring he gets some notoriety as one of the lead Roush drivers in 2012 and is determined to make sure he is not eclipsed by his teammates again. This week's short-track race might pose a challenge for the team, though. Only two lead-lap finishes in the last five Richmond races make Biffle a driver who should be considered with caution this week. Biffle's average Richmond finish through the last five events is 19.0 with a best finish of 13th in last September's Wonderful Pistachios 400. Back-to-back top-5s may not be enough to get Biffle another top finish this week.

Brad Keselowski -
Another driver failing to break into the top 10 in the last five Richmond races is Keselowski. He can only claim two lead-lap finishes, managing an average finish of 23.0 in that time. He just missed scoring his third top-10 finish of the season Sunday in Kansas where he came home 11th. The Penske teammates are battling one another for team superiority at the moment, and showing improvement, but are still in search of consistency. Keselowski already owns a victory this season, but three finishes worse than 30th have put him deeper in the championship standings than he would like. There are other, more consistent options this week at Richmond, and fantasy players should look there for maximum points.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex and Michael Waltrip Racing have had a great season to date in 2012. The proof was Truex's effort in Kansas, and his close second to Denny Hamlin. Unfortunately, the odds may be stacked against the No. 55 team this week at Richmond, a track where Truex has failed to finish on the lead lap four of the last five races. The one race he did hold onto the lead lap, he finished seventh, which could offer some hope. Despite a string of five top-10 finishes through last week's Kansas race, Truex may find the road a little rockier this week, and fantasy players should not expect as much from him and the team this week.

Mark Martin -
The fact that Martin, on a part-time schedule in 2012, is in the second- and third-driver category for selection in many fantasy leagues make him an overvalued option for this week's Richmond 400. Martin has proven he can make waves despite driving part time, but a sour engine in Kansas and an average Richmond finish of 14.6 in the last five races make him a riskier play than many drivers in the same tier. Normally, he would be a solid play, but his past success plays against his fantasy value this week. Couple his Richmond statistics with a negative pass differential (overtaken more times per event than overtaking) in four of his first five starts in 2012, and he quickly becomes a risky play for the tier.

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