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NASCAR Barometer: Lady in Black

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 Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway produced arguably the most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup race since February's Daytona 500.

Temperatures ran extremely high, causing numerous engine problems. Those issues claimed Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, while hampering the efforts of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and many others.

If the temperature didn't ruin a driver's day, penalties likely made it more difficult. A.J. Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin and others ran afoul of NASCAR's regulations. The penalties produced some exciting charges from deep in the field as each of the competitors worked their way forward after suffering the consequences of their indiscretions.

Then, finally, if a driver successfully navigated the rulebook and kept his engine healthy, there was no guarantee he wouldn't be caught in a crash. Two late incidents claimed a number of top cars, ratcheting up the excitement level even higher.

On the final green-white-checkered restart teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle linked up, pushing Kenseth's unflinchingly fast car out to a commanding lead. Starting the final lap, though, Kyle Busch pushed Brad Keselowski to the front like the two had rocket engines attached to their bumpers. Busch thought he had the upper hand as the pusher, but Keselowski successfully broke the draft in turn 3, pulling away and notching his second victory in 2012.

If fantasy players thought Sunday was exciting and unpredictable, they won't get much rest this week at Darlington Raceway. "The Lady in Black," as the track is known, is one of NASCAR's oldest and most anticipated. Certain drivers tend to get the job done, while others perpetually struggle. Strap in for another exciting race this week, under the lights.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
After bad luck in the Daytona 500, Keselowski redeemed himself with victory in arguably the most exciting race since February. The No. 2 car was powerful, as were both Penske Racing Dodges. It was Keselowski's second win of the season and makes him a solid contender to claim a Chase position at year's end. With three career Darlington races under his belt, Keselowski has already shown that he can take on all comers at the old-school track. His worst finish was 12th in 2010, laying claim to an average result of 7.3 despite a qualifying average of 16.7. A win last week, and a strong record this week makes a formidable fantasy option in Keselowski.

Jeff Gordon -
It isn't a huge surprise that one of the best racers at Darlington is Gordon. In his long career he has amassed seven wins at the track, and a staggering 18 top-5 finishes. Gordon rarely fails to etch a top finish out of a trip to the "Lady in Black," and after last week's Talladega pole, he could be in line for an uptick in form. He raced much of last weekend's Talladega race handicapped by an overheating engine, before a late accident collected him and ended his day. The No. 24 team has been very unlucky so far in 2012, but the flashes of power it has shown from time to time may all come to the fore this week at a track that Gordon loves.

Denny Hamlin -
While he only claims six career starts at Darlington, Hamlin's worst finish at the track is 13th. His career average finish from six starts is 6.5. Track resumes don't get much better than that, and to make things even more imposing, Hamlin is in top form now. He was a lap down for much of Sunday's Aaron's 499, but managed to get his lap back with little more than 40 laps remaining and mounted a final charge. A late restart found him collected in an accident with some significant damage as he made a move for the win. You can't fault a driver for being aggressive in the closing laps, and that is the only black mark on Hamlin's Sunday result. Expect more this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
It is only a matter of time before Earnhardt grabs his first win for Hendrick Motorsports. Knocking on the door as often as he has so far in 2012, it is hard to picture him not finding Victory Lane soon. With just one finish outside of the lead-lap cars at Darlington Raceway, Earnhardt has every chance of being in the final mix again this week. His Talladega performance was masterful, avoiding wrecks, and drafting meticulously throughout the afternoon. That effort earned him his sixth consecutive top-10 finish. The turnaround this season has been nothing short of impressive, and you get the feeling that the wins will come in waves once the seal is broken. Saturday could be a big night for Earnhardt this week.

Regan Smith -
Last year's surprise Darlington victor Regan Smith is ready for more success at the track in 2012. His average Darlington finish is 17.0 in four starts, but there is probably no better time for fantasy owners to select him, considering he won last year's edition. Additionally, for much of 2012 Smith has been fighting for top-20 finishes and has a best result of 15th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Those finishes are solid for a fantasy pick this deep in the field, and that gives players a chance to save starts with other drivers in the category. He suffered an early engine problem at Talladega, becoming the first of many Hendrick engines to give in to the soaring Alabama heat, but will be licking his chops to return to Darlington this week.

DOWNGRADE

Clint Bowyer -
While Bowyer has been on a roll for Michael Waltrip Racing, scoring five top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of the season, he hasn't been the master of Darlington's unique challenge. Despite an impressive early career at the track, his best finish in the last three years was 31st in 2011. Despite a 15th-place finish in 2008, his average finish in the last five Darlington races is a disappointing 24.8. Sunday was a decent day for the No. 15, running with the leaders almost the entire afternoon, and avoiding all of the late crashes to come home in seventh position. Bowyer is becoming a solid fantasy option this season, and it would probably be best to save those starts for a track more suited to his liking.

Paul Menard -
After working all afternoon to put his car into winning position on a final restart, A.J. Allmendinger was spun into Menard's side and damaged his otherwise perfect racecar. When all was said and done Menard finished 17th, one of the last cars on the lead lap. No one can predict what will happen at a track like Talladega, and Menard will be feeling unlucky. On the other hand, Menard's move to Richard Childress Racing got him into Victory Lane in 2011. Unfortunately, the move hasn't improved his performances at the "track too tough to tame." Menard's best Darlington finish was a 15th-place run in the 2009 Southern 500. His five-race career average result is only 26.8, making him a questionable fantasy option at best.

Kyle Busch -
Not many track statistics have Busch near the bottom of the top driver, but Darlington is one of those venues. Despite winning the 2008 edition, Busch tallies an average finish of just 18.0 in the last five Darlington races. He was expecting more than his second-place result in the Aaron's 499 last week, too. He found himself in second position on the final lap, but simply didn't have the horsepower to catch Keselowski, who streaked away in the final turn of the race. Adversity usually spurs Busch on to greatness, so coming agonizingly close to victory Sunday may bring out his best, but given his recent Darlington statistics, it is tough to recommend starting him in the Southern 500.

Greg Biffle -
Another car that managed to keep his nose clean almost the entire Sunday race was Biffle. Ultimately, he too was collected in a late crash, but avoided major damage. Despite the incident he rallied to finish fifth, which gave him his fourth top-10 finish in the last six races. Biffle is your points leader, and it is tough to avoid playing him, but scoring just two top-10 finishes at Darlington only helps Biffle increase his five-race finishing average at the track to 19.2. He failed to finish on the lead lap two of those five tries, and scored one DNF as well. Fantasy owners should use their Biffle starts wisely, and to maximize their power this week might be a good opportunity to leave him on the bench.

Kurt Busch -
Busch ran a very strong race Sunday at Talladega, right up until the end when he was spun within the final 10 laps. Despite getting turned by Keselowski, it was still a very impressive performance. The team kept his car up front nearly the entire afternoon, and Busch had himself in position to win until that final incident ended his chances. Busch's average finish from the last five Darlington races is 14.0, and includes just one top-5 result. Two 12th-place finishes were the next best finishes from the unsponsored driver in that span, and that isn't enough from a driver in the second tier for most fantasy leagues. There are better values in the B-driver grouping, and Sunday's strength may not translate this week.

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