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NASCAR Barometer: Fast and Smooth

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 Southern 500 kicked off Saturday night with the longest stretch of green-flag racing at Darlington Raceway since NASCAR started keeping detailed records. The lack of caution periods didn't mean that action was absent, though. By the end, there had been eight cautions for 38 laps, and a number of drivers walked away with Darlington stripes.

The Roush Fenway Racing teammates put up a good show, continuing its early season good form. Greg Biffle was the one who put his car on pole, and the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin also threw its hat into the ring. In the end, however, the night belonged to Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson. Johnson was fast and smooth all evening, pulling away in the closing laps, to earn the team's 200th win.

The next two weeks will be spent at home for Sprint Cup teams and drivers, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Plenty of fun will be had with the annual pit stop competition, Sprint Showdown and the Sprint Cup All-Star Race. All of those events are just a primer for the true marquee event, the Coca-Cola 600. For now, let's take a quick look at who has successfully delivered the goods at the fast 1.5-mile oval.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson finally delivered Hendrick Motorsports its 200th victory by taking the checkered flag at Darlington Raceway. The victory was necessary for the mental health of the team that has struggled with bad luck for much of the season. A win and two top-5s in the last five Charlotte races makes Johnson an instant consideration for fantasy selection this week and next. His average finish at the track in that span is a disappointing 20.6, but that number shouldn't worry you too much. Johnson has led 501 laps this season, which is more than 15 than the next person on the list, Jeff Gordon. Johnson may be the driver to beat in Charlotte.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle's impressive season rolled onward Saturday at Darlington. He started the race on pole and finished 12th after battling at the front of the field for the entire event. An example of his strength: his average position throughout Saturday's distance was fourth. Just one finish in the top five is all Biffle can claim in the last five regular-season Charlotte races, but in 2012 Biffle has been putting the past to shame. He has the best average running position so far this season at 8.3, while also making 731 passes. Biffle is not a driver any fantasy owner should discount this season, and there is every reason to believe that his impressive season will carry through the next two weeks in Charlotte.

Kyle Busch -
Busch's fourth-place finish in Saturday's race gave him three top-5 finishes in the last three races and his fourth top-10 in a row. The string of finishes indicates that Busch has finally found consistency after a rollercoaster opening to the season. The consistency coming to the team now will be invaluable at Charlotte, where Busch racks up an average result of 9.4 in the last five regular-season races. He claims three top-5s and four top-10s in that span and is second in NASCAR's quality pass metric with 820. Busch is clearly getting it done on the track, and the results will stack up as he soldiers on. His inconsistent trend is changing, and Busch appears to be on a streak at the moment.

Matt Kenseth -
The driver with the best recent Charlotte record is Kenseth. In the last five points-paying races at the track the No. 17 has scooped up a win, two top-5s and four top-10 finishes that push his average result to 6.6. After finishing sixth in the Southern 500 last week Kenseth has some confidence in his camp. He hasn't been as strong as his teammates at Darlington, but overcame his past challenges to put in a very impressive race. With the boon from his success last week, claiming second in the point standings, Kenseth will be seeking to add $1 million to his checking account in Saturday's All-Star Race, and an additional trophy the following week in the Coca-Cola 600.

Joey Logano -
Logano's Charlotte record is a pretty decent one. Couple that with the step forward he and the team took in Darlington, and he could be in line for a respectable two weeks at NASCAR's home track. His average finish in the last five Charlotte point-races is 8.0, which includes two top-5s and three top-10s. The young driver has an average running position of 17.6 so far this season, and expects better. He spent 290 of Saturday's 368 laps in the top 15, though, and finished 10th, despite being 17th with 37 laps remaining. Watch Logano through the Sprint Showdown to get a fair assessment of where his chances may lay for the following week's 600-mile race.

Marcos Ambrose -
Saturday night was one of adversity for Ambrose. His car wasn't handling well most of the night, and the team had to work hard to find the setup the Tasmanian needed. After spending most of the night outside of the top 20, something clicked and Ambrose moved forward. The turn in fortune was a steep climb upward, yet he and the team found the summit. Their tenacity was rewarded with a ninth-place finish and their first top-10 of the year. The result is good news as the next track on tap has given Ambrose four top-10 finishes in the last five events, including the 2011 Sprint Showdown. With a top-10 under its belt the team should be confident enough to bag more top results, and fantasy owners will like those odds.

DOWNGRADE

Carl Edwards -
After finishing second in last season's Chase for the Sprint Cup one would expect Edwards to be further up the standings than 10th, where he now sits. Instead, teammates Biffle and Kenseth hold down the first two positions in the standings. All things considered, Edwards isn't putting up bad numbers either. He owns five top-10s in the last seven races but just hasn't shown the spark that pushed his teammates up the order. His five-race finishing average at Charlotte contains just one top-5 and an average of 17.2, despite posting four lead-lap finishes. Fantasy owners can usually expect decent numbers from the No. 99, but with two teammates running the tables against the rest of the field, it might be wise to cast attention their way this week.

Ryan Newman -
Since his win in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 Newman has finished in the top 15 just once. Saturday night's Darlington effort came up short again with a 23rd-place finish. Newman's teammate is making things happen, while the No. 39 has been battling uphill. Additionally, two top-10 finishes in the last five Charlotte races only push Newman's average finish in the time to 19.4. Clearly there are more desirable fantasy options to choose than Newman this week. We'll see if Newman can pull a trick out of the bag in the All-Star Race, and that could change his rating for the following week, but until that happens fantasy owners shouldn't expect a huge turnaround from Newman.

Jeff Gordon -
If it weren't for bad luck, the No. 24 team would have no luck at all. Gordon suffered through a number of flat rear tires Saturday night in Darlington, ruining what could have otherwise been a reversal of fortune for the veteran driver. Saturday night's 35th-place result marks four straight races where Gordon has failed to finish in the top 20. He boasts just one top-5 finish this season, despite being among the fastest cars nearly every race. While it is only a matter of time before Gordon gets the monkey off of his back, it might be best for fantasy owners to cool their jets on him until it actually happens. His average finish in the last five Charlotte races is 14.8 and only includes two lead-lap finishes.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite success through the last few weeks (a win and another top-10 in the last four races), Keselowski has not performed well at Charlotte. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 18.8 and, despite nabbing pole position in last year's 600, he has failed to score a single top-10 at the track in points-paying races. The All-Star Race, however, presents a completely different picture for the 28-year-old. In the last Sprint Showdown he finished second and advanced to the main event where he finished 18th. In his first All-Star Race he finished seventh. If you're looking for results from Keselowski in the next two weeks it might be best to question whether he can get the job done when points are on the line.

Mark Martin -
After struggling mid-pack all night at Darlington, Martin took home a 20th-place finish. That was his worst finish since the STP 400 where he finished 33rd. The effort was a difficult one for the part-timer, and based on recent statistics things don't look to get much more promising this week either. Through the last five points-paying races at Charlotte Motor Speedway Martin has amassed an average finish of 21.2. That is despite him finishing on the lead lap three out of those five tries. His last top-5 at the track came in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600, and his last win was in 1998. Since then Martin hasn't exactly lived up to expectations. Fantasy owners might want to take heed when considering the veteran for either the All-Star race, or the 600.

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