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NASCAR Barometer: Junior Ends Drought

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.

New pavement at Michigan International Speedway pushed average speeds last week higher than NASCAR gas seen in quite some time. Many drivers qualified with lap averages more than 200 miles an hour, and Marcos Ambrose became the fastest man in NASCAR with his pole-winning lap of 203 mph, the fastest lap since Bill Elliott's 1987 mark.


The speeds were so high that NASCAR instituted an extra practice session at the behest of Goodyear, who noticed that the heat and speeds were causing blisters on tires. The manufacturer also mandated a harder compound, while NASCAR also called a competition caution due to the day's rain and the need to assess tires.


It all turned out to be a tremendous day for Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The famous driver put his No. 88 machine into first position and proceeded to command the field for nearly half of Sunday's race. As the laps ticked down, he edged his leading margin slowly larger, picking up his first victory since his last, also at Michigan.


Now that fans can rest easy that Earnhardt broke his streak, the world is thrown upside down as the teams prepare to turn left and right. Sonoma often provides some of the most entertaining racing of the year. The twisty track with severe elevation changes brings out the road-course ringers, who drive one-off efforts trying for nothing less than a win. The change of pace allows some drivers to break their current trajectory and can often offer up a first-time winner, though the NASCAR regulars continue to improve each year.


UPGRADE


Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After 143 races, Earnhardt finally broke his winless streak on his 450th start, in a black car, on Father's Day. The setting was nothing less than perfect, and had all the earmarks of a NASCAR fairytale. Earnhardt led nearly 100 laps en route to the win, and was pulling away from Tony Stewart in the closing laps. The break wall might burst now that the victory has arrived and more could come in quick succession. Junior's 20.6 average finish from the last five Sonoma races doesn't suggest that it would happen this week, but momentum is king in this sport, and Junior has honed his road racing skills over the years. He makes a solid second or third driver this week.


Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya is the consummate road racer. Rarely would anyone ever bet against a former Monaco Grand Prix winner, and this week at Sonoma it would be unwise for fantasy players to look elsewhere. A win and four top-10s in his last five Sonoma starts make Montoya a go-to fantasy option on any road course. Add to that repertoire a strong run in Michigan, and Montoya could be staring down a perfect opportunity to not only score just his second top-10 of the season, but also possibly find Victory Lane. You can never count out Montoya when the series comes to a track that turns right as well as left, and this week is no exception, despite his dismal 2012 season to date.


Boris Said -
Said is another top road racer who comes to play every time NASCAR visits a road course. The busy-haired Californian has had some tough luck on the track but should be considered a driver who can definitely score an upset win. Two top-10s in the last five Sonoma starts is not representative of what his potential promises. Look for Said to make an impact this weekend, not only for a top finish, but also for pole. Add Hendrickcars.com support to Said's entry, and we could be looking at a potential table turner. Said, like Montoya, is another driver fantasy players simply cannot ignore when the series rolls onto a road course. Said should impress again this week.


Jeff Gordon -
Gordon added his fourth top-10 finish of the season at Michigan last week, but he needs his luck to turn to finally get in the winner's circle. The veteran driver looked likely to score the win on multiple occasions this season, but something has invariably gotten in the way. That could change this week, as Gordon is one of the best regular-season racers at Sonoma. He has the best finishing average of any driver at the track through the last five events, including the road course specialists. His finishing average is 5.2 in that time, despite not leading a single lap. Three top-5s and five top-10s will do that for a driver, and if you're married to selecting a full-time driver, then Gordon should be your man.


Clint Bowyer -
Surprisingly, Bowyer is another regular-season driver who knows how to mix it up with the road course ringers. His average finish in the last five Infineon races is 10.2, including three top-5s and four top-10s. There is no reason that Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing cannot find Victory Lane this week in California, despite not having the resources of one of the bigger teams in NASCAR these days. After adding an eighth top-10 to the slate last week in Michigan, despite battling a wickedly bad handling car, the team is now on a string of three consecutive top finishes. We know momentum can make up for a lot, and Bowyer, with his road-racing skills, could be in line to surprise a few folks this week in California.


DOWNGRADE


Kurt Busch -
The lighting rod of controversy through the last two weeks is not a driver that would attract fantasy attention in wine country. Busch's Infineon record is not a good one, at least when considering the last five events. His average finish in that time is 20.4, despite notching a win. That win in 2011 was the only finish he had better than 15th in the last five Napa Valley races. The driver's antics are wearing thin on his team owner, fans and officials, and it may not be long before he is on the spectators side of the fence looking in for good. Two spins in Sunday's Michigan race would have put him in a worse mood than Saturday after finishing third in the Nationwide Series, and this week may present worse.


Matt Kenseth -
One of NASCAR's top drivers this season has one of the most dismal Sonoma records in the field. Kenseth only claims one top-10 finish at the track in the last five races, which equals an average of just 20.8. Kenseth is a driver fantasy owners can feel confident selecting on most ovals, but this week's road course presents a different challenge, of which fantasy owners should be wary. While he hasn't finished outside the top 10 since April's Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Kenseth still doesn't create a compelling fantasy case this week. His best Sonoma finish is eighth in 2008, and he has rarely managed to finish in the top 15. Fantasy owner beware.


Denny Hamlin -
One of the most dramatic moments in Michigan came from Hamlin's ride through the grass and the resulting fireball as he drove to his pits. That led to his worst finish of the season, 34th, failing to give him any momentum heading into one of his more difficult tracks. He is another of the series' top drivers who has yet to prove that he can make his mark on the California road course. His average finish from the last five Infineon races is a disappointing 22.6, despite scoring top-10s in that time. Hamlin has a tendency to get caught up in troubles at the undulating California circuit, and fantasy owners should look for a more convincing option this week.


Brad Keselowski -
Despite two wins this season, Keselowski may not be the most confident pick this week in Sonoma. The last three races have seen him finish outside the top 10, a definite downturn in performance since May's end. To compound matters, he is largely an unknown at Sonoma as well, with just two starts to his credit. His best finish at the track came last season when he finished 10th on his second try, while his first effort at the track only netted a 35th-place points haul. The ups and downs of road course racing, coupled with just two career Sonoma starts, makes Keselowski a risky play for fantasy owners.


Ryan Newman -
Time was, Newman was a solid fantasy option when the series came to Sonoma. This season, however, is different. Newman's best finish in the last five Sonoma starts was seventh in the 2008 edition of the race. The other four events held nothing within the top 15 for the Indiana native. Couple those recent results with a driver who has only been a consistent top-15 driver this season, and you have a recipe for below average fantasy points. Newman will need an upturn in finishes before he becomes a major fantasy player again this season, and there are more reliable fantasy selections owners should look for this week than the No. 39.


Kyle Busch -
A special downgrade this week has to be given to the younger Busch brother. His Joe Gibbs Racing team has struggled with engine reliability recently - three races in a row actually - nearly causing three consecutive DNFs for a team that is used to consistent reliability. Something is clearly amiss here, and until he actually finishws a race, fantasy owners shouldn't touch him with a 10-foot pole. His average finish in the last five Sonoma races is 16.2, including a win, but with the reliability issue the team has faced lately, it is best to avoid Busch.


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