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NASCAR Barometer: Turn on the Afterburners

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.

When the cars turn left and right, the gloves often come off. This week saw NASCAR go road racing, and, as predicted, there was plenty of rubbing. The NASCAR stars have gained a lot of road-course experience the past few years, but aggression often fogs the visor when the laps wind down.

Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. had fantastic runs going most of the afternoon, each running strongly for Michael Waltrip Racing. A final caution threatened to give Kurt Busch an opportunity to dislodge Bowyer from point, but a solid restart left the MWR driver in position to win. He did just that, not putting a foot wrong through the entire race, scoring a solid victory for his Toyota team. The Michael Waltrip Racing teammates dominated the day, and despite Truex losing his grip at the top toward the end, the team still came up big.

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers visit Kentucky Speedway for just the second time. It will be another summer night race under the lights; grip will be at a premium, while fuel strategy could rule. Kyle Busch won last year's inaugural visit to the oval, but who will get the job done this week?

UPGRADE

Clint Bowyer -
It is hard to bet against Bowyer this season. Of the handful who fell out of drives with the traditional top teams, Bowyer has been making the most of it. Michael Waltrip Racing is making strides forward every week, and looks like it is here to win as often as the other top teams in the series. Bowyer had a terrible outing at Kentucky last season, recording a DNF due to an accident. He started that race 20th, but this season is a whole new game. Four top-10 finishes in the last four races, including last week's win, make Bowyer a driver not to ignore. He hasn't finished outside of the top 15 since April. Fantasy owners shouldn't discount Bowyer at this point in the season.

Tony Stewart -
Three top-5s in the last three races signal Stewart is back from his recent slump. He finished second in Sonoma last week. Wins may have eluded the Stewart-HAAS Racing team owner lately, but he has been chugging along and now finds himself on a hot streak. This time of year is where Stewart tends to turn on the afterburners, and with two victories already under his belt this season it might get tough for anyone to compete. Last year Stewart qualified in the top 10 at Kentucky, finishing 12th. He seems to have fully overcome his recent struggles, and fantasy owners shouldn't have any reason to second guess selecting him again, especially this week.

Jimmie Johnson -
The fifth-place finish Johnson notched in Sonoma was his fifth top-5 in the last six races. Additionally, Johnson finished third in last year's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky. The No. 48 has been strong on most tracks this season, but 1.5-mile ovals are the type on which he truly excels. Back-to-back top-5 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway are evidence of that fact. Only twice this season has Johnson failed to finish in the top 15, and both were DNFs. Hendrick Motorsports is building momentum, scoring important wins and pushing its drivers further and further up the standings. With three straight top-5 finishes before the season's first road-course event, Johnson is a strong option for the Quaker State 400.

Ryan Newman -
Newman collected third place in the Sprint Cup's initial visit to Kentucky. The fast Indiana native won at Martinsville Speedway earlier this year, but hasn't found the gust of wind that would bring him forward since then. Since the win he struggled, but has recently put together a long string of top-15 runs, five prior to Sonoma to be exact, and that could mean his confidence is returning. His team is among the leaders this season with three wins between himself and Tony Stewart. Stewart tends to become more productive later in the season, and that momentum will help carry Newman forward as well. Confident and returning to a track that was good to him last season, Newman is an option this week.

Matt Kenseth -
Sonoma marked just the first time in seven races that Kenseth failed to finish inside the top 10. Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing have been clear leaders on many tracks this season, but they claim just one 1.5-mile oval victory, and it wasn't Kenseth that scored it. His value as a fantasy player this week rises from his consistency. Truthfully, he hasn't just been consistent. Actually, he has been consistently fast. Eight top-5s and 11 top-10s in the first 15 races of the season have made him the points leader, and it's difficult to imagine him not coming away from Kentucky with another top finish. Fantasy owners can select No. 17 with confidence this week.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch -
Despite his victory in last year's Quaker State 400, there are still many questions swirling around Busch's reliability issues. Late-race contact in Sonoma ended any chance Busch might have had of reigniting his season with what could have been a respectable result. Alas, it was not to be as the car was damaged enough to cause Busch to limp as far as the car would allow. Before Sunday, his engine failed him on multiple occasions, and the team has continued to work through powerplant developments with mixed success. Until Busch completes a normal race distance those reliability questions will remain. It will most likely be hot in Kentucky, and that isn't an ideal environment for a questionable engine.

Kurt Busch -
Sonoma is a track that equalizes machinery, and Busch put that trait to good use with a strong top-5 run Sunday. However, after missing a race due to suspension, and mixed results this season, despite showing great speed at times, Busch is not getting the consistency that fantasy owners need. His points position of 27th before Sonoma is disappointing, even with an underfunded team. While results haven't been coming his way, Busch already lost sight of what this season was intended to be, a way back forward and a way to have fun again. He clearly is not having fun, and his anger has boiled over and stunted any progress he might already have made. Fantasy players should avoid him like the plague, at least until he gets the personal side sorted out.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger is another relatively fast driver who hasn't found the luck he needs this season. His experience in Champ Car gave him a leg up last week in Sonoma where he took home his second top-10 of the season. His finish in Kentucky last season was 28th. This season has been a tough one for him as well despite last week's result. While teammate Brad Keselowski has found success, Allmendinger hasn't gotten the job done. He sat 24th in points prior to Sonoma, and only finished on the lead lap in five of the first 15 races this season. We've seen flashes of spark from the Californian, but he hasn't backed those promises up with results yet.

Kevin Harvick -
It might seem somewhat strange to see Harvick's name in the Downgrade column. Part of the reason for this is simply that he might not be available to drive in Kentucky. He is expecting the arrival of his first child, and while he is the consummate professional, the stress of that may be slightly distracting for the driver. He sits sixth in series points, scoring four top-10 finishes in the last five races prior to Sonoma. While Harvick is certainly not being downgraded for his results, fantasy owners must often consider environmental factors, and for the next week or so Harvick has more than enough distraction off the racetrack.

Carl Edwards -
Something just isn't working for the No. 99 in 2012 so far. We're used to seeing Edwards lead the Roush charge, but this season he has been soundly eclipsed by his teammates. Roush has had the measure of the competition this season, but Edwards has not found what is making the other teammates tick. Being 11th in points would be a success story for many other drivers and teams, but not the No. 99. Something is lacking from Edwards' arsenal so far. While teammates Kenseth and Greg Biffle are putting together consistent finishes, Edwards is up and down. The team will work on curing its ills, and Edwards should come back before the season ends, but for now fantasy owners should remain skeptical.

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