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NASCAR Barometer: Hot Summer Nights

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 predicted summer temperatures were hot Saturday night in Kentucky. An especially hot day usually makes for an interesting night race as the sun goes down and the track cools, and the Quaker State 400 was no disappointment.

Jimmie Johnson started from pole with a lap record for the intermediate oval, but it was Kyle Busch who jumped out in front and led much of the early going.

Like all night races, some of the cars that were strong early faded after the sun fell. Busch wasn't necessarily one of those drivers, but he also wasn't able to keep the front his own. Instead, Brad Keselowski came to life as night came. He led the field to the finish, with a hard-charging Kasey Kahne running out of miles to track him down.

This week, we have another night race at one of the most entertaining tracks on the circuit. Daytona International Speedway's July race is always an exciting affair. The distance isn't as long as the February Daytona race, and that forces drivers to make an impact earlier. Chassis handling will be paramount because Daytona is more of a handling track than Talladega Superspeedway.

There are lessons fantasy owners can take from the last time the series visited Daytona, but crews will have to work a bit harder this time around to keep up with the track.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Saturday night in Kentucky proved Keselowski will be a force to reckon with as the Chase approaches. He is now the first driver this season to score three wins and is now favorite for a wild-card spot. Despite winning at Talladega twice Keselowski tends to be accident prone when visiting Daytona. The Penske driver crashed out of three of his last five Daytona races. His average finish in that time is 28.4. His only top-10 Daytona finishes came in two non-points races. Still, Penske cars tend to draft well, and Keselowski does as well. Fantasy owners can look to the blue deuce as a viable option this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Now that Earnhardt has a win in his back pocket he is poised to continue scoring big. Kentucky was a great run for the team, and that result tallies five top-10 finishes in the last six races. Earnhardt is one of four drivers holding a season-long rating higher than 100, and he has held station in the top points positions all season. Fans will expect more victories from the No. 88 as the year rolls on, and fantasy owners should as well. Daytona is his house, and with the best average finish of all active drivers at the track through the last five races, 10.2, he should be considered a fantasy favorite this week.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson's performance Saturday night wasn't much of a surprise since he claimed pole with a track record. Things are going Johnson's way, but this week could warrant some reflection. Johnson should not be in the Downgrade column, but his average Daytona finish from the last five races is 31.0, and he only finished on the lead lap once in that time. Everyone knows Johnson can win any week, and has done so at Daytona, but the trend is a bit concerning. A best result of 20th in the last five Daytona races makes for a more risky play, but with top-10s in the last five races Johnson still looks good.

Paul Menard -
Menard earned yet another top-20 with a 12th-place finish in Saturday night's Quaker State 400. Those results are becoming the staple of his season. The consistency has been admirable, but the team and driver have been relatively quiet, and should probably be finishing a bit higher up the ladder. Menard, since he joined Richard Childress Racing, has benefitted from the team's superspeedway insight, though. His average finish from the last five Daytona races is 10.8, and he is poised to score his fifth top-10 of the season this week. This could be a perfect time to use Menard and save starts for other drivers in this category for a later date.

Matt Kenseth -
Much has been happening in the world of Kenseth this week. He announced that he would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing, and we may have been given a big clue to what his new destination will be from his former employer. He finished seventh Saturday night, bagging his 12th top-10 from the first 17 races. His average running position of 8.5 to date is also the best in the field. This week, the Daytona 500 winner returns to the scene of his February conquest. Knowing that Kenseth will not be with Roush Fenway Racing next season could pose some questions about his or the team's commitment, but the entire effort at Kentucky should put those concerns to rest. Choose Kenseth with confidence this week.

DOWNGRADE

Martin Truex Jr. -
By finishing eighth Saturday night Truex picked up his second top-10 in the last five races and ninth of the season. The Toyota-powered driver is maintaining his place in the top 10 in points, but hasn't been as effective the last few races. He has an average running position of 11.6 but has fallen off the pace in the closing laps, losing an average of five places. Additionally, Daytona hasn't been the kindest track for Truex to visit. He finished 35th each of the last two July races at the massive oval. He is often one of the better pack racers when the series comes to town but has a tendency to fall out of contention at the end, and fantasy owners should take note of that.

Ryan Newman -
Despite winning the Daytona 500 for Penske Racing, Newman has one of the worst recent average finishes at the track from the last five events - 25.2. In fact, Newman hasn't finished in the top 10 at NASCAR's most famous track since his 2008 victory. While he looked back up to speed in Kentucky last week, he ended up losing an engine and spinning into the wall. The engine trouble was the second mechanical issue that night. Owner Tony Stewart was delayed by fuel injector trouble. The team is playing catch up. Newman was a decent gamble in Kentucky, but with trouble there and no top-10 runs since his victory at Martinsville Speedway, he looks much less appetizing for Daytona.

Marcos Ambrose -
Daytona experience is starting to help Ambrose when he races there, but there is still more work to be done before he becomes a viable fantasy selection at the track. He failed to finish two of his last five Daytona races and has only scored one top-10 finish in his seven races at the track. Kentucky is evidence of Ambrose's improvement, running more than half of the Quaker State 400 in the top 15, and ultimately finishing 13th. Three top-10s in the last six races are more evidence that Ambrose continues to progress, but there is still a gap before fantasy owners should commit at a superspeedway. For those reasons he would not be an optimal selection this week.

Carl Edwards -
Saturday night produced yet another disappointing run for Edwards. He turned a potential top-10 into a 20th-place finish after stopping for fuel with just a handful of laps remaining. He is now almost an entire race outside of the top-10 in points and hopes of winning a championship this season are fading. He finished ninth in the Daytona 500 earlier this season and scored four top-10s in the last five points races at the track. Still, Edwards isn't performing anywhere near the level of his teammates. He is frustrated, as is crew chief Bob Osborne. While the team will work it out, something in the garage has to change to shake the curse. Nothing is changing this week, though, and that is why Edwards should be avoided.

Jeff Burton -
Finish statistics alone could persuade fantasy owners to look at using Burton this week. He has two top-5 finishes in his last five Daytona races, but this season has only delivered more poor results. While in 2012 Burton is finding more top-10s, he is still failing to make it a regular occurrence. He finished 24th in Kentucky last week and fifth in February's Daytona 500. Richard Childress Racing builds some of the best superspeedway cars, and that means you can't just write him off. He is a tough decision this week, but due to current form it might be best to give him a rest. His last top-10 came from Talladega, which makes this decision even more difficult, but various drivers have more upside this week.

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