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NASCAR Barometer: No Stopping this Train

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.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway produced another four-time victor Sunday afternoon in Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion started sixth, ran near the front of the field all afternoon and checked out from the competition in the closing laps. It was a dominating day for the No. 48 team, one that we've seen many times already.

Perhaps more telling on the afternoon were the struggles of Roush Fenway Racing. Greg Biffle was the team's highest placing driver, and Matt Kenseth lost the points lead after being caught in a wreck. It appears as though the momentum has shifted away from the Ford team to the Chevrolet-powered stables of Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick has won six of the last 10 Sprint Cup races and now has Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the top points position with Johnson solidly in fourth.

When the series last visited Pocono Raceway in June it was Joey Logano who found Victory Lane for the first time since 2009. The repaved circuit pushed speeds higher in June, and that was enough to cause an engine failure on the No. 18 of Kyle Busch.

This week we can expect more high speeds, but anticipate the teams knowing a bit better how to deal with the new surface. Hendrick had Johnson in the top 5 in that race and will look to get its other drivers in there this week.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson at Pocono should be a no-brainer for fantasy owners. He has the best finishing average of any driver in the field through the last five Pocono races at 5.4. The next closest competitor at Pocono is Tony Stewart, but Johnson only finished outside the top 5 once in the same five-race span compared to Stewart's two. After contending much of last week's race, Johnson checked out at Indianapolis after the final restart, gapping Kyle Busch and streaking home to the finish. The victory was Johnson's fourth at the track and Chevrolet's 10th in a row at Indy, which is an incredible accomplishment. The wind in the team's sails for the second half of the season couldn't be more full. The competition better watch out.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Steady as she goes, the new series points leader is Earnhardt. He finished Sunday's Brickyard 400 fourth with a very strong effort. He has nine top-5s and 15 top-10s so far this season but admitted after the race that he is mainly focused on scoring more wins. He has three top-10s in the last five Pocono races, a 13.8 average finish through the same period. He finished eighth in June's Pocono 400, and consistently finishing in the top 10 this season makes him a serious contender this week. With the team hunting victories now that it's found consistency, fantasy owners should ride the momentum.

Tony Stewart -
Tenth was all that Stewart could manage Sunday in Indianapolis. He had a strong car in the second half of the race, but complained of other drivers hampering his forward progress. Part of racing Sprint Cup these days is dealing with traffic that tends to throw blocks, and it seemed like Stewart let the competition get under his skin. He will need to keep a cool head if he wants to match his championship win from last season. Pocono will be the first test of his ability to calm himself. Stewart tends to have great races at Pocono, though. His average finish in the last five is 8.0 with three top-5s. He's a promising option for fantasy owners.

Kevin Harvick -
With three top-5s in the last five Pocono races, Harvick stakes his claim as a top fantasy pick this week. His average finish at the track in that span is 8.2 despite a 19.8 starting average. His 13th-place finish at the Brickyard was his fifth finish outside the top 10 in the last seven races. The unwavering consistency he showed in the first half of the season looks like it might be starting to fade. Still, with no finishes lower than 15th in his last six Pocono races, there aren't many drivers fantasy owners can play with as much confidence as Harvick. Keep an eye on his finishing form the next week or two; we believe the goods will be delivered.

Joey Logano -
The last time Logano visited Pocono, he took home the win. That finish was his only top-5 at the track in the last five events, pushing his average finish to 15.2. Sunday he lost a number of positions on pit road, which put him deep in the field for a restart. The traffic he encountered while trying to work his way forward caused him to lose control and hit the wall, taking Matt Kenseth out of the race in the process. It wasn't the greatest day for the young driver, but this week puts him back on the ground of his latest triumph. He should be able to overcome last week's disappointment very quickly in Pennsylvania.

DOWNGRADE

Carl Edwards -
A ton of promise for Edwards at Indianapolis Motor Speedway quickly evaporated when his engine dropped cylinder early in the Brickyard 400. He was called to the pits to try and fix the issue, rejoining the fray, but well behind the competition. The frustrating day ended with a 29th-place finish, hugely disappointing after starting second. Looking ahead to next week, he finished 11th in June's last visit to Pocono Raceway, and his average finish at the track is 14.0 in the last five races. Just two top-10 finishes in the nine races since the All-Star Race indicate that Edwards is continuing to struggle in his search for the form his teammates have. It will take time for his new Crew Chief to make an impact, and next week might still be too soon.

Kasey Kahne -
No top-5s or top-10s in the last five Pocono races force Kahne's average finish down to 23.0. He only finished on the lead lap two of those five tries, and recorded two DNFs as well. Kahne could put together a top charge this week, but fantasy players would be taking a gamble given his poor string of finishes at the Pennsylvania triangle. He had a fairly anonymous afternoon in the Brickyard 400, finishing 12th after starting 15th. His New Hampshire win failed to ignite a streak of top finishes, and having not finished in the top 10 at Pocono since 2009, fantasy owners are right to question starting him this week.

Greg Biffle -
In a strong afternoon Sunday, Biffle finished third in Indianapolis. He had a fast car and managed to avoid some of the problems that ruined his teammates' afternoons. In fact, the next highest placing Ford-powered car was Trevor Bayne in 17th. The June Pocono race was not kind to Biffle, though. He finished near the bottom of the field in 24th position. Yes, he won the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 in 2010, but he also finished worse than 20th in three of his last five races at the track. The ups and downs of Biffle at Pocono are just too much to consider him a safe play this week.

Jeff Burton -
Burton suffered a flat front tire late in Sunday's race, and the resulting damage put him behind the wall and the competition. By the time the 400 miles was complete, Burton was nine laps down and the last car running on the track. It was an undignified afternoon for the driver who is still working to eradicate the demons that plagued him in 2011. He hasn't finished better than 15th in any of the last three Pocono races and has a five-race average finish at the track of 13.4. Burton hasn't finished in the top-10 at a non restrictor-plate track since the series visited Bristol Motor Speedway in March. Avoid Burton at Pocono this week.

Matt Kenseth -
Losing track position late in the Brickyard 400 forced Kenseth into a situation where his day was ended unceremoniously. Logano, racing ahead of the No. 17, lost control and slid into the wall, pinning Kenseth's car. The damage was enough to end Kenseth's afternoon and notch his first DNF of the season. Only two top-10s at Pocono in the last five races give Kenseth a 13.2 average finish, and that should give fantasy owners pause. Kenseth has never won at the Pennsylvania track, and in 25-career starts can only claim three top-5 finishes. Roush has had its share of success in 2012, and will enjoy some more, but there is enough evidence to make fantasy owners think twice about slotting in the No. 17 this week.

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