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NASCAR Barometer: Headed to the Hills

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.

Rain caused a 90-minute delay to the start of Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. Once the running got under way it looked like it would be a typical Pocono fuel run to the finish. Those expectations evaporated when it became clear that another storm system was headed toward the track. Once rain came, everyone knew it would be too much to continue.

What decided the race was a final restart when Jimmie Johnson lost control heading into turn 1 and collected Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Once the smoke cleared it was obvious that the race would not be restarted. The driver in the captain's seat happened to be none other than Jeff Gordon.

The Hendrick Motorsports veteran picked up his first victory of the season with the shortened run, putting him into position to fight for a Chase wild card spot. Kasey Kahne's position on track gave Hendrick both top spots in the final results while Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled with mechanical issues and finished 32nd. Earnhardt's closest points competitor, Kenseth, was relegated to 23rd after the contact with Johnson.

Watkins Glen International is on tap this weekend in the hills of upstate New York. Gordon has a fantastic record at the track while a few of the road course specialists will be licking their chops for a shot at a victory. The series regulars have gotten progressively more adept at fending off the road course ringers in recent years, but this track could still offer a surprise or two.

UPGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon found himself in the right spot when the rain started falling Sunday in Pennsylvania. He landed in the lead when, on a late restart, teammate Jimmie Johnson started to slide, causing a chain-reaction accident that put the field under caution. Rain started falling on the speedway under caution and Gordon was left out front. Ultimately the weather proved to be too much to overcome, and he was credited with his sixth win at the track. The No. 24 has an amazing record at Watkins Glen. Including his last top-10 there in 2010, he also claims four wins and nine top-10s in his 19-race career. With the high of winning his first race of the season it might be hard for others to keep Gordon in sight when the series hits New York this week.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has become one of the oval specialists who can mix it up with the ringers on the road courses. He won the 2008 edition of this week's race, and his worst finish at the track since is eighth. He and his team will be looking for a strong performance this week after a blown brake rotor sent them into the wall at Pocono. In the garage after the incident Busch said he would be a long shot to get into the Chase if the team's luck continues as it has so far this season. Despite last week's bad luck, Busch still presents a valuable option for fantasy rosters at Watkins Glen.

Tony Stewart -
When rain came Stewart was in fifth, and the result was his ninth top-5 this season. He is comfortably in the top points positions to compete in this season's Chase for the Championship, and he is working to learn all he can to make that final 10-race run his best. This week presents a different challenge, but one in which Stewart excels. A 9.2 average finish in the last four Watkins Glen races makes him one of the better choices in this week's field. He won the 2009 race at Watkins Glen, and has only finished outside the top 10 once in the last four races at the track. Fantasy owners should definitely take a look at Smoke this week.

Marcos Ambrose -
Having been a champion in the Australian V8 Supercar series, Ambrose knows how to wheel a heavy car through tight turns. He used that experience to win last season at Watkins Glen. Last week he earned his fifth top-10 of the season, as his up-tick in form continues to pay some dividends. While he has some distance to cover, he has steadily improved since the start of the season when he finished out of the top 20 in three of the first five races. The Tasmanian has the best average finish of any driver in the series at Watkins Glen through the last four races at the track, 2.2. He finished in the top 5 each of those four races and should be a great choice for fantasy rosters this week.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Whenever the NASCAR Sprint Cup visits a track that turns right as well as left Montoya cannot be discounted. No matter how disappointing his performances in any given season, he always has a chance to win on the road courses. His average finish in the last four Watkins Glen races is 4.5, finishing in the top 10 each of those times. This season has been a tough one for Montoya and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, but redemption may be in the offing this weekend if the Columbian can find Victory Lane. The rain limited his progress through the field last week at Pocono, where he finished 20th, but he will be a man on a mission this week at the Glen.

DOWNGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt suffered transmission problems early in Sunday's race at Pocono. The problem put him out of contention, which was a bitter pill for the team to swallow after taking over the point lead just a week prior. While the team will be looking to reverse its fortune next week in Watkins Glen, Earnhardt will have to perform better than his recent average at the track. In the last four Watkins Glen races he failed to finish in the top 10 a single time, earning a 25.5 average finish. Sealing the deal at the track seems to be the issue. Until he puts a top road course finish in the bag, Earnhardt is a driver to stay away from when the turns go right and left.

Denny Hamlin -
When rain was threatening last Sunday at Pocono, Hamlin was pushing hard on a restart and got caught in Matt Kenseth's slide. The impact ended Hamlin's afternoon. That misfortune ended Hamlin's chance for three consecutive top-10 finishes, and sends him to a track where he hasn't exactly been atop his game. In the last two Watkins Glen races, Hamlin has finished 30th or worse. Those results mask what was a tremendous early career at the upstate course. In his first four races at the Glen, Hamlin finished 10th or better each time. He is a solid road course driver of the regular-season drivers but has not had the results that would make him a prime pick this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
After spinning into the wall at Pocono Raceway, Busch will be looking for something more at Watkins Glen. Unfortunately he was caught in an accident there last year and was credited with a 38th-place finish. There was a short span in which Busch scored consecutive top-10 finishes at the track, but that was at the beginning of his career and now he could do better. In 11 career attempts at the rolling course, he scored just one top-5 finish and four top-10s. His average finish in those tries is 19.8 while his last four have netted a 14.2 average. Fantasy owners will have to pick Busch quite carefully this season, and this week should be one where he's rested.

Paul Menard -
On the road courses Menard is one driver who has just not gotten the job done. His best Watkins Glen finish was 16th in the 2010 edition, and he hasn't fared much better at Sonoma either. This driver is one of the classic Sprint Cup racers who can compete on the ovals, but flounders when the road turns right. His most recent four-race average finish at Watkins Glen is 23.8. He has never finished in the top 10 at either of the road courses the Sprint Cup Series visits, and doesn't look likely to buck the trend this week. His last top-10 finish this season was at the June Pocono race, and that was just his fourth of the year. Fantasy owners would be wise to ignore Menard this week.

Greg Biffle -
With one top-5 finish in the last four races at the Glen, Biffle isn't one of the top fantasy choices this week. His average finish in that time is 20.2, and that lone top-5 is his best finish at the track. He holds one other top-10 result in his nine-race career at the New York course but has not impressed when the series rolls into town. Through those nine races his average finish is 25.8. Add to that a disappointing run in Pocono, where he came home 15th in the wet, and you have a driver who is on the downside of a spell this season. Biffle is starting to finish more frequently outside of the top-10, and at a tougher track for him, like Watkins Glen, the odds might be stacked against him.

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