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NASCAR Barometer: Biffle's on the Upswing

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.

Sunday at Watkins Glen International produced rain without a red flag, and a wild finish that saw Marcos Ambrose go from third to first in the first-ever last-lap pass for a NASCAR win at Watkins Glen.

The twisting turns and pounding curbs took their toll on the machinery of the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. No fewer than 11 drivers recorded DNFs, and many were the result of broken machinery brought on by the demanding race.

Kyle Busch led the most laps on the day but failed to make his way around one last time to claim victory. Oil on the track caused each of the leaders to fight for grip on the final circuit of the course, and Busch was the unluckiest as he lost traction and the gap after he and Brad Keselowski touched. Sitting in the perfect position, ready to pounce, was Ambrose. He avoided a spinning Busch and then set his sights on charging down Keselowski.

Those two were the last men standing for the final two-thirds of a lap, and each did his best to forcibly move the other out of the way. Both went off track countless times in the final turns, and it was Ambrose who held on to win in stunning fashion.

This week we head back to Michigan International Speedway, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. snapped his long winless streak. Will he be able to repeat, or will the Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing teams force their way back into the mix?

UPGRADE

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose had all the right moves Sunday at Watkins Glen. He made it back-to-back wins at the fast twisty course, but not without putting in his fair share of work. Just a few laps from the finish it looked like Ambrose had used all of his tires and was at the mercy of Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Instead, luck turned its head to the Tasmanian, and oil on the track allowed him to catch and pass both drivers ahead for the victory in one of the most exciting final laps of the season. He finished ninth in his last visit to Michigan, and scored consecutive 15th-place finishes in 2010. He isn't the top driver there, but after last week's win he could be a solid play with momentum on his side.

Greg Biffle -
Sunday's sixth-place finish at the Glen put Biffle back into second place in the points standings, ahead of teammate Matt Kenseth. The finish also made it three top-10 finishes in the last four races for the No. 16. It looks like the slide in form that produced back-to-back 21st-place finishes is a memory, and the Washington native is back to fight for a championship. That is good news for Biffle since Michigan is one of his better tracks. He started from the top 10 in each of the last four starts, scoring two top-5 finishes en route to an average finish of 10.4 in the last five Michigan races. Biffle is a driver on an upswing in form, and fantasy players could do a lot worse this week.

Tony Stewart -
There aren't many better drivers at Michigan than Stewart. With two top-5s and no finishes outside the top 10 in the last five Michigan races, his average result is 5.8, and the best in the series. He had a penalty early in last week's race for leaving his pit box with his gas can still attached. To make things worse, he lost control on the final turn and backed it into the wall, putting himself farther behind. Those troubles aren't likely to surface again this week for the Indiana driver. Fantasy owners should look past the stumbles that he took on the road course, and look forward to a hot summer afternoon on an oval, an environment where Stewart excels.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The past two races have been a giant pain for Earnhardt. The oil spilled on the track at the end of the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen proved too much to handle for the No. 88. He and his teammates were forced to tiptoe through, but gave up positions along the way. Earnhardt finished the race a disappointing 19th. He did, however, win the June Michigan race and is looking to secure another trip to Victory Lane this week. In his last five Michigan tries he claims an average finish of 12.4. Despite disappointing performances the past two weeks, Earnhardt is still a solid Chase contender and is in the midst of what might be considered the best season of his career.

Denny Hamlin -
He may have ended his day at Watkins Glen on fire, but Hamlin has every chance to be ahead of the competition this week in Michigan. In the last five races at the track he scored two wins and another top-5. His average finish in that time is 14.6, including a DNF. Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing have been the class of the field at times at the sister tracks of Michigan and Auto Club Speedway, and Hamlin's car giving up early in New York doesn't mean that he can't swing to victory seven days later. The last time he scored consecutive DNFs was in June, and he immediately bounced back to place third at Kentucky Speedway. Expect a performance like that from Hamlin this week.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski has just one top-5 finish in the last five Michigan races. The Penske driver has had another top season, and has flown the Dodge banner proudly. Unfortunately, he has not been able to get the job done in Michigan, though. He finished 13th at the track in June, and scored his lone top-5 there in the prior season's August race. Before those two finishes, however, he put together three straight finishes 25th or lower. Since the last Michigan race he has only finished outside of the top 10 once. So, there is plenty of upside potential this week, but not without risk. Michigan is a track where consistent names rise to the surface, and Keselowski has not been consistently at the front here.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya's best chance at a good finish to redeem his disappointing 2012 season evaporated when his left-front wheel gave way early in Sunday's running. He qualified on pole, but his machinery was not up to the task. While Montoya did capture a top-10 finish the last time the series visited Michigan, the result wasn't a normal one from the No. 42. In 11 career starts at the oval in Sprint Cup equipment, he only finished in the top 10 three times. His average finish is 21.8. Add to those statistics the somewhat surprising lack of top-10 finishes this season, and you have a driver and team that are on their heels and would not make a confident selection for fantasy players.

Kasey Kahne -
After a 13th-place run at Watkins Glen, one that wasn't without its troubles, Kahne looks to be in a rough patch. We don't know how well Kahne could have been at Michigan this year because he crashed out of the prior race deep into the running. His average running position to that point was 22nd, and he spent less than half of his miles inside the top 15. He wasn't as quick as teammate Earnhardt, and missed finishing on the lead lap twice in his last five Michigan tries. His average result in that time is 16.8, and with other drivers in the field more consistent and on better strings of results, Kahne is probably not one to expect a breakthrough performance from this week.

Ryan Newman -
After reporting a flat tire on a restart, Newman did well to come back and finish 11th. That result was his best at the track since he finished eighth in 2006. Michigan holds another mixed bag of results for Newman. He won consecutive races there in 2003 and 2004, but went 13 races after that to find the top 10 again. He does claim two top-10 finishes in the last five Michigan races, but also owns two finishes outside of the top 20 in the same period. Newman's average finish in the last five Michigan events is 16.2, and that isn't good enough for fantasy rosters. He is 13th in the points with plenty of incentive to turn in top finishes, but the question remains as to whether he will.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray ended his day at Watkins Glen just 25 laps into the contest when he came into contact with the track's barriers. The damage flattened the right side of his car, and destroyed the front wheel making it impossible to continue. At Michigan, McMurray hasn't finished in the top 10 in any of the last five races. He only has three top-10 finishes to his credit this deep into the season, and there is almost no hope that he would fight his way into championship contention without racking up wins. It hasn't been a good season for him or his team, and fantasy players would be wise to continue to stay away from slotting him into their lineups this week.

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