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NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Finally Conquers Bristol

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.

It didn't take long for things to get a bit testy Saturday night under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway. The track had the top two degrees of banking ground off to force the cars to run closer together, and the top lane became ultra slippery. The circuit changes forced closer racing at the beginning of the 500 laps, and Bristol lived up to its reputation.

Ken Schrader was the first driver to encounter contact when he was turned into the inside wall on the front straight before 20 laps were complete. Many drivers bumped and banged, and there were even helmets thrown. Tony Stewart threw a strike with his into Matt Kenseth's front grill, and Danica Patrick did her fair share of finger wagging as well.

After all was said and done, however, the top groove proved to be the place to be. Once Carl Edwards had to peel off for fuel it was left to Denny Hamlin to streak away to the finish, ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

We pack up for Atlanta Motor Speedway this week, one of the fastest quad-ovals on the circuit. Given the number of engine issues we've seen this season it wouldn't be inconceivable to see a few more this weekend. Atlanta means high RPMs, demands a compliant chassis and will test drivers like they haven't been tested yet this season.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin -
Never one to let the record books have a hold on reality, Hamlin turned the tables on his Bristol career Saturday night winning his first race at the track. He had a car that came forward in the closing stages and clearly had the race in his grip as he cruised to victory. This is a driver hungry for a championship, and he could begin the Chase in the top spot. He sits eighth in points and has had a great season. Two top-10s in the last five Atlanta races help give him an 18.2 average finish in that time. He hasn't failed to lead a lap at the track since 2009, and fantasy owners should feel comfortable slotting him in this week.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon won the last race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2011, leading 146 of the 325 laps. He has five wins in his 38 career Atlanta starts and a 12.2 average finish, an impressive number after so many races. After two disappointing races preceding Bristol, Gordon bounced back and overcame a shifty chassis to finish in the top five for the fifth time this season at Bristol. He is 14th in points, but isn't out of the Chase yet. He will want to come away from Atlanta with a solid points run, and a win if possible. Fantasy owners should rest comfortably knowing that he has overcome horrible luck that plagued him at the start of the season. His hunger is as strong as ever, making a great fantasy option this week.

Tony Stewart -
This week is Stewart's chance to right his ship before the Chase gets under way. He has the best average finish through the last five Atlanta races, 7.2, including a win and two other top-10s. He was slow from the green flag in Bristol, going a lap down before 100 circuits were complete. He worked his back again, though, only to be taken out when fighting for the lead with Matt Kenseth. The hard work to get back into the thick of the action was all wasted as the two spun into the inside wall, virtually ending Stewart's night. He can't have any more disappointing races if he wants the chance to defend his championship, and fantasy owners should look for him to ensure a solid finish this week as a result.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth might have been able to keep going after his collision with Stewart, but the damage was done. He finished the race 25th, a disappointing night for the driver who dominated much of the year in points. Saturday night made it consecutive race finishes outside the top 10, but this guy knows how to bounce back. Kenseth knows how to get the job done in Atlanta and could use this week as a way to sign off from Roush Fenway Racing in style. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 9.2, despite only scoring two top-10s in that time. Fantasy owners should be able to count on Kenseth this weekend, as long as Stewart doesn't get near him.

Kurt Busch -
If he can overcome the troubles of the machinery, Busch could have a great week in Atlanta. He knows the track well, and averages a finish of 10.0 in the last five races. He won twice and failed to make the top 10 just once in those tries. If this driver doesn't encounter trouble at the oval he usually finishes very close to the top 10. Contact at Bristol can be hard to avoid, and Busch could not. He collided with another car and the wall, which sent him to pit road for repairs early in the night. He worked his way forward again, but ultimately finished outside of top 20. Busch has had an inconsistent season, which was expected, but there have been a few bright spots, and this week could be another.

DOWNGRADE

Greg Biffle -
Even though he finished 19th Saturday night in Bristol, Biffle retained the points lead that he and teammate Kenseth have shared for much of the season. It was a rough night for the Roush Fenway Racing drivers, and Biffle really can't afford to go into the Chase with a lack of momentum and confidence that only good results can deliver. This week in Atlanta could extend his downward slide, despite winning his first race of the season just two weeks ago. Despite scoring two top-10s in the last five Atlanta races, Biffle's average finish is only 20.0. In those tries he only led a single lap, finishing off of the lead lap twice, making him a questionable choice this week.

Clint Bowyer -
Just like Biffle, despite bagging two top-10s in the last five Atlanta races, Bowyer's average finish is a disappointing 20.2. He failed to finish on the lead lap in two of those tries, only leading 12 laps. He had a strong night in Bristol, and his seventh-place finish gave him four consecutive top-10 finishes. Michael Waltrip Racing has picked up a lot of knowledge by having Mark Martin on the team, and Bowyer is clearly benefiting from that. His personal record in Atlanta is suspect, though. While the team might be able to help push him a bit up the order, Bowyer looks like he could struggle this week. Throughout this season, he hasn't finished in the top 10 more than four consecutive times, making him a statistically poor fantasy option this week.

Carl Edwards -
A finish outside the top 20 was not what Edwards needed in Bristol, but missing pit road made that a reality. The night was disappointing, and he is very close to not making the Chase this season. With three top-10 finishes in the last five Atlanta races you would expect Edwards to be a better fantasy option than he might actually be this week. This driver has only led a single lap in the 14 races immediately following his dominating run of Richmond International Raceway in April, where he led 206 of the 400 laps but still finished 10th. Edwards has been inconsistent and not as quick as his teammates in 2012, and fantasy owners should do the smart thing and stay away from him this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt led 13 laps Saturday in Bristol and finished 12th. He is third in points with just a few races remaining until the Chase begins. This could be the season that the No. 88 has his best chance at winning a title, but he will have to survive Atlanta first. Even though he finished on the lead lap every one of the last five Atlanta races, Earnhardt only accumulated a 16.8 average finish. That is disappointing when you consider that he didn't lead any laps in the time, and even scored a pole position. He might be having his best season to date, and he could still be a championship contender, but this would be the week to let him rest from fantasy duty.

Joey Logano -
Logano has failed to place better than 22nd in any of his five Atlanta starts. The young driver has not performed well there, and isn't expected to turn the tide this week either. Prior to Bristol he failed to finish in the top 10 in five consecutive races. Momentum is not in the No. 20's garage and something needs to change to gain the consistency and speed that other Joe Gibbs Racing cars have demonstrated. He was the car to beat in the early stages of Saturday night's race, and could be in the mix to replace A.J. Allmendinger at Penske Racing. Those two things might give Logano a spark, but that still isn't enough for fantasy rosters this week.

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