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NASCAR Barometer: Speeding Toward the Chase

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 first 200 laps of Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway saw few caution flags. In fact, there were only three caution periods in the first 350 miles of the 500-mile race. The long green runs forced drivers to make changes on the fly, and those able to manage their cars best found themselves out front.

Despite starting from pole position, Tony Stewart's car didn't work to his favor. He was unable to run with the fastest cars in the early miles. Kyle Busch started the night strong, leading most of the early running. Jimmie Johnson also started strong, and Kevin Harvick also had his share of time out front.

Ironically, for the lack of cautions early in the race, it was a late caution period that enabled Hamlin to win his fourth race of the season. Martin Truex Jr. had been running away at the head of the field, but Jamie McMurray's incident brought the leaders back together, giving Hamlin a change to take it all on the restart.

This week is the last race in the regular season, at Richmond. It is a Saturday night short-track race that heats tempers, requires a car that can be adjusted and will see plenty of drama. A few drivers need wins to secure their Chase spots, while other long shots will be gunning for victory and hoping for competitor's misfortune at the same time. It is guaranteed to be a huge night, but there is one team that has virtually owned the track in recent seasons, Joe Gibbs Racing.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has missed the top 10 only four times in 13 career tries at Richmond. He owns two wins through that span as well and has a 7.3 average finish. He stalked Harvick on Sunday night in Atlanta after falling behind through pit stops. He had the fastest car and cut the gap to the leader, though. A late restart enabled him to overtake Martin Truex in the end, and he will now start the Chase from the top position. He is the first back-to-back winner this season, and anyone who is familiar with NASCAR history should be scared that this driver has this much momentum heading into the 10-race Chase. Hamlin looks like he will be hard to beat, especially if he keeps winning.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson claims three Richmond victories in his 21-race career at the track. His average finish throughout that time is 16.7, including eight top-10 finishes. He only has one finish worse than 11th in the last six races at the track, but he led 38 laps in that event, showing that he wasn't simply off the pace. He started quick in Atlanta last week and was one of the stronger cars the first half of the distance. A late crash saw his night end in disaster, but Johnson and the No. 48 team know how to overcome disappointment. The team is in the Chase, and it will work hard at Richmond to notch another victory for some bonus points before the playoffs begin.

Carl Edwards -
Sunday was a trying night for Edwards. He struggled with nailing the set up of his car but maintained a spot in the top 10 for much of the night. Late in the distance, however, his car gave up the ghost, and he ended the night in 36th position. Edwards has had a disappointing season thus far, but he finds himself within striking distance of a spot in the Chase. He scored two top-10s in the four races heading into Atlanta on Sunday night and carries a strong recent average at Richmond. In his last five races at the oval he claims five top-10 finishes and a 6.4 average result.

Martin Truex Jr. -
One driver has been near the front at the end of the last seven races, and his name is Truex. He dominated the closing stages of last week's Atlanta race and has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. Truex is on a roll and has a spot in the Chase for Michael Waltrip Racing. He may not have scored the win, but he is knocking on the door. Truex hasn't been the best at Richmond, only one top-10 finish in the last eight Richmond races, but he didn't have a great Bristol record either, yet finished. Truex has everything going for him, and he will be peeking in the window of a victory the rest of the season.

Kyle Busch -
Not only did Busch win the last Sprint Cup race at Richmond, he won four of the last six Richmond races. Joe Gibbs Racing clearly has the measure of the short oval, taking six of the last seven race wins, but Busch has capitalized the most of the teammates. Busch's average finish from the last five Richmond starts is 2.2, making him an ideal option for most fantasy rosters this week. To add on to the good news here, simply look at how dominant the Joe Gibbs teammates were last week in Atlanta. This young pair is hungry, races hard and does whatever it takes to find victories. Either JGR driver is a tremendous fantasy option this week.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Sunday night was a difficult one for Kenseth. He struggled to find the sweet spot of the chassis, and complained that he couldn't get the car comfortable through much of the distance. He worked hard to come back and finish ninth, but it took a lot of work. That kept him away from Victory Lane. Looking ahead, Kenseth has failed to finish in the top-10 in any of the last five Richmond races. His average result in that time is 16.4. Kenseth landed just one top-10 finish in the five races before Atlanta, and with a Chase spot already locked he should take this week conservatively.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne's night in Atlanta started badly. His car handled so poorly that he fell backward after undoing almost everything in the rear of the chassis. He languished around 20th for the majority of the distance, never finding an improvement that would allow him to move ahead. He finished 23rd Sunday night, which means he could use a win to get into the Chase. Despite scoring two top-5 finishes in the last five Richmond races, Kahne's average finish in that span is only 19.2. He failed to finish on the lead lap three of those times, contributing to the disappointing statistics. He has been hot and cold as the Chase approaches, scoring two top-5s and three finishes worse than 20th in the last five races.

Greg Biffle -
Questioning his engine's health before even 100 laps were complete was not a great start to Sunday night in Atlanta. He never came alive, struggling with the track conditions like a lot of other drivers. He managed to hang on to the point lead, but finished 15th on the night. Biffle has failed to score a top-10 Richmond finish every time he has visited the track since 2006. In the last five races there he only finished on the lead lap twice, averaging a 20.0 result. He might be on top of the series standings now, but his focus will be directed toward the final 10 races of the season, and improving his Richmond statistics probably isn't much of a priority now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Like Biffle, Earnhardt only has two lead lap Richmond finishes in the last five Richmond tries. His average finish is 20.6 in that time, and he has been up and down in the latest handful of races this season. Two top-5s and two finishes outside of the top-20 in the last five races demonstrate his lack of consistency. He could not get his car balanced in a way that he would feel comfortable pushing it Sunday night and ran around the 20th position as a result. Hard work and continual adjustments pushed him up the order by the finish, collecting his 17th top-10 of the season. The team can work through adversity and come out the other end on the good side, but this week could be more difficult.

Joey Logano -
Logano started Sunday's race not feeling well, and things didn't get much better for him as the night wore on. He, like many others, struggled to get his car handling on the quick Atlanta oval. He was a mid-pack car at best for the vast majority of the night and didn't do much to battle through his illness. Richmond has presented some challenges for him as well. Just one top-5 in the last five Richmond races gives him an 18.0 average finish. He didn't lead any laps in those races and only finished on the lead lap twice. When your teammates run rampant on a given track you should be expected to put up a good showing, but Logano has consistently failed. Fantasy owners need more than him this week.

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