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NASCAR Barometer: The Chase Begins

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.

Saturday night's festivities at Richmond International Raceway got off to a delayed start as rain pushed the green flag back about two hours.

When things finally got rolling it was Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. who led the early laps from the front row. The two held the early miles under control until caution flew for the first time, which gave Denny Hamlin his shot out front shortly after.

The rain hadn't had enough, though, and after 100 laps were complete it came back. The rain was so hard that NASCAR threw the red flag, and fans and drivers waited another hour for the showers to pass. When they finally did, Earnhardt and Hamlin renewed their battle at the front of the field, though neither would hold it until the end.

By the time the finish arrived Gordon had gone from the lead to a lap down and then back again for one late-race charge to the finish. He ended the night second, clinching a wild card berth in the Chase. The night, however, belonged to Clint Bowyer. Bowyer played the fuel game properly, and outlasted the competition to win his second race of the season.

This week begins the Chase. This 10-race run to the finish of the season should be exciting and close-fought. Michael Waltrip Racing put two drivers in the competition, while Hendrick put all four cars in. Now the fun really begins at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway, the site where Tony Stewart began his championship run of 2012.

UPGRADE

Clint Bowyer -
In the Chase with a tremendous first season at Michael Waltrip Racing, Bowyer is looking forward to starting the 10-race run off on the right foot. His record at Chicago includes five top-10s in six starts, and a 10.2 average finish. Bowyer picked up his second win of the season, and his second at Richmond, Saturday night, cementing himself as a contender for this year's championship. This team is on a roll, and momentum is everything in NASCAR, especially as the Chase gets under way. Bowyer is one of the better racers at the Chicagoland oval, and with five top-10 finishes in the last six races he is a driver fantasy players should seriously consider this week.

Denny Hamlin -
Starting the Chase in the top spot is a great feather in the cap for Hamlin. He finished 18th in Richmond, which was a downer after consecutive wins prior to Saturday's race. Still, Hamlin has a tendency to overcome the odds, and he will have to do so in Chicago. Inconsistency has been a problem for Hamlin at that track. He will need to overcome those ups and downs this week if he wants to start his Chase effort properly. His average career finish in Chicago races is 19.2, and he failed to finish on the lead lap twice. Despite his sketchy statistics at the track, Hamlin is still the driver to beat in this Chase.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart won the last race at Chicagoland Speedway, sparking his amazing Chase run in 2011 that netted him another title. He has three wins at the track and only two finishes outside the top 10 in his 11 career starts. He comes to the same venue one season later in a similar position. He fought his way through last week's Richmond race, turning in an unlikely fourth-place finish from a car that was 42nd-fastest Friday. He spent four consecutive races outside the top-10 and did a tremendous job to make sure he got his foot in the door with a Chase spot. Stewart can turn around serious deficits, and this week's event might set him up for another remarkable run to the finish.

Ryan Newman -
Newman claims four top-10 finishes from his last five Chicagoland races. He's a Chicago winner and boasts a 10.8 average finish in the last five starts there. Newman hit a rough patch before Richmond's race but can get back on course again this week. He turned a string of two finishes worse than 30th into a top-10 finish, his ninth of the season, at Richmond. Newman has the goods to get the job done in Chicago, and his team owner is counting on his support as well. A rising tide can lift all ships, and Stewart-HAAS Racing appears to be on an upswing in from just as the season crests. Newman should make a stout fantasy selection this week.

Mark Martin -
Martin is another MWR driver hauling the goods this season. He will make his 18th appearance this season for the team at Chicagoland this week. His record at the track is a fine one too. He regularly finishes in the top 15 in Chicago and claims a win and five top-10s from his 11 career starts. His average finish in the last five races is 11.2, and he regularly finds a way to lead laps when racing there. His last two races have produced two top-10 finishes and give him plenty of confidence to take with him to Chicago. Martin should be in store for another top result this week, and with two teammates in the Chase, this team is on a high with plenty going its way.

DOWNGRADE

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose's best Chicago finish came in his first start at the track, 11th. His average finish from three total starts is just 19.3, though. The Tasmanian has certainly taken a step forward in his Sprint Cup career this season and even packed four top-10 finishes into the five races immediately preceding Saturday night's Richmond event. The last two races have only produced a best finish of 15th, though. Richard Petty Motorsports isn't the powerhouse that Hendrick Motorsports or even MWR is, and Ambrose might need that bit extra support to truly push his way farther up the finishing order. He is a tremendous driver who fantasy owners should watch, but probably not start this week.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex could be the MWR driver that fantasy owners may want to avoid this week. His 18.2 average finish at Chicago covers six races but includes only one top-10. Truex hasn't mastered the track despite leading a few laps in half of those starts. Four of those races saw him finish outside the top 15. The Chase may give him added incentive to perform, but he doesn't have the upside that teammates Bowyer and Martin carry this week. Truex stumbled in Richmond, falling five places in the points to claim the final Chase spot without requiring a wild card, pushing him the wrong direction at the worst possible time. The tide could shift in another week, but this one is one for fantasy owners to be wary.

Greg Biffle -
Despite including a top-5, Biffle's most recent five races at Chicago have only produced a 21.4 average result. He failed to finish on the lead lap three of those tries, and that top-5 from 2008 is his highest career finish at the oval. He made the Chase, but only in fifth position after leading the point standings for much of the season. Biffle is back on the winning track this season and has a great opportunity to claim his third NASCAR championship, one in every major series. He needs to get through this first run in Chicago, though. His past results aren't inspiring and there are plenty of Chase drivers hungry enough to produce more of an upside advantage to fantasy players this week.

Bobby Labonte -
After finishing 25th in Richmond Labonte still claims just a single top-10 finish this season, but he has run every race and hasn't been a start-and-park driver at any point. This has been good for fantasy players so far. Due to his efforts, Labonte has been a somewhat frequent fourth driver in many fantasy lineups this year, rewarding those starts by regularly finishing in the top 20. This week might be a time to stay away, though. In the last five Chicago races he only finished in the top 20 once, giving him an average result through that time of 27.2. This would be the week to look to someone else for that final roster spot.

Kyle Busch -
It is hard to ever put Busch in the downgrade column, but his recent Chicago statistics are not good. He did win the 2008 LifeLock.com 400, dominating it by leading 165 of the 267 laps, but hasn't seen the top 10 there since. His average finish from seven total track starts is 14.7, only includes one other top-5, and no other top-10s. He may have something to prove after an ill-advised decision in the pits Saturday night in Richmond cost him a chance at the championship. That extra chip on his shoulder might lead him to take more risks, though, as Busch will only be looking for wins from here until the end of the season, making the likelihood of a rollercoaster ride a real possibility.

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