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NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin's Chasing the Title

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.

Aside from a competition caution for overnight rain and some cautions for debris, the vast majority of Sunday's Sylvania 300 was run under green-flag conditions. Kyle Busch led a number of laps early, but lost a cylinder later in the running, allowing teammate Denny Hamlin to jolt ahead and dominate the distance.

Unlike the first Chase race, the Chase contenders all ran well. Some ran better than others, but no one was dealt a deathblow. Trials like Jeff Gordon's the week before did not take another chunk of competition out of contention, and most of the points race tightened up. The lead is broken apart by a single point, and the next eight races are shaping up to be a shootout, with wins poised to make the difference.

Next up is Dover, a concrete track with high banking that can create havoc when just one driver loses it in a line of traffic. Johnson won the last race at the oval, as well as four of the last seven, and admitted he is hungry to gain as much ground as he can when the series rolls back into town this week.

While Johnson is clearly a favorite, who else can get the job done for fantasy players this week?

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 dominated Sunday's New Hampshire Motor Speedway race. He led 193 of the 300 laps and spent 90 percent of the race distance inside the top-15 runners. That kind of performance signals a run of success longer than a single week despite the statistical lack of opportunity this week at Dover. His average finish is 13.0 in the last five events at the track, including one top-5 and another top-10, which isn't the best in the field. That record is not as strong as teammate Kyle Busch's, but last week's win increases the odds of another strong run ahead. Hamlin, despite his past statistics at the track, should pull out a top-5 this week.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth, with a 6.0 average Dover finish in the last five races, is a Roush driver that fantasy owners likely can count on this week. He only failed to finish inside the top 5 once in those five Dover races, making him a conservative favorite this week. He ran home to a 14th-place finish Sunday in New Hampshire, which might have been a few spots lower than he should have. Kenseth's Ford was close to a top-10 runner, but it never really clicked, and now he finds himself with two Chase finishes outside the top 10. He didn't have much to say after Sunday's race and knows that things need to improve quickly if he wants a chance at another title.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer will be licking his chops ahead of this week's Dover race. After a strong run at a track where he hasn't been the best performer lately, he now heads to one of his best. He has excelled in Dover, recording a top-5 and three top-10s in the last five races there. He failed to finish on the lead lap twice in that span, yet managed to tally a 12.2 average finish regardless. His fourth-place finish last week puts him sixth in the points, and who would have thought he would be there when this season began? This team is a success story and has more in store in the coming weeks. Look for another confident top-10 run from Bowyer next week, and anything else will be gravy.

Jeff Burton -
Despite Richard Childress Racing's 2012 struggles, Dover might be the time fantasy owners benefit from looking their direction. Burton scored two top-5s in the last five Dover races and finished an average position of 9.6, while also recording a DNF. The last two races produced finishes outside the top 10 for the No. 31 team, reflective of what has largely become a season of disappointment. Instead of being down, this team will be looking ahead. It isn't in the Chase and is looking for runs that it can point to in the offseason, and this week at Dover could be one. Burton's statistics are strong at this track and could be a valuable fantasy option for teams this week.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson, no surprise, has one of the best finishing records through the last five Dover races. He won two of those races, and finished outside the top 10 just once. His average finish is 5.8 in that time. He was one of the best cars in New Hampshire but simply did not have enough for Hamlin, who was the class of the field. Johnson did take the points lead, however, and now just one point is all that splits him and Brad Keselowski in what promises to be a dogfight to Miami. Johnson has a golden ticket to gap Keselowski in points this week at Dover, and fantasy owners should use the opportunity to eat their competition too.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Whenever Keselowski is placed in the Downgrade column he makes it a point to prove history wrong. Be that as it may, Keselowski hasn't finished in the top 10 at Dover in any of the last five attempts and failed to finish on the lead lap twice too. His average finish in that span is disappointing at 17.0, and he looks like a risk this week on paper. After his string of four consecutive top-10 races, Keselowski will have to turn up the effort a bit more this week to not lose more ground to Johnson. Keselowski has a habit of turning adversity into greatness, but fantasy owners should acknowledge that there are better options this week.

Greg Biffle -
A Chase driver that probably warrants avoidance this week is Biffle. His Dover results haven't been impressive, nor has his Chase effort thus far. The first two races have both produced finishes outside of the top 10, sending him down to ninth in the Chase standings. This is a 10-race run that requires stellar performances in a very specific period of time, and while Biffle has been solid over the season, he simply hasn't had the spark that will get the job done in the Chase. His average Dover finish in the last five tries is 16.4, and includes one top-10 and just two lead-lap finishes. It would appear as though Biffle peaked too early this season to make a true charge for a title.

Tony Stewart -
Despite grabbing last season's Chase by the neck, Stewart hasn't exactly brought home the goods from Dover. His average finish in the last five races there is 21.8. To paint the picture even clearer, he only recorded one lead lap finish in all of those efforts, hasn't led any laps at the track in that time, and would be a gamble fantasy play this week. He lays claim to another decent start in the Chase in 2012, but it pales in comparison to the way he started 2011's 10-race title run. Stewart comes to New Hampshire off a top-10 run at New Hampshire, his third in a row, but still isn't showing the 2011 magic. This week could be one where fantasy owners might want to lower their expectations.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne's Dover results have been decent through the last five races, including one top-5 and two top-10s. Those finishes are masked by his average result of 19.4, though. Kahne can be quick at Dover, notching an 8.8 average start, but consistent finishes are an issue. His back-to-back top-5s in the first two races of this season's Chase have moved him into the fifth points position, but his efforts so far have not made him look like a title favorite. If he wants to prove the doubters wrong he must hurdle the difficult Dover challenge this week. Fantasy owners should watch carefully this week, but avoid the downside risk.

Kyle Busch -
Busch, again, suffered bad luck in New Hampshire while his teammate went on to dominate the afternoon. The No. 18 led early, but was relegated to an also-ran effort after losing a cylinder later in the distance. While Busch has a 9.2 average finish in the last five Dover races, his bad luck the last half of this season is making fantasy owners miss more often than they should. His results have improved since the run up to the Chase, but the consistent top-10 finishes have been missing for quite some time. Busch is clearly a driver who can win any given week, but until he can overcome this rollercoaster ride fantasy owners might be better served starting a driver who has momentum on his side.

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