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NASCAR Barometer: The Wild Card of Talladega

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's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway produced a winner that perhaps wasn't the fastest car on the afternoon. Fuel mileage became a factor after the final round of pit stops, and when a late caution never came, it was Brad Keselowski who capitalized on his position to claim the victory. Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin took their turns out front Sunday, trading the lead.

Ultimately, it was Keselowski who confidently held his car in position to run fast on long runs, which was the correct strategy in a race that saw few cautions. Only 28 of the 400 laps were run under yellow, and long runs separated winners from losers. Brad's strategy put him into the Chase lead and makes him one of the dwindling number of Chase drivers that could conceivably take this year's title.

After a fuel-mileage race in Dover, the NASCAR Sprint Cup heads to Talladega Superspeedway, which most would agree is the true wild card of the Chase races. Anything can happen at the gigantic track where horsepower is king, and the ability to draft in the pack while not overheating the equipment and avoiding "the big one" make for a successful afternoon.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski won the Aaron's 499 in May and has one of the better finishing records through the last five Talladega races. His average finish is 13.0 in his seven career tries, and he owns two victor's trophies. He won in Dover on Sunday by taking his car, which wasn't the fastest, and held it in position to win when other teams fell by the wayside. It was a strategy that paid off for the No. 2 Sunday, and it could be a championship-winning move for the Penske team. Keselowski has been on a tear since the Chase began and hasn't finished outside the top 10 in the last five races. This is the driver who will challenge Jimmie Johnson in the run to the Cup, and he will climb farther ahead with another strong race this weekend.

Clint Bowyer -
With two wins in the last five Talladega visits, Bowyer could be considered the favorite this week. He is still in touch for a title in the Chase and has a 3.4 average finish in the last five Talladega races. He claims nine top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, which is representative of the outstanding season he has had so far. All that aside, though, wins will have to come to make a title a reality. But in the meantime fantasy owners will be pleased with his steadiness. Consistency is relative at Talladega, and fantasy picks can be somewhat of a gamble, but Bowyer presents the best option for a consistent and confident pick this week.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin showed that despite his past results at a track, he can still overcome. His crew chief Darian Grubb helped him buck his history at Dover, keeping him in solid Chase contention. Although fuel forced him to pit in the closing laps, dropping him from the lead to eighth finishing position, Hamlin definitely overcame his nemesis at Dover. Things get easier for Hamlin this week at Talladega. He claims three top-10s in the last five Talladega races and a 13.4 average finish. Hamlin will be confident after his strong Dover run, and that could mean that great things are to come from the Virginia native this week at Talladega.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Whenever the series visits a superspeedway, fantasy owners have to consider Earnhardt. He has a top-5 and a top-10 in the last five Talladega races with an 18.0 average finish. More important, however, are his four lead-lap finishes in that time. Staying on the lead lap puts you in position to win at the Alabama track, and Earnhardt has that skill nailed. He finished 11th at Dover, which is his second finish outside the top 10 in this Chase. Those finishes will not work him farther up this year's standings, but it does give him continued confidence that he has overcome his slump. We are all waiting for more victories from the No. 88, and one this week would be a shot in the arm.

Kyle Busch -
Busch dominated Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover. He led many of the miles run, but was forced to pit late for fuel. A testament to his power Sunday afternoon, that pit stop only dropped him to seventh in the finishing order. That run should give the No. 18 some confidence heading into Talladega, a place where he owns a victory and finished second at in May. Busch is still hunting for wins to prove that he should have been one of this season's chase racers. He and his team will work hard to make sure they claim as many points as possible in the closing races this year, and he could be one to look out for this week on the high banks.

DOWNGRADE

Kevin Harvick -
Despite a 13.0 average result in the last five Talladega races, Harvick is closing out a disappointing season. He made the Chase, but hasn't scored a win yet this season and has largely been absent from the contenders. He finished 13th in Dover in what was an entirely anonymous performance. The No. 29 has been a shadow of itself this season and is leaving a number of points on the table with lackluster outings. Fantasy players should look for a driver who has some confidence with results to bolster their stature, and the 29 team has neither at the moment. The demands of Talladega are not conducive to a floundering team, and while the track can produce a surprise, the odds are not good when on a downward slope.

Matt Kenseth -
Finishing 35th in Sunday's AAA 400 may have put the nail in the coffin of Kenseth's 2012 Chase effort. He slapped the wall, which caused enough damage to cause him to not be competitive for the rest of the race. He tumbled down the standings, and lost ground in what will be his final Chase with Roush Fenway Racing. One top-5 in the last five Talladega races is all Kenseth has to hang his hat on this week, too. His average finish in that time is 20.2 and only includes three lead-lap finishes. While Roush has picked up its superspeedway program, Kenseth doesn't seem to have benefited as much as his teammates. He is not the driver to pick this week.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart finished 20th Sunday in what was another disappointing run for the owner/driver. His car simply was not up to par with drivers who competed for the lead in Sunday's AAA 400, and he will be scratching his head as to just what the team is lacking this Chase. Add to that just one top-10 finish in the last five Talladega races, and that makes Stewart a less-than-optimal fantasy choice this week. His average finish in those five Talladega races is 19.0, which isn't terrible for the rough superspeedway but not as attractive as it should be. Stewart doesn't have the spark that propelled him to a title last year, making him a fantasy bust this week.

Kurt Busch -
The lame duck driver who has struggled for much of the last 12 months is jumping ship to a new team and gave the team the stuck by him in his time of need a slap in the face. Busch put Phoenix Racing through the ringer this season without delivering much in the way of results. This driver has been a loose cannon, and fantasy owners should be questioning whether he can even deliver with his new team, let alone with Phoenix after jumping ship. He finished 23rd in Sunday's AAA 400 in what was another very mediocre performance. He talked of putting the fun back in racing in 2012, but seems to have given up the ghost in his continued effort to create unnecessary waves. Stay clear this week.

Jeff Burton -
After finishing 27th in Sunday's AAA 400, Burton cemented his pattern of inconsistency. By all considerations he should have had respectable afternoon at Dover but failed to deliver the goods once again. This driver has a 20.2 average finish in the last five Talladega races despite claiming two top-10s. He failed to finish on the lead lap twice in that time, which demonstrates his unreliability at the track. He is having a better 2012 than 2011 in terms of results, but Richard Childress Racing has been behind the ball all season and is probably now more focused on 2013 than anything else. Burton is a serious question this week.

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