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NASCAR Barometer: The Chase Continues

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 news of the weekend was the absence of one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship contenders. Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered his second concussion in short succession two weeks ago at Talladega Superspeedway, missing last week's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and this week's run at Kansas Speedway.

Regan Smith filled in for Earnhardt, which was one shop away from where he was originally supposed to be, Phoenix Racing. Smith will also be in the No. 88 this week at Kansas, but A.J. Allmendinger, who took Smith's spot last week, is unconfirmed.

All off-track news aside, Greg Biffle started from pole and opened a strong run for the Roush team. Brad Keselowski was the one who really stepped up to take charge, however, and it would only be fuel strategy that dented his night.

Clint Bowyer played the mileage game properly, and took Saturday night's victory at Charlotte, hoisting himself to fourth in points.

This week presents another 1.5-mile oval in Kansas, where the usual suspects excel. It was Denny Hamlin who won the last outing, but can Keselowski challenge the domination Jimmie Johnson has had on these tracks?

UPGRADE

Clint Bowyer -
This Chase contestant only claims one top-10 in the last five Kansas races. His average result in that span is a disappointing 19.4 and includes just two lead-lap finishes. Bowyer hasn't shown consistency or an ability to perform at this particular track, and that could make this week an uphill battle. He does, however, come off of a Chase win last week in Charlotte. The cards Bowyer played happened to have him out front with no one really able to challenge due to their own issues with fuel. He is now fourth in points, just 31 behind leader Brad Keselowski, and that small taste of success could propel him forward again this week in Kansas.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson came up third in Saturday night's Charlotte fuel mileage race. He led 53 laps and only ran as low as 20th through all 500 miles. Johnson has been waiting to get back to the 1.5-mile ovals, where he excels, and another one is already on tap this week following last week's success. To make things even better, last year's Kansas winner was Johnson. He also has three top-5s and five top-10s in the last five races there, giving him the best average finish in that time of any driver on the circuit. Johnson is the man to beat this week, and fantasy owners should definitely look his direction if possible.

Denny Hamlin -
Ranked third in points, now just 15 behind the leader, Hamlin is starting to make his presence felt as a true contender. Just one poor result from another of the drivers ahead of him in the Chase, and Hamlin is in a position to pounce. He finished second Saturday night in Charlotte, running in the top 10 and leading for much of the distance. Hamlin's five-race average finish at Kansas is 7.4, with no finishes off the lead lap. He won the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway earlier this season, and his confidence has to be high this week. Including that win he owns two other top-5s in the last five Kansas appearances, making him one of this week's top fantasy options.

Brad Keselowski -
The man getting it done this Chase has been Keselowski. He rolls into Kansas with a strong record at the track, scoring a win and another top-5 in the last five races there. His average finish in that time is 10.2. He was extremely strong in Charlotte, but ran out of gas, dropping him down the order and out of contention for the victory. He finished 11th when all was said and done, but Saturday could have been a night that he separated himself from the other Chase contenders, and didn't. Keselowski led more laps than any driver last week, and the 11th-place result was just his first finish outside the top 10 since Atlanta Motor Speedway in early September. Keselowski is on a charge this Chase.

Greg Biffle -
He started from pole and led 71 laps Saturday night, but wasn't the fastest car throughout the night, and only managed to come home in fourth position. It wasn't a bad night by any means for Biffle, but it was filled with a bit more promise than what he was able to achieve. Things should continue to be good for fantasy owners this week, though. Biffle's average Kansas finish through the last five runs is 5.4. He has a win, three top-5s and didn't finish outside the top-10 in any of those races, making him one of the most consistent drivers at the track. He may not be in line for a run at the Sprint Cup, but he could be in line for another solid points day in Kansas.

DOWNGRADE

Regan Smith -
Credit is due here for Smith. He stepped into the No. 88 car for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. immediately after losing his ride with Furniture Row Racing and ran strongly for the team before the car gave way just after 60 laps. His ability to convert this opportunity to a full-time chance this week at Kansas might be difficult, though. Kansas isn't his best track, and he only scored one top-10 there in the last five races. His average finish in that time is 20.2, including just two lead-lap finishes. Smith should do better than his statistics would suggest, but it probably won't be enough for fantasy owners looking to consolidate a lead, or make a late-season charge for the front.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart's last visit to Kansas Speedway saw him finish 13th after hanging around 15th position for much of the race. He had a difficult night in Charlotte, finishing 13th after having body damage early in the race. He battled back admirably, but the points were not enough to keep him up in the Chase contenders following consecutive finishes outside the top 20. Sure, Stewart has a win in the last five Kansas races, but that came in 2009, and his last two finishes there were outside the top 10. While he could always present a valiant charge, Stewart is not a driver whom fantasy players should immediately think of this week.

Martin Truex Jr. -
With a lone top-5 in the last five Kansas races, Truex doesn't present much of a fantasy option this week. Sure, that second-place finish came earlier this season, and he dominated that race, but wasn't able to convert the strength into victory and hasn't shown a consistent ability to run quickly at the track. He climbed a giant mountain by simply putting his team into the Chase, but he hasn't shown the prowess that would make him a true contender. His average Kansas finish in the last five races is 18.8, and he failed to finish on the lead lap twice in that span. His last Kansas race was decent, but is it worth the gamble?

Ryan Newman -
With only three lead-lap finishes in the last five races, Newman doesn't have the greatest Kansas pedigree. His average finish in that time is 16.8, which is better than some, but not what we normally would expect from the Indiana native. He is also coming off a disappointing weekend at Charlotte. He started strong by qualifying third but wasn't able to come home any higher than the 20th-place position. Now 14th in points, Newman is having a tough spell, much like he had midseason, with two finishes outside the top 20 from the last three races. Newman hasn't been consistent this season, and with a 20th-place finish in the last visit to Kansas, he shouldn't be considered a top fantasy play this week.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon had another off night Saturday in Charlotte, one more bad result in a short 10-race run where you can't afford a Mulligan. Gordon's 18th-place finish dropped him three places down the Chase standings and marked his second Chase result outside the top 10. Gordon couldn't afford any missteps after finishing 35th in the opening Chase race, but this week almost certainly sealed his fate. Gordon now heads to Kansas, where his last two efforts produced a best finish of just 24th. Sure, Gordon can lay down the goods at Kansas, but the last two races there have been questionable, and he is slipping down the Chase standings. This team has been on a slippery slope this season, and this week is no different.

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