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NASCAR Barometer: A New Chase Leader

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.

After capturing his seventh career win at Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson is one big step closer to his sixth Sprint Cup championship. Johnson's victory Sunday at the famed paperclip erased a seven-point deficit in the Chase standings, knocking Brad Keselowski from his perch as points leader with three races remaining.

Johnson, who captured his fourth victory of the year, took a two-point lead in the standings over Keselowski, whose sixth-place finish was a career high at Martinsville.

Keselowski gambled on a late caution flag, opting to stay out instead of heading to pit road for fresh tires with most of the rest of the pack. The move helped him climb the leaderboard, but he was easy pickings for returning cars.

Race favorite Denny Hamlin, who had won three of the last six races at Martinsville, twice overcame penalties to work his way forward and looked to be in contention. An electrical problem, though, crushed his chances, sending him to a 33rd-place finish and ending his title hopes.

The series now heads to Texas, where Johnson again figures to be a strong contender, before finishing at Phoenix and then Homestead-Miami the next two weeks.

UPGRADE

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth, who finished 14th at Martinsville, has a tendency to run well at Texas. Whether it is Roush Fenway Racing, or the driver, we may not know until next season, but for this week, Kenseth is a solid fantasy option. He owns an average finish of 6.4 in the last five Texas races, including a win and four top-10s.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle turned in a 10th-place finish at Martinsville and heads to Texas with with confidence at one of his top tracks. Biffle's average Texas result is the best in the field at 5.0 through the last five races there. He finished on the lead lap every single one of those times, and picked up a win with four other top-5s too. He could very well be considered this week's favorite.

Jimmie Johnson -
With last week's victory, Johnson is showing that he will not go down without a fight. He is in prime position to become a six-time Sprint Cup Champions, and Texas could add to that charge, which saw him lead 193 laps at Martinsville. His average finish from the last five races at Texas Motor Speedway is 7.0, with four top-10s. It will not surprise to see Johnson battling for the win again this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt followed Keselowski's lead Sunday of staying out during the late caution flag, but it didn't pay off. He finished 21st. But just being out there was a victory in itself for Earnhardt, who missed two races with concussion issues. Despite only being back one week, Earnhardt is still a solid fantasy play this week. He has a nice record at the Texas oval, including four top-10 finishes in the last five races, and an 11.8 average finish in that time. He may not win the race this week, but he is a decent play to score confident points.

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose makes a surprisingly good fantasy option this week. In the last five Texas races he scored a top-10 and has an average finish of 13.2. His finishes have been up and down this season - he finished 24th at Martinsville - but he is climbing the learning curve, and is poised to turn in a solid fantasy outing this week as a second or third driver.

DOWNGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon led 92 laps Sunday, third most, and finished seventh at Martinsville. Unfortunately, Texas might not be so kind. A top-5 and one other top-10 at Texas doesn't make Gordon look like the best fantasy play this week. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 20.2, which is surprising given his teammates' successes here. Gordon could get the job done this week, but he doesn't make a good option on paper.

Tony Stewart -
He may have won last season's fall Texas race, but Stewart isn't exactly the driver fantasy owners should pin their hopes on this week. After finishing 27th at Martinsville, Stewart's chances don't look to improve much at Texas. His win last year his only top finish in the last five races there, and his average finish is only 16.0 in that time. While he always has the possibility of winning, Stewart isn't a lock in this week's rosters.

Brad Keselowski -
Texas comes at an inopportune time for Keselowski after having just lost the Chase lead. With no top finishes in the last five Texas races, Keselowski has to just survive this week. His average finish in that time is 25.0, and he didn't finish on the lead lap a single time despite running at the finish of each of those races. Keselowski will fight hard for this year's championship, but he certainly has more barriers to overcome than Johnson. He trails Johnson by only two points, though, so if he can keep the standings race close, he could still put himself in position to win the Chase at the last two races of the season.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola is coming off a big fourth-place finish at Martinsville, and while some might consider him a decent fourth driver most weeks, this would not be one of those weeks. He only raced in two of the last five Texas events, and his average finish was a lowly 21.5. He finished on the lead lap one of those times, but wasn't able to do much with the opportunity. There are better options in this category this week.

Martin Truex Jr. -
By average finish in the last five Texas races, Truex would be ranked 20th in the field. While he did score three top-10s in that time, those were the only times he finished. Truex is unreliable at this track, and has been unreliable so far this Chase (he finished 23rd Sunday). He isn't a driver who would instill a lot of confidence in a fantasy roster this week, so it might be best to leave him out of it.

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