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NASCAR Barometer: Back in the Winner's Circle

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.

Phoenix International Raceway put on a great show last weekend. It was the season's first race on a non restrictor-plate track, but the finish was every bit as exciting as it was at Daytona. Qualifying put the prior week's pole sitter in the back of the field, and veteran Mark Martin in the top spot.

It was a tough day for right-front tires. A number of drivers ran afoul of building up too much heat in that corner, sending their cars hard into the outside wall. In fact, a blown right-front tire set up the season's first green-white-checkered finish, stretching most teams' nerves on fuel mileage.

The top three drivers in the closing laps all raced home on the final restart but were surprised by a charging Denny Hamlin. The No. 11 forced his way into the top 3 and did his part to keep the exciting finishes of the season rolling for the second week. Edwards was the driver who finished first, doing his trademark back flip at the finish line, and breaking a 70-race winless streak.

This week serves up another tri-oval, but one of the most standard configurations. The track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway can be slippery, again requiring a car that rolls effectively through the corner. Teams won't have to compromise setups for different corners this week, but adjustability will be key for the driver who comes home first. Fuel mileage could be a concern again, and drivers will work harder to find ways to pass with the new car.

UPGRADE

Carl Edwards -
If there was any week on the schedule that could see Edwards break his winless streak - had he not done it in Phoenix - Las Vegas would have been it. Instead, Phoenix was the site where he broke another, equally as long, winless streak. Sunday's win marked his first since 2011, or 70 long races. To make things even better, his 7.2 average finish in the last five races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the best in the field. Two wins and three top-5s in those past races make him a favorite this week without considering last week's win, but now the floodgates are open and Edwards will be on point for more.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson was oh-so-close to being the first driver to start the season with two wins since Matt Kenseth in 2009 but was pipped on the final restart by Edwards; then was almost snookered by a brilliant move from Denny Hamlin on the final lap for second. The No. 48 held on to score his second top-5 in two races and is already starting the season in a strong way. Johnson owns a win and another top-5 in his last five Las Vegas tries, and despite two finishes off of the lead lap in that time, his average result is still 14.4. Johnson has his sights set on a sixth championship, and with his season off to a flying start, the rest of the field should be concerned.

Jeff Burton -
No matter your league's format, Burton could be a confident pick this week. His value is low in the salary cap format, which is perfect considering he owns two top-5s from his last five Phoenix starts. His average finish in that time is 10.8, and he hasn't failed to finish on the lead lap once, either. He scored a top-10 last week in Phoenix, which is a huge confidence boost for the team, and those have been hard to come by the last few seasons. Burton could be on an upswing in momentum, and if he is you'll want him on your roster this week. Las Vegas could be a very promising track for the veteran.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Junior is starting the year solidly and could continue the trend this week. He finished second in Daytona and led more laps in Phoenix. He talked about difficult passing in the new car, but still scored his second top-5 of the season. Looking ahead, Las Vegas is one of his better tracks, and his last five starts at the tri-oval have produced an average finish of 9.2, with a top-5 and four top-10s. If the first two races of the season are any indication, he should be a driver to beat this week as well. The track is to his liking, and Hendrick Motorsports is ahead of the curve in getting the job done with the new car, making them a solid option.

Marcos Ambrose -
After a fairly quiet opening to the season, it could be time for Ambrose to come to life. He finished 18th in Phoenix, his second 18th-place result of the season. Richard Petty Motorsports is showing more of a competitive side from a few of its cars, and that success will give all of the teams a taste for more. The Tasmanian makes a decent choice at Las Vegas this week. His average result in the last four races at the track is 12.8, including one top-5 finish. Fantasy owners looking for a lesser-used driver to give a start to should consider this week an opportune moment to pick Ambrose.

Tony Stewart -
A quick mention has to be given to Stewart. He was strong in Daytona, failed to finish, but came back and snuck into eighth position when the checkered flag finally waved last week in Phoenix. Stewart won last year's Kobalt Tools 400 and hasn't finished outside of the top 10 there since March 2009. With a 12.9 career average finish at the track, he is just too good not to consider.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
After showing some muscle Sunday in Phoenix, Keselowski is a driver fantasy owners should lower their expectations of this week. The defending champion that forced his way to fourth last week has failed to finish each of the last four Las Vegas races. His average result in that time is 30.5, and his average start is 17.5. This week could be a hurdle for this driver to overcome. No one is saying he can't do it, but the statistics suggest a struggle might be expected. If he finishes, it could be a top-5 effort, but something about the recent history at this track hasn't been on the No. 2's side. This would be a week to give Keselowski a break, despite him being a favorite many other weeks.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is quickly finding that his move to Joe Gibbs Racing wasn't a mistake. The team is providing him with cars that can run up front and pit stops that keep him in the mix. However, his teammates' Toyota engines have been a bit fragile, and that could be a concern for the team. There is even more concern this week with Kenseth's track statistics. With just one top-5 finish in the last five Las Vegas races, Kenseth shouldn't be considered a favorite. His average finish in that time is 20.2, which is disappointing considering he finished on the lead lap in four of those five tries. Kenseth looks like he could find Victory lane with his new team sooner than later, but this week might be more challenging.

Denny Hamlin -
A dramatic last-lap move put Hamlin into second position in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500, his first top-5 of the season. Even with his bold move he was one of the drivers talking about how difficult passing is in the new car. Despite scoring two top-10s in his last five Las Vegas efforts, Hamlin is still not near the top of the order when looking at finishing statistics. His average result in that time is only 15.4, which could be a result of his poor qualifying. His average start is 24.4, exceptionally low for a top driver. And starting deep in the pack at Las Vegas makes life difficult, especially if you are still trying to learn how to pass in the new car.

Kurt Busch -
Fighting a loose car all afternoon in Phoenix, Busch never made an imprint at the front of the field. It seemed like each time the No. 78 turned, the rear stepped out, and he wrestled the car home to 27th. It may be surprising to some, but one of the worst tracks for Busch in recent history is arguably Las Vegas Motor Speedway. One would think his home track would have produced more memorable results, but his statistics suggest something entirely different. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 28.0, with one lead-lap finish and a lone top-10. He only finished three of those five races. This is not the week to choose the hometown kid.

Casey Mears -
Mears can sometimes be considered a go-to third- or fourth-driver selection for some rosters, but this week owners will want to avoid him. The last four Las Vegas starts have generated just one lead-lap finish, and no top-10 finishes for the Californian. He had an anonymous afternoon Sunday in Phoenix despite scoring a 14th-place result and continues to be an also-ran most weeks. The most fantasy owners tend to hope for when starting him is the odd top-15 finish. His performances haven't signaled that he is on the verge of a breakthrough, and this past race winner hasn't scored a top-10 finish since 2009. This is definitely not a driver you would select at one of his worst tracks.


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