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NASCAR Barometer: Riding the Wave

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.

A race at Bristol Motor Speedway wouldn't be complete without drivers and teams confronting one another in the pits afterward, and Sunday's Food City 500 delivered just that. The close confines of running at the tight, fast track wore competitors' patience thin, and caused a few tempers to boil over.

Kyle Busch, who claimed a commanding pole position, rallied from an early penalty on pit road to finish in second to claim consecutive top-5s. However, at the front of the field it was Kasey Kahne who grabbed the lead and ran away in the closing laps. Kahne left a handful of drivers to battle for second place as he streaked away to his first win of the season with an impressive closing performance.

This week the teams head to Auto Club Speedway in California. It is a 2-mile D-shaped oval, with just 14 degrees of banking in the turns. The long straights require maximum performance from the engines, and reliability can become a factor. Another strategy that usually requires thought at this track is fuel. This race often sees strong cars lose top finishes after running out of fuel in the closing laps. Still, there are a handful of drivers that seem to have gotten the hang of racing at this track, and still others that have been known to struggle.

UPGRADE

Kasey Kahne -
Despite scoring two top-10s and a top-5 in his last five races at Auto Club Speedway, Kahne has an average finish of 19.0. The driving force behind that average are two finishes off of the lead lap and one DNF. All of that could be in store for a reversal of fortune with the run that Kahne is on. He finished second in Las Vegas, and claimed his first win of the season last week in Bristol. Kahne has a year under his belt at Hendrick Motorsports, and is starting to put the resources he has at his disposal to great use. Kahne should be able to ride the wave of momentum upward to another top 10 finish this week.

Jimmie Johnson -
The driver with the best recent record at Auto Club Speedway is Californian Johnson. Through the last five races at the 2-mile oval, he scored two wins, four top-5s and five top-10s to amass one of the best records at the track innex recent history. His average finish in that five-race span is 3.4, and it just doesn't get any better than that. He blew a tire late in Sunday's Food City 500, which muddied his Bristol race. He finished the disappointing day in 22nd position, which was his worst finish of the season, and the first outside of the top 10. Johnson will be hungry to put last week's disappointment behind him, and nowhere better to do it than California.

Kurt Busch -
The last five Auto Club Speedway races for Busch earned him three top-10s and an average finish of 12.2. He finished on the lead lap each of those times, and this is clearly a track where he can mix it up with the bigger teams. Coming off of a superb effort in Bristol that saw him finish in the top 5 for the first time since Infineon Raceway last season, he is poised to carry that run forward and score another top run this week in California. Busch has worked hard to earn his competitiveness, and nothing has been coming easy for him lately, but this could be another week with a happy ending for the Las Vegas native.

Tony Stewart -
A blown left rear tire put Stewart behind the game early after one of his best Bristol qualifying efforts. The damage ruined his afternoon, and made for yet another frustrating result for the team and driver that had so much promise heading into the season. Given the string of bad luck the No. 14 has had, fantasy players should be close to ditching him until something changes, but don't cut him too soon. His average finish in the last five Auto Club Speedway events is 5.8, with two wins, three top-5s and four top-10s. Stewart is due to live up to the promise he is expected to show this season, and this could be the turnaround week.

Ryan Newman -
Sunday granted Newman his second top-10 finish of the season and a grain of hope for more after two disappointing races where he finished outside of the top 20. This week, Newman is another driver in the Stewart-HAAS Racing stables that could have a big weekend in California. The engineering graduate tallied an average finish of 13.6 in the last five races at the track, scoring two top-5s and three top-10s along the way. Both cars in this team's garage held promise prior to the season's start, but neither has lived up to the expectations quite yet. This could be the defining week for both, so be sure not to give up on them too soon.

DOWNGRADE

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski used pit strategy to put himself in a position to win in the closing laps of Sunday's Food City 500. When the final lap was done, however, he was in third position. It was yet another strong result for the defending champion, his fourth top-5 finish in the first four races this season. Surprisingly, at the bottom of the statistics at this week's track is the defending champion. His last four races at the California oval netted just two lead-lap finishes and an average result of 22.8. Keselowski is the man to beat most other weeks, but this track appears to be a challenge for him. Keselowski usually proves doubters wrong, though.

Martin Truex Jr. -
A decent performance in Bristol sputtered and ended with Truex just missing out on the top 10, netting a 12th-place finish in the Food City 500. With just one top-10 finish in the last five Auto Club Speedway races Truex simply isn't a driver to rely on this week. His average finish in that time is 21.6, with only five laps led. That number includes a paltry three lead-lap finishes. There is plenty for this team to fulfill after claiming a place in last season's Chase, but Truex isn't doing it just yet. Things can change quickly, perhaps as soon as this week, but that would be a risky gamble for fantasy players.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin was running strongly at Bristol as the laps wound down, but the car failed him and he spent the closing laps glancing off of the walls in each turn, just trying to nurse it to the finish. A top-5 result quickly turned into a rough 23rd-place outing for the afternoon. Additionally, due to two DNFs in the last five Auto Club Speedway races Hamlin claims one of the lowest recent finishing averages at the track at 24.8. Of the three times he did finish the race, one was not on the lead lap. Hamlin has just one top-5 finish to his credit so far this season, and the second doesn't look likely to come this week.

Greg Biffle -
Two top-10s is what Biffle claims from his last five starts at Auto Club Speedway. He didn't lead any laps in that time and scored an average finish of 17.6. While he only finished off the lead lap once in that time his promise at the track just isn't what it used to be. Since winning at the track in 2005 his results have tailed off, as have his laps led. He narrowly missed finishing in the top-10 last weekend at Bristol, coming home 11th when all was said and done. He only has one top-10 finish so far this season, and that was at Daytona. Stronger finishes are necessary before this team becomes a top contender.

Joey Logano -
Contact in Sunday's Food City 500 blew Logano's temper with Hamlin. The No. 22 slid in front of Hamlin's car and it was Logano who came away with significant rear damage. The young driver confronted his old teammate after the race, and was still seething in post race interviews. Logano has just one top-5 finish in his last five Auto Club Speedway starts. His average finish at the track in that time is 15.8, not leading any laps, failing to finish on the lead lap once. Those statistics are hard to get excited about, and Logano hasn't yet shown us that he is the match of his champion teammate. We will look to see if Logano can overcome last week's frustrations in California.

Radune was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.



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