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NASCAR Barometer: Busch Swipes the Checkered Flag

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 Auto Club 400 proved to be the most exciting NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the Fontana, Calif., track in recent history and arguably was one of the season's best. The new cars used every inch of track throughout the race, and at the end, the two drivers who feuded the previous week battled one another once again for the victory.


Kyle Busch looked like he had the strongest car most of the afternoon and led 125 of the 200 laps. Joey Logano came on strong toward the end and took over the lead, but Denny Hamlin reeled him in and the two collided racing into the final turn. The resulting carnage enabled Busch to scoot through and claim victory, which he deserved given him strength.


Afterward there were plenty of insults being tossed between drivers, but Hamlin left in an ambulance after his hard hit. Tony Stewart couldn't resist getting in on the action, and confronted Logano for blocking on a late restart. It was an action-packed afternoon that could use a week off to calm down some tempers before heading to another rough-and-tumble short track.


Last year's race at Martinsville Speedway ignited the season-long battle between Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon. The Hendrick cars were lined up for a 1-2-3 finish on a late restart when Bowyer drove it hard into the turn, taking out the teammates while Ryan Newman slipped through the inside and carried it home to victory. This season's Martinsville race already has battles between drivers brewing and will be one of the most anticipated events of the year.


UPGRADE


Kyle Busch -
Busch stole Sunday's victory at Auto Club Speedway when teammate Hamlin and Joey Logano came together in the final turn. Busch was the fastest car throughout much of Sunday's race, but didn't have the grip to hold off those two after the final restart. When the leaders collided, however, the race was all Busch's. His record at Martinsville is solid with three top-5 finishes from his last five races at the track. His average finish in that time is 14.4 due to two other finishes off of the lead lap. Busch notched Joe Gibbs Racing's first win at Auto Club Speedway last weekend, and holds down a spot in the top-10 points positions. Busch has momentum on his side and will look to continue the roll in Martinsville.


Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson was tipped to be the driver to beat heading into California. Instead, the No. 48 struggled through much of the race, came on strong at a few points but never able to make the effort stick. Two things that go Johnson's favor next week are that he won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks ago and has one of the best recent records at Martinsville Speedway. His average finish from the last five races at the paperclip is 6.2, with a win and three top-5s. Johnson has proven he can win in 2013, and with his ability to race at the tight Martinsville Speedway, he is likely to be a top contender for the win in Virginia.


Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Junior boasts one of the season's best starts and took the points lead with yet another top finish last week in California. Earnhardt hasn't finished outside the top 10 yet this season and has assembled one of the best finishing averages at Martinsville Speedway the last five races there. His average finish at that track is 8.0 in that time, with two top-5s and four top-10s. Earnhardt finished third in last year's edition of this event for one of those top-5s and will look to put a win beside his name as soon as possible. The effort Junior put in during the offseason is paying dividends now, and there isn't any indication that anything will change next week in Martinsville.


Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin started Sunday's Auto Club 400 from pole position, but didn't lead more than a handful of laps throughout the afternoon. Despite that, he was racing for the win when he crashed hard with Joey Logano. It was a solid day, tarnished with a crumpled racecar and plenty of controversy, along with a trip in an ambulance. A win and two top-5 finishes in the last five Martinsville races help Hamlin become a favorite next week, though. All indications point to him being fit to race after Sunday's hit, too. His average finish his the last five Martinsville tries is 11.4. He scored two top-10 finishes before Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway and was sitting sixth in points. Hamlin could be the man to beat at Martinsville.


Aric Almirola -
In his last three Martinsville races Almirola racked up an 11.0 average finish by turning in a top-5 and two top-10s. He was 20th in points heading to Auto Club Speedway and came away from the afternoon with a 14th-place result. Almirola has scored some decent finishes with Richard Petty motorsports since joining the team, but, more important, has been consistently competitive. This team has been a laggard in seasons past, but this year could present the opportunity for Almirola to record even more top-10 finishes than prior years. Martinsville could be a great opportunity to bag his first one of the season, and fantasy owners should consider this guy as a third or fourth fantasy driver.


DOWNGRADE


Jamie McMurray -
Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing simply has not turned the corner yet. McMurray finished 19th Sunday in California in another disappointing afternoon for the struggling team. After a forgettable few seasons, McMurray has continued to struggle in 2013 despite appearing as though things could be on the up and up. Instead, McMurray looks likely to continue his poor run of finishes into Martinsville Speedway. The No. 1 has just one top-10 result from his last five races at that track and an 18.0 average finish. He failed to finish on the lead lap two of those tries, and scored one DNF as well. This looks like yet another week to avoid the Missouri native.


Jeff Burton -
Seventeenth position was Burton's reward for a very average performance last week in California. He has one top-10 finish so far this season, and while performing arguably better than last season, hasn't fully overcome the struggles he faced the last few years with Richard Childress Racing. Two top-10 finishes from the last five Martinsville races could make Burton a driver to look toward next week, but his average finish in those attempts is only 15.2. He failed to finish on the lead lap two of those times despite not recording a DNF. Burton may look like a value, but he continues to underperform expectations making him a somewhat risky play this time.


Joey Logano -
The testiness that Logano had at the end of the Food City 500 boiled over Sunday in California. The two made contact on the final lap causing both to lose out on victory. Afterward, Tony Stewart was also angry at Logano's blocking moves on the final restart. It was a top effort all gone to waste for the No. 22, which is a shame considering how well the team performed. In the last five Martinsville races, Logano only claims one top-10 result. His average finish in that time is 15.2, and nothing worth noting for fantasy owners. Logano didn't work his way onto anyone's Christmas card list last week, and with the enemies he earned the last two races, Martinsville isn't the place you'd want to play him.


Greg Biffle -
Biffle started strongly at Auto Club Speedway from a front-row position and used that advantage to finish the afternoon fifth. He ran toward the front of the field nearly all afternoon, making his presence felt at the track again after a significant absence the last few seasons. It was just like old times for the No. 16. His car was competitive, and he didn't fail to put it to good use. Unfortunately, Martinsville may mean more of a struggle for the veteran. His average finish in the last five races at the Virginia track is 18.4, with just one top-10 result. Despite scoring his second top-10 of the season last week, Biffle wouldn't be the safest pick this round.


Kasey Kahne -
Another impressive driver this season with just one result of mention in the last five Martinsville races is Kahne. His top-5 there came last season when he finished third, but was preceded by four races with two DNFs and a next best finish of 14th. He had a difficult time getting his car to turn effectively Sunday, which stunted his ability to move forward in the field. Even with those handling issues he was able to wheel it home to another top-10 result for the season. Kahne is definitely settling in well at Hendrick Motorsports and will be a driver to use more frequently in fantasy rosters this season, but expectations for a top finish next week should probably be tempered considering his Martinsville record.