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NASCAR Barometer: Early Season Report

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 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is off to a fast and frenetic start, and it is just five races old. The new car, on which much of the preseason talk was focused, has proven a handful at times but capable of providing fantastic racing. Bad blood has already boiled over, and even more seems likely.

Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing appear to be the teams to beat, though Roush Fenway Racing has made its presence felt as well. Unfortunately, one of the top competitors has already been ruled out. Denny Hamlin suffered a broken back in the Auto Club 400, but rest assured that he will return once healed. Still, other teams and drivers have shown competitiveness, but haven't made a result stick quite yet. Tony Stewart is one of those drivers while Kevin Harvick, so strong in the non-points races at Daytona, has just one top-10 to boast so far.

The first handful of races give a small peek at what may be in store for the remainder of the season's opening half. With the circuit off last weekend, it's a good time to take stock of the winners and losers before the cars heat up again this week at Martinsville Speedway for the STP Gas Booster 500. So who is making the grade?

UPGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
It would be difficult to put together an early season scorecard and not include the man at the top of the heap. Earnhardt deserves to be on this side of the list for many reasons besides just his points tally, though. Of the five races contested, Earnhardt finished in the top 10 every time. His average finish so far this season is an impressive 4.4. In fact, even including the two non-points races that kicked off the season at Daytona International Speedway, his average finish is still 5.6. This driver is getting the job done, and has really put his Hendrick Motorsports equipment to good use. He may be in store for his best season yet.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski picked up 2013 right where he left off 2012. The first four races of the season produced top-5 finishes for the "blue deuce," but then he stumbled a bit in California. Despite the 23rd-place result in the Auto Club 400, Keselowski's average result this season is 7.4, and he sits second in points. The true test of Keselowski's year so far could be considered Phoenix International Raceway, a place he should have failed for many reasons. His average finish in the prior five Phoenix races was 17.2, yet he came home fourth after qualifying 11th. The No. 2 has made a habit of trouncing low expectations recently and should continue that trend in the near future.

Tony Stewart -
Despite plenty of bad luck so far this year, Stewart still comes to each racetrack as a contender to win. Every week he starts strong, but is just missing that one win that could tip the scales in his favor. He was racing for the win a handful of times when circumstances worked against him, causing him to tally just one top-10 finish so far this year. He shouldn't be written off quite yet, though. The season is long, and Stewart has proven he isn't behind the competition. With one quick change of fortune, Stewart will land in Victory Lane, and just one finish like that can set up a run of top results for the contender.

Paul Menard -
In five starts this season, Menard already has three top-10s under his belt, a third of the total he racked up in all 36 races last season. He lies eighth in points and is certainly a success story so far. He is carrying the banner as the highest placed Richard Childress Racing driver in the standings, and who would have guessed that after Kevin Harvick's two wins at Daytona in February? Menard has improved his average finish each of the last four seasons and is on track to do it yet again. He is an undervalued driver who is now turning in consistent finishes. His steadiness could be a savior for fantasy rosters as this season moves on.

Brian Vickers -
He may only have one start this season, but Vickers is about to step into one of the best cars he has ever driven, filling in for Denny Hamlin as the No. 11 driver recovers from a broken back suffered at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin is expected to be out for up to five weeks, which means Vickers could get four or five races in the car. He will be out to prove that he shouldn't have been passed over by the top teams, too. Finishing eighth in his only start of the season, Vickers looks as though he should be in store for much more with a few more chances. Joe Gibbs Racing hardly ever fails to put its drivers on the track with anything less than a car that can win, and Vickers can capitalize.

DOWNGRADE

Danica Patrick -
Most people weren't expecting Patrick to come in and immediately show the series regulars how to race. However, her performances in the four races since the Daytona 500 have seriously disappointed. Having Stewart-HAAS Racing equipment behind her helped put her on pole for the Daytona 500 and should have helped her forward at the other tracks as well. Instead, her best finish was at the two-mile oval Auto Club Speedway where she finished 23rd. She is 29th in points and ranks behind drivers who haven't even started all five races this season. With the equipment and support she has, she should be doing more. Time will tell whether she can make it in this series, but questions are already being asked, which makes an already stressful debut season even more difficult.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
For all decent logic, Earnhardt Ganassi racing should have turned the corner from the last three seasons where Montoya failed to make the Chase. Chip Ganassi is not known for his patience with drivers or personnel, but this team appears to have been forgotten. Montoya hasn't lived up to the expectations laid out for him on the ovals, and that has harmed his ability to finish well in the points. He is 30th in the points after five races, with a best finish of 12th at Phoenix International Raceway, the track that most closely resembles a roadcourse thus far. While he isn't one to count out at Infineon raceway or Watkins Glen International, Montoya has not proven to be worthy of fantasy rosters most other weeks.

Joey Logano -
Despite racing for the lead late in the Auto Club 400, Logano hasn't fared nearly as well as teammate Brad Keselowski so far this season. It will take time for this young driver to settle in at Penske Racing, and it will take more than a single season at the new team to see if he can still live up to the expectations that he brought with him into Sprint Cup. For now, however, Logano has only been competitive once this season, and he failed to put the car in Victory Lane. From the other four races this season, his best finish is 12th with just three laps led. If Keselowski is his measuring stick, Logano has quite a distance to grow. Compare the teammates' records and you'll find two disparate stories. Logano must turn his around.

Jeff Burton -
The start to the 2013 season indicates more of the same from Burton and his Richard Childress Racing team. He hasn't finished in the top 10 in points since 2009 and hasn't seen Victory Lane since 2008. So far this season, Burton's best finish is 10th in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. He is 19th in points, and has yet to lead a lap. While things aren't as bad as the 2011 season yet, getting behind early in the game still presents quite a hurdle to overcome. Aside from that lone top-10, his best finish so far is 17th, which indicates that this team continues to encounter challenges. Burton hasn't been able to match his teammates' consistency for some time, and fantasy owners should only play him in special circumstances.

Denny Hamlin -
Unfortunate circumstances put Hamlin on this side of the column early in the season. After struggling to pass with the new car Hamlin engaged in some of the most exciting racing we've seen in the series at Auto Club Speedway. Contact between him and feuding partner Joey Logano put him hard into the inside wall, breaking Hamlin's lower vertebrae. He is expected to be out for at least five weeks, but that timetable will hinge upon his ability to heal. We know he can recover from big injuries quickly. Those who remember 2010 know that he won at Martinsville Speedway with a torn knee ligament, and won again just three weeks later after undergoing surgery to repair the damage. Hamlin will be a favorite once he is back in the saddle, but who knows when that will be.

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